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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
Bunau-Varilla thus had a twenty-four-hour reprieve. Meantime Hay himself was not dawdling. He was sensitive to the Frenchman’s time problem and eager to have the treaty wrapped up so that it might be reported in the President’s State of the Union message of December, which would, as usual, become a campaign document for 1904. Roosevelt himself, that Sunday evening, had written to his son in characteristic fighting fettle:
I have had a most interesting time about Panama and Colombia. My experiences in all these matters give me an idea of the fearful times Lincoln must have had in dealing with the great crisis he had to face. … Why, even in this Panama business the Evening Post and the entire fool Mugwump crowd have fairly suffered from hysterics; and a goodly number of the Senators even of my own party have shown about as much backbone as so many angle worms. However, I have kept things moving just right so far.
Late Tuesday, Hay did call in Bunau-Varilla for a conference. He had busily gone over technical points with his specialists and with other members of the Cabinet, working right through lunch and, as he wrote somewhat complainingly to his daughter a day or so later, “putting on all steam.” If either he or Bunau-Varilla were concerned with possible Panamanian rejection of the pact, they did not express their doubts. Both knew that the new government had little choice in the matter and had gotten at least one sop—an enlargement of their boundaries beyond the narrow strip of isthmus first envisioned. Incredible as it may seem, Bunau-Varilla may even have believed what he afterward wrote. When he thought about presenting the finished work to the Panamanians, he declared: “I did not doubt it would be received with pleasure.”
At approximately 4:3o Wednesday afternoon Amador and Boyd boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad express to Washington. And sometime around that moment the long crusade of Philippe Bunau-Varilla, begun when the old French canal died in 1889, ended. He was called to come to Secretary Hay’s home. There the drafts were matched. The one Hay chose was essentially Bunau-Varilla’s, with minor changes in wording. Seated at a desk in a blue drawing room, Hay took a pen from an inkstand that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln. When they had finished, he handed the “precious souvenir” to Bunau-Varilla. The task was achieved. At that moment Amador and Boyd were somewhere on the track between Philadelphia and Baltimore, rolling southward.
Hay went on to supper, presumably, and Bunau-Varilla, in a glow of self-satisfaction, made his way to the railroad station. When the train carrying the Panamanians groaned to a stop, he rushed up to greet Amador, who was the first of the two commissioners to emerge.
“The Republic of Panama is henceforth under the protection of the United States,” Bunau-Varilla shouted. “The Canal treaty has just been signed.” To the Frenchman’s surprise, the elderly physician’s reaction was not joyful. “He nearly fainted upon the platform,” recollected the envoy.
Dr. Amador was overwhelmed by emotion and by history—by the events that had whirled him about and perhaps by his awareness that the stream of world commerce would one day flow through his nation, even though it was to be, in effect, a country partially occupied by a greater power.