The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

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As the session neared an end Morgan had won Senate passage of his bill. But then something had happened. The burden of getting a Nicaraguan canal law through the House fell on Iowa’s William P. Hepburn, a Republican regular serving his sixth term and elevated by seniority to the chair of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Hepburn was in favor of Nicaragua, too. But someone had played upon his vanity in such a way as to induce him to introduce a bill of his own rather than simply sponsoring Morgan’s in the lower chamber. Because the bill contained some provisions differing from Morgan’s, when it passed the House a conference committee had to be created to reconcile the discrepancies.

As the hours ticked away someone got an amendment tacked on to the committee’s revised bill providing for that favorite device of compromisers, a study commission to look into all the feasible routes for a canal, Panama included. Someone got Hepburn to accept it. After a brief deadlock someone persuaded the Republican senators on the conference panel to go along, abandoning their Senate colleague Morgan for their party brother Hepburn and accepting a new canal commission.

Someone had dealt Senator Morgan a defeat and bought time for pro-Panama forces to plan and to organize. The senator was perfectly sure that the someone was William N. Cromwell. And while the attorney kept discreetly silent about it at the time, he was not choked by modesty when, much later, he submitted his firm’s thumping bill (for over $800,000) to his clients. At that time he declared: “We think we are justified in stating that without our efforts the new commission would not have been created.”

Whether that boast was valid or not, Cromwell’s efforts continued as the oncoming Presidential election approached. They included a campaign contribution of sixty thousand dollars to the Republicans. When that party’s national convention met in Philadelphia in June of 1900 to tender the garland of renomination to McKinley, it raised Cromwell’s hopes by calling, in its platform, for an isthmian—not a Nicaraguan, note, but an isthmian—canal. Cynics might assume a direct connection between the gift and the declaration, but in fact, until the route-investigating commission made its final recommendation, it was a natural political act for the Republicans to hedge their bets on the canal’s location.

On November 30, 1900, however, just after McKinley’s re-election, Panama’s prospects appeared to plummet. The investigating panel—two colonels, two professors, a lawyer, and three civil engineers, chaired by retired Admiral John G. Walker and generally known by his name—issued a preliminary report favoring the Nicaraguan route. But if, in the popular view, the Walker Commission had thereby doomed Panama, the popular view was unaware of the persistence of Mr. Cromwell or the astonishing energies of Reserve Captain Philippe Bunau-Varilla, graduate of France’s Ecole Polytechnique, class of 1879.

ACT TWO: THE DOWNFALL OF NICARAGUA Scene I. New York, February-March, 1901

On a brisk midwinter evening a coach with several occupants in evening dress drew up before New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel just as a small, dapper man emerged from its front door. He and one of the men in the carriage exchanged cries of mutual recognition. “What luck to find you here!” exclaimed the passenger, who was Myron T. Herrick, a prominent Ohio Republican. “I am going to introduce you to Senator Hanna.”

Thus did Philippe Bunau-Varilla get an introduction for which he had long been hoping. A consuming passion had brought him to America, and he knew that the influential Hanna, if won over, could help him realize it. The goal of Bunau-Varilla’s quest was neither power, nor money, nor a woman, nor even fame for himself. It was an idea: the idea of the Panama Canal.

A Parisian, born in 1859, Bunau-Varilla grew up believing that “the greatest virtue in a Frenchman is to cultivate truth and to serve France.” For him cultivating truth meant sharing in the stupendous triumphs over nature achieved by nineteenth-century engineers. When, at the age of twenty-five, he joined a contracting firm that sent him to Panama to work on the French canal, his two loyalties became fused. To join mighty oceans had been a dream of humanity for centuries. French genius had fulfilled the dream in Suez and would do so in Panama. Bunau-Varilla flung himself zealously into the work, undaunted by a bout of yellow fever in 1886. By 1889 he had risen to the superintendency of a major part of the work in the so-called Culebra Cut and had worked out what was, in his own mind, a brilliant plan of lock building that would have the waterway ready for use in a few years.

The collapse of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique was, for the young technician, a social, moral, and political catastrophe. The canal must be finished! As tides of scandal eddied around the project he became increasingly monomaniacal. The great work must not end in the verdict that Panama had been a swindle; history would record that to France’s everlasting shame. But despite articles, interviews, letters, and petitions arranged by a nearly frantic Bunau-Varilla, France’s interest in the canal had waned and died by 1900. “From that moment on,” he wrote later, “I devoted myself to the single idea of saving the honour of this great creation by preserving its life.” To save its life—for France’s sake—Bunau-Varilla gave up on France and began to campaign for the completion of a Panama canal by the United States.