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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
But on Monday the ninth Hay had stunned him by asking: “What is this commission coming from Panama?” Rushing to the wires, Bunau-Varilla learned that Amador and Federico Boyd would be leaving Panama the next day to come to Washington, carrying his instructions. For Bunau-Varilla any instructions from Panama were incompatible with his dignity. He had spun his webs with an utter and delicious freedom up to then. Hay, after all, had been answerable to Roosevelt and the Senate, Cromwell to the New Panama Canal Company. Bunau-Varilla had bowed to no one, and he was not of a mind to spend a fruitless period of time in Washington rushing back and forth between Hay on the one hand and Amador and Boyd on the other. But he had only a week of freedom left. After that he would be the captive of Panamanian pride. And the Panamanians were capable of the unthinkable crime of delaying the canal by insisting on their narrow and selfish interests.
He must work fast for humanity. And he did. As he and Hay left the White House after the official reception he turned to the Secretary and delivered a tactful, almost gossamer but recognizable ultimatum:
For two years you have had difficulties in negotiating the Canal Treaty with the Colombians. Remember that ten days ago the Panamans were still Colombians and brought up to use the hair-splitting dialectic of Bogotá. You have now before you a Frenchman. If you wish to take advantage of a period of clearness, in Panaman diplomacy, do it now! When I go out, the spirit of Bogotá will return.
Hay understood. “You are right,” he said. “I wish to put the finishing touches to the project of the treaty. I shall send it to you as soon as possible.”
Bunau-Varilla went back to his hotel to wait out the weekend. He was not kept in suspense for too long. On Sunday the fifteenth a messenger delivered Hay’s draft to him. It was basically the old Hay-Herrân Treaty, with blanks left for possible insertion of new figures. The envoy extraordinary had perhaps three days left to retain his extraordinary liberty of maneuver.
Wednesday morning in Washington. Cool weather, the town preparing for the approaching slack weekend of Thanksgiving, followed by the bustle of the opening of Congress the first week in December. Bunau-Varilla sat waiting for his telephone to ring and counting minutes.
He had worked relentlessly and purposefully, reading and rereading the treaty draft on Sunday. During the night he had slept only two hours, which he described as a “complete rest.” By the time dawn was silhouetting the Capitol dome, he had worked out the problem. The prime objective was to win the approval of the Senate by making the treaty irresistible. Every American objection raised during passage of the Hay-Herrán ratification must be satisfied.
At 6 A.M. Bunau-Varilla began to scribble. The money would remain the same—a $10,000,000 flat sum, plus $250,000 per year. But the Canal Zone would be, not ten kilometers, but ten miles wide—a 60 per cent increase. And it would not be leased but “granted” to the United States “in perpetuity.” Naturally the United States could place its armed forces as and where it wished to defend both the canal and the independence of Panama. And as for the question of jurisdiction in the zone, Bunau-Varilla cut through all that by a simple formula:
The Republic of Panama grants to the United States all the rights, power and authority within the zone mentioned … which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory … to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.
There would be no question of whose laws would be obeyed. The United States would be—save only in a technical sense—sovereign. It was fortunate that the Panamanian commissioners, on the high seas, were unaware of the conception of the national interest entertained by their envoy extraordinary. In a prewireless age disaster did not descend so peremptorily upon statesmen.
Bunau-Varilla had asked Frank D. Pavey, an American friend and attorney, to come down and help him with the wording of the treaty. Pavey arrived, and he, Bunau-Varilla, and a stenographer labored through the day. At ten o’clock that night the Frenchman drove up to Hay’s home but found it darkened. Next morning, Tuesday the seventeenth, he got his draft delivered, and then was condemned to wait for a response. Unfortunately, Amador and Boyd were due in New York that morning. By nightfall they would be on hand, and Bunau-Varilla’s wings would be clipped.
But then came one of those lucky accidents that had a way of befalling Bunau-Varilla. Amador and Boyd did indeed debark in New York Tuesday morning. They immediately and naturally went to make contact with Sullivan and Cromwell. And there they learned that Mr. Cromwell himself was due, late in the afternoon or early the next morning, on his return ship from France. The two Panamanians wanted to talk to Cromwell about the future dealings of their country with his client. So they sent a cordial note to Bunau-Varilla that they would be along the next afternoon and settled into a New York hotel, still enjoying the tranquillity of ignorance as they awaited Cromwell.