The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone


This breathtakingly broad construction of the compact of 1846 could have afforded the President some kind of lawyerlike arguments for simply seizing the isthmus and landing the steam shovels behind the troops—although, when he later tried Moore’s ideas out on the Cabinet, his Secretary of War, Elihu Root, simply laughed and said: “Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer any taint of legality.”

But there was another avenue that might offer fewer difficulties of a diplomatic kind. That one simply involved waiting to see what would happen to various efforts to cut the slender stem that attached Panama politically to Colombia. Officially Roosevelt knew nothing of any conspiracies against the integrity of a “friendly” state. Privately he could not have been unaware of at least some of the activities in progress since June. First there had been a New York World story—planted by Cromwell—about the “unrest” in Panama; then a telegram came from Bunau-Varilla, in Paris, to Marroquin, warning him of Panamanian secessionism.

A few weeks later, in July, an American superintendent of the Panama Railroad had traveled up to New York on company business, which included a call on William Nelson Cromwell. When he returned, he held a meeting with Amador, Arango, Boyd, Arosemena, and other Panamanian nationalists. After this conference Amador had booked passage to New York for early September, using the public excuse that he was visiting a sick son who was in the United States.

It was then that Amador’s troubles had begun. Unknown to him, someone had tipped off the Colombian minister, Herrân, who had set private detectives on his trail. Through his Washington channels Cromwell found this out and went into a cautious, lawyerlike vanishing act. He did not want a Panamanian revolution traced directly to his office. So he bought a ticket for Paris, to confer with his clients. And when poor Amador, seeking instructions and help, called at the offices of Sullivan and Cromwell, there was no one there who would see him.

Then, by a marvelous coincidence, on the twenty-third of September he received word that M. Bunau-Varilla was in town and wished to talk with him. The meetings that followed were recorded for posterity by the Frenchman and not the doctor, but later investigations established that Bunau-Varilla was usually accurate in essential outline, despite imaginative flights of ego.

Amador confided to the engineer that he had come expecting to get help from Cromwell in a secret loan of six million to buy gunboats and arms for the Panamanians. Now he was at a loss as to what to do. Bunau-Varilla, who insisted that he, too, had come to the United States only on personal business, was sympathetic and brisk. He had no clients Io worry about and was happily ready to jump in. “Let me reflect,” he said. “I shall try to find a solution if it is at all possible.” Leaving Amador to await word from him, he plunged into a zesty twenty days of activity.

Bunau-Varilla instantly and correctly dismissed the idea of a real armed struggle for Panamanian liberation as too costly, too drawn-out, and too likely to fail. The trick was a modest revolt—confined largely to the zone of the canal, which must be instantly recognized as a new nation and protected by the United States. For two solid weeks Bunau-Varilla made appointments, made telephone calls, wrote notes, and sat in waiting rooms, working every one of his excellent American contacts, until he got what he wanted. On Friday morning, October 9, he sat down across a desk from President Roosevelt. The two men, so close in age and temperament, hit it off well as they ranged over favorite subjects: the importance of the canal, the perfidy of Colombia, the Moore Memorandum (the substance of which had, by another odd coincidence, been contained in an article written by Bunau-Varilla for a Paris paper on September 2). What they said about United States action in case of a Panama revolution—if anything direct was said—would never emerge. But Roosevelt wrote to a friend, after it was all over, that he assumed Bunau-Varilla was telling the Panamanians that Washington would interfere. “He would have been a very dull man indeed had he been unable to forecast such interference, judging simply by what we had done the year before.”

Bunau-Varilla was anything but dull. He rushed back to New York and summoned Amador to meet him in room 1162 of the Waldorf on Tuesday morning the thirteenth. He told the doctor that no subsidy was forthcoming. “It is for us to act,” he announced, admitting himself to the movement. Amador then raised the key question of how they could “act” with five hundred Colombian troops on the isthmus. The answer was simple for Bunau-Varilla. He knew that the soldiers had not been paid in months. Let them be bribed with twenty dollars each. Amador countered realistically: “That is not enough.” He worked the figure up to two hundred apiece—a total of a hundred thousand dollars. “Well, my dear sir,” said Bunau-Varilla, “it is a relatively small sum which it will be easy to find at bankers, I suppose, and if it is not to be found there, I can provide it, myself, from my own personal fortune.”