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The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone
What happened at 6:40 p.m., November 18, 1903?
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
As John Hay, Secretary of State of the United States of America, prepared for bed in his comfortable home just across Lafayette Park from the White House, it must certainly have struck him that the day just concluded had been altogether one of the most curious in his four-year tenure in office—or, in fact, in a long diplomatic career that had taken him as a representative of his country to London, Paris, Vienna, and Madrid.
The hands of the clock had stood at twenty before seven when he signed a treaty with the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Panama. And extraordinary was assuredly the word. The minister, a small man with fierce mustaches and an outthrust chin, was one who spoke not in sentences but in proclamations. Hay had asked him if he had a choice between two drafts of the treaty, which would permit the construction of an interoceanic canal by the United States. “I am at the orders of Your Excellency,” came the reply, “to sign either of the two projects which, in Your Excellency’s judgment, appears best adapted to the realization of that grand work.” And when it turned out that the minister had no signet ring to seal the document, Hay had proffered two, one of them bearing his own family arms. “The share which Your Excellency has in the accomplishment of this great act determines my choice,” said the minister as he reached for Hay’s ring. “I shall be happy that the Treaty, due to your generous policy, should bear at the same time your personal seal and that of your family.”
Such nobility of style was modestly ironic under the circumstances, a point not lost to the writer’s eye of Hay, who had occasionally composed novels, humorous poetry, and editorials. For one thing, the Napoleonic little minister represented a country that was only about the size of South Carolina. Of its jungle-covered and mountainous terrain only a strip of the serpentine isthmus between North and South America was basically habitable—and the treaty had just handed over most of that region to the absolute and sovereign control of the United States forever.
In addition, the Republic of Panama had existed among the family of nations for precisely twelve days—brought into being by a revolt that was foreseen, aided, and just possibly arranged by the United States. Finally, in the most bizarre touch of all, the minister was not a Panamanian, or even a citizen of Colombia, from which Panama had been detached. He was a French engineer named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, whose diplomatic career was beginning and ending with this single episode.
All in all, a most unusual international pact. It would undoubtedly get through the Senate, for the canal that it would make possible was a universally popular project. But it would always remain tainted with suspicion and resentment among Panamanians, Colombians, and some Americans as well. It was not, in fact, the treaty that Secretary Hay himself had wanted. What was more, no knowledgeable observer would have predicted its achievement five years earlier. Time after time in Hay’s administration of the Department of State the Panama Canal had appeared to be doomed. Yet at each point of crisis it had been rescued and put back on the long road to realization. Its history seemed to prove that despite the complexity of the world and the domination of chance and error in human affairs, a man with energy and enormous fixity of purpose could now and then shape the course of history.
One of the many callers on President William McKinley in the crowded days just before the opening of the Fifty-fifth Congress was a partner in the New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Though only forty-four, William Nelson Cromwell already had silvery white hair and mustaches, surprising complements to his smooth complexion and baby-blue eyes. These features could mask, for the unwary, certain other assets—a salesman’s rapid tongue, a wizardry with figures, and, in one reporter’s observation, “an intellect that works like a flash of lightning, and … swings about with the agility of an acrobat.”
Cromwell’s specialty was corporate reorganization, and it was on behalf of a corporate client that he had presented his card at the White House. Ostensibly he merely wished to present to the President the report of an international technical commission which declared that the most practicable route for a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—from an engineering point of view—lay through the Isthmus of Panama. But both Cromwell and McKinley knew that there was already a partially dug canal in Panama; that its right of way, equipment, concessions from Colombia, and other assets were the property of the New Panama Canal Company of Paris; and that Cromwell had recently been hired to represent that company.