Panama’s Canal

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As last year ended, three millennial concerns obsessed the public—or at least the press. The first was the utterly anticlimactic concern over Y2K disasters. The second was the utterly semantic concern over when exactly a century ends anyway. The third was concern over the fate of the Panama Canal as it switched to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999.

So far, the Panama Canal fear has proved just as justified as the Y2K fear. The story is far from over, of course, and much may depend on the unpredictable political future of Panama itself, but everything has gone very smoothly in the first months. And the fact that the canal remains so worth worrying about today—indeed that it got built at all—remains extraordinary.

It was when new the most high-tech, advanced, and forward-looking construction on earth—which is the only reason it is still useful more than 85 years later. The United States had both the luck to take it on during the only brief period in history when it would have been possible and the foresight to build , it for the ages.

The French tried first, and they were brought down not only by their hubris but also | by getting there too soon. After his success at building the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French national hero. Casting about for an even greater triumph, he hit on the idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. The man who had cut a sea-level ditch through a flat, open desert would now excavate a hundreds-of-feet-deep trench through the mountainous continental divide in one of the wettest jungles on earth.

The French wildly underestimated the difficulties, and their failure was so spectacular, costing tens of thousands of lives and many millions of dollars, that it actually brought down a government of France. But part of the problem was simply that the technology wasn’t there yet. The machinery wasn’t heavy enough, civil engineering experience on that kind of scale wasn’t complete enough, and medical knowledge was grossly unequal to the scourge of yellow fever and malaria in the Panamanian isthmus. Moreover, even if the French had, beyond all odds, succeeded, their canal would have been quickly obsolete. It was being dug with a channel about 70 feet wide; the channel in today’s canal is at most places 500 feet wide.

The Spanish-American War made the American-built canal inevitable, first by turning the difficulty of moving warships between the Pacific and the Atlantic into a national-security issue and second by catapulting Theodore Roosevelt into renown and ultimately the Presidency. He was the champion the canal would need to get built.

The time was just right. First, in 1903 President Roosevelt was able to engineer a bloodless revolution to break Panama away from Colombia and place it in friendly hands. He said about the Colombians, “You could no more make an agreement with [them] than you could nail currant jelly to a wall.… I determined that I would do what ought to be done without regard to them.” Such an attitude would not have been supportable during most of American history; the nation had just entered its brief imperialist moment. By the end of World War I, the popular mood had reverted to deep isolationism. At the same time, scientists had just learned how to fight yellow fever, which had overwhelmed the French in Panama. Dr. William Gorgas wiped out the disease in Havana at the beginning of the century and then brought his newfound expertise to the canal site. There he attacked mosquitoes by environmental measures unthinkable today, not only removing or screening in all visible standing water but also covering every cistern and cesspool in the area with an oil slick once a week. (He even ordered that the water in the baptismal font of the Panama City cathedral be changed every day, causing some Panamanians to suspect a whole new kind of religious persecution.)

Heavy machinery had grown enormously in the 30-odd years since the French had started digging, and Roosevelt made its use a military operation under the Army Corps of Engineers. The 82-foot-high lock gates were all made in Pittsburgh and shipped down; the huge gears to open them, in Wheeling, West Virginia (those same lock gates and much of their gearing are still in use). Their operation was controlled by futuristic electromechanical computers built by General Electric in 1910 (those computers are just beginning to be replaced with modern fiber optics today). And the locks at either end were connected by flooding the highlands to build the largest man-made lake on earth, an environmental action on a scale that could happen so easily today only in China.