The Man Who Invented Panama

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Troubles arose in a new quarter. The Isthmus was then part of Colombia, and Colombia changed her mind about ceding a right of way. Under Bunau-Varilla’s pressure, Colombia changed her mind back again, and a treaty was signed. More trouble: the Colombian senate in August of 1903 refused to ratify the treaty, even under private warnings, chiefly from the Frenchman, that the Panamanians might simply secede from Colombia. The legislature would not bow to threats. There was only one play Bunau-Varilla had left in his bag of tricks—to carry out the threats. So he applied himself to fomenting Panama’s revolution.

First he had to be sure that if the revolt came off successfully, the United States would give her protection to the new nation. In his autobiography, Bunau-Varilla says that he discovered from friends of President Theodore Roosevelt that the U.S. would do so. But to me, as I sat one day in the old Colonel’s apartment, he told this story, as closely as my memory retains it: I called on Mr. Roosevelt and asked him point blank if, when the revolt broke out, an American war ship would be sent to Panama to “protect American lives and interests.” The President just looked at me; he said nothing. Of course, a President of the United States could not give such a commitment, especially to a foreigner and private citizen like me. But his look was enough for me. I took the gamble.∗

∗ “He is a very able fellow,” Roosevelt later wrote about the encounter, “and it was his business to find out what he thought our Government would do. I have no doubts that he was able to make a very accurate guess, and to advise his people accordingly. In fact, he would have been a very dull man if he had been unable to make such a guess.”

Not that a single man can produce a rebellion; there were plenty of disgruntled Panamanians ready to help, and various meetings with their representatives took place at Bunau-Varilla’s Waldorf-Astoria suite. They wanted six million dollars, chiefly to pay their ragged guerrilla force. Bunau-Varilla got the price down, he said, to 1100,000, and paid it out of his own pocket. Next he busied himself drafting a Panamanian declaration of independence and a constitution. He even bought silk at Macy’s for a Panamanian flag, which he designed and which his wife and a family friend stitched together at a Westchester County estate.

Alarming telegrams arrived from the conspirators in Colon—a Colombian armed force was about to land. A few soldiers did arrive, but the American warship, the cruiser Nashville , was already there. Its presence so bolstered the population that the soldiers threw down their arms. Bunau-Varilla, a French citizen, was named first minister plenipotentiary of the new republic. He helped draft an instrument giving the United States perpetual use and control of a specified strip across the Isthmus, and on November 18, 1903, he and Secretary of State John Hay signed the treaty that bears their names.

The great work could begin again, under American auspices. Still, the Frenchman left nothing to chance. He had enemies in Panama and in the United States who wanted the treaty revised or rejected by the Senate. To neutralize them he leaked its contents to the New York Sun, almost the only American newspaper that had favored the Panama location. A highhanded action, no doubt, for a foreign guest, but those were rougher days, and Bunau-Varilla gave no quarter in a fight. The treaty was finally ratified by the Senate the following February.

Did he gain financially from his immense labors of plotting and persuasion? If he did, he does not mention it in his autobiography, and he did not mention it to me in our talks.

When I knew him he was a man of immense pride and vanity. Perhaps he exaggerated his own role in the story of the Panama Canal, but certainly not by very much. And perhaps he exaggerated, in his memories, his role in the Dreyfus case; yet it was surely a substantial one.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew, an artillery officer assigned to the Ministry of War. In 1894 he was convicted of treason for offering to supply the Germans with French military secrets. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was sent to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the coast of South America.

The case rocked France to its political foundations with its ultimate revelations of anti-Semitism and corruption in the French Army. Bunau-Varilla had been a classmate of Dreyfus at the Ecole Polytechnique, but had known him only slightly. Two years after Dreyfus’ conviction, Bunau-Varilla and his brother published in Le Matin a photostat of the incriminating letter Dreyfus was supposed to have written to the German military attaché in Paris, together with a photostat of a letter Dreyfus had written Bunau-Varilla a few years before. Since the two showed little resemblance in the handwriting, this helped to reopen the disputed case; it was one of the important steps that led, years later, to the pardon and rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus and the political cleansing of the French Army, just in time for its great trial of World War I.