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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 there was another side to him. He was as relentlessly single-minded about some things as Bunau-Varilla (whom he later came to admire). He was restless and impulsive. A friendly observer described him as “pure act.” A less flattering description came from a member of the diplomatic colony, who wrote to an acquaintance: “Always remember that the President is about six years old.” And so it sometimes seemed.
With Roosevelt the canal was a top-priority item. He wanted to set the dirt flying. And, possibly through Hanna, he came into office ready to see it fly in Panama. This was worth an incalculable amount to Bunau-Varilla, Cromwell, the New Panama Canal Company, and all pro-Panama forces. He reconvened Walker’s consultants on January 16, 1902; on the eighteenth they reversed their decision in the light of the new offer from the Paris directors. On the twentieth Congress was informed of their action. And on the twenty-seventh William Nelson Cromwell was re-hired. Finally, on the twenty-eighth, when the Hepburn bill was brought up for consideration in the Senate, it was freighted with an amendment added by Senator John C. Spooner, an expert in business and constitutional law from Wisconsin and a most regular Republican. The Spooner Amendment directed the President to buy the properties of the New Panama Canal Company for forty million and to treat with Colombia for “perpetual control” of a canal zone in Panama, to be secured within a “reasonable” time. The final battle would turn on substituting this amendment for the original pro-Nicaragua wording. Experts believed that though Spooner’s name might earn immortality through being on the amendment, the actual impetus had come from the White House and from Mark Hanna.
The newspapers agreed that there had been no such debate in the Senate since the oral pyrotechnics of the pre-Civil War giants. It was a warm June Friday, and the ninety members of the upper chamber (minus a few absentees) were moving, after two weeks of discussion, to decide on the route of the interoceanic canal. The parliamentary convolutions, as always, were confusing to the uninitiated but clear enough to the reporters and the senators themselves. The motion was to adopt a minority report of Senator Morgan’s Canal Committee—one that favored Panama. If that were done, it would show that the pro-Panama group had the votes to add the Spooner Amendment to the Hepburn bill, the subject of the Canal Committee’s report. And the final “Panamized” bill would automatically go through as laggards switched and jumped aboard the bandwagon. For fall elections were coming, and no one wanted to be caught without a recorded favorable vote for the “right” canal bill.
Senator Hanna watched with his usual calm. On the fifth and sixth of the month, at the start of the two-week debate, he had given what some regarded as the most impressive speech of his career. Meticulously, calmly, now and then accepting a page of figures or a chart from a secretary seated behind him, Hanna had made the Panama case: the shorter route, the fewer locks, the already existing harbors and railroad, the backlog of French experience, the lower maintenance costs. So effective was it that at least one senator, announcing that it had changed his opinion, would for the rest of his life think of the canal as the “Hannama Canal.” Now Hanna sat easily, joking, awaiting the verdict.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, back in the United States, was following the struggle and waiting for the result, too. In his mind he had furnished unanswerable arguments in response to the pro-Nicaragua case being made on the floor by Senator Morgan and others. The country was in the midst of what might have been called a volcano scare. On May 8 Mount Pelée, an active crater on the West Indian island of Martinique, had erupted, wiping out the port of St. Pierre and forty thousand lives. To Bunau-Varilla even adversity on this gargantuan scale had its uses. In a philatelic store in Washington he picked up ninety copies of a stamp issued by Nicaragua, showing a smoking volcanic peak that could have been Mount Monotombo, only a few miles from the line of the proposed canal. He affixed each one to a sheet of paper and neatly typed underneath: “An official witness of the volcanic activity of the isthmus of Nicaragua.” Then he mailed one to each senator. He counted on these “bombs, loaded with explosive truth,” which arrived on the legislators’ desks June 16, to do their work.
The new Colombian minister to Washington was also following the arguments intently, waiting to learn if the negotiations he had begun with Hay would reach completion. His name was Dr. Vicente Concha. He had taken over from Dr. Suva in February, and faced the same difficulties of communication. But he labored on valiantly to get a good treaty from the United States while the United States remained in a treaty-making mood.
Colombia wanted the canal zone to be ten kilometers, or about six miles, wide. She wanted to lease the zone to the United States for one hundred years and to keep a specific acknowledgment of her sovereignty. She wanted a flat payment on signing the treaty—a first suggested figure was $7.5 million—and $600,000 annually at some point after the canal had paid off its costs and was earning money from tolls, say, fifteen years after completion. She wanted the zone to be neutralized, with Colombia responsible for its defense but with the United States having the power to land troops (at Colombia’s request) in emergencies. Finally, she wanted mixed Colombian and American tribunals to deal with Colombians in the zone who ran afoul of American laws.