The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

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None of this, Dr. Concha knew, would matter if Nicaragua won. All of it would be crucial if Panama prevailed. And so, like the others, he waited tensely for the results of the roll call on the minority report. Late in the day the word finally burst out of the chamber and was rushed to the wires. Enough votes had been switched from Nicaragua to carry the day for Hanna. It had been a close thing.

From there it was anticlimax. The expected rush to share credit for the amended bill took place, and Roosevelt signed the measure with a flourish of satisfaction on June 28. Only one morsel of hope had been salvaged by the Morgan-Hepburn bloc. The President was directed to pay the forty million dollars for the company’s rights, to deal with Colombia for a canal zone at least six miles wide, and to build a canal usable by “vessels of the largest tonnage and greatest draft now in use, and such as may be reasonably anticipated.” But if he could not achieve the first two steps in a “reasonable time,” he was to proceed to build a canal in Nicaragua.

Scene V. Panama, November, 1902

The final act of the drama in 1902 belonged to Admiral Silas Casey, commander in chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, a Civil War veteran nearing retirement in that busy year. On November 19, bluejackets aboard his flagship, the Wisconsin , stood to attention, pipes shrilled, and salutes snapped as two Colombian generals, with escorts, and a cluster of high civil officials came aboard and made their way to the admiral’s cabin for a conference he had arranged. The Wisconsin ’s guns overlooked the white walls, tiled roofs, piers, railroad yards, palm clusters, donkey-filled streets, and waterfront bars of Panama City, the Pacific port of the isthmus.

Some weeks earlier, in mid-September, one of the two generals, Benjamin Herrera, leading an insurgency against the government in Bogota, had been on the verge of capturing the port with his troops. Rebellions in Panama were an old story in Colombia’s short history. This one, like all the others, automatically became a trigger for American military and diplomatic action under a treaty more than a half century old.

In 1846 the United States, already at war with Mexico and about to seize California, had been concerned enough about coast-to-coast communications in the future to negotiate a pact with Colombia, then known as New Granada. A pack-mule route wound its tormented way between Panama City and Colon, on the Atlantic side, and many travelers used it as a desirable if dangerou« shortcut. The United States therefore agreed with New Granada-Colombia to guarantee the neutrality of the route and Colombian sovereignty over it, by force if necessary. Bogota, in short, traded permission to the Americans to land troops in Panama to protect isthmian travelers in return for America’s protection against having the province snatched away by foreign invaders or domestic rebels.

Domestic insurrection was a perennial problem. Panama was relatively isolated from the rest of the nation and as inclined to secession as the cotton states of America had once been. Early versions of Colombian constitutions even allowed Panama the privilege of peaceful separation, though the last of these escape clauses was abrogated in 1868. But there were literally dozens of outbreaks of discontent, and seven of them, between 1865 and 1901, had interrupted the “freedom of transit” seriously enough to warrant American landings, always with Bogota’s full consent.

From 1855 on the mode of transit had been a railroad, built under harrowing conditions by American engineers. It had enhanced Panamanian separatism, and it also dominated the military geography of the region. Panamanian prosperity had come to depend on the road and the business life it sustained. By 1900 all of the province’s leading citizens were connected, in one way or another, with the company that owned and administered the line. They included such men as Manuel Amador Guerrero, the company’s doctor; Pablo Arosemena, its legal counsel; and friends of theirs like Federico Boyd, José Arango, and Ricardo Arias, landowners and businessmen who filled contracts for the line in its various activities. All of these men were intensely eager to have a canal built through Panama, of course, for it would guarantee a virtually permanent boom during and after its construction, as it brought thousands of jobs in its train.

Any attempt to win control of Panama depended entirely upon the railroad, the only possible method of moving troops and materiel between Colon and Panama City. Accordingly, when General Herrera’s vanguard approached Panama City, the American government, following precedent, ordered a cruiser, the Cincinnati , to Colón and the Wisconsin to Panama City, and directed Admiral Casey to take charge of the railroad and deny it to military traffic. The first reaction of Colombian government officials was favorable. They assumed that the Americans intended to protect their control of the area.