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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 Admiral Casey acted with vigor and license. He refused to permit any troops carrying arms or munitions—loyal or rebellious—to travel on the line. Colombian commanders thought of themselves as policemen, calling in outside help to enforce the law. Instead Casey’s marine guards put them on an equal footing with the “criminals” and impartially kept both from acting. Bogota’s mood turned black, and in Washington, Dr. Concha was so outraged that he lost the capacity to deal at all with the Americans and soon had to resign.
Eventually a pragmatic Colombian general, Nicolas Perdomo, persuaded the admiral to permit a modest build-up of Colombian strength. Then a change in the political situation made it possible for Perdomo and Herrera to attend the peace conference aboard Casey’s ship. A truce agreement was signed calling for a general amnesty and leaving outstanding problems to a meeting of the Colombian congress the following year.
The admiral had thus ended as a peacemaker. But he had demonstrated what had long been a half-formed thought in the minds of many advocates of the Panama Canal. If there was a revolt in Panama, Colombia could do nothing about it without the consent of the United States. That fact became a time bomb which began to tick away on November 19, 1902.
Arthur Beaupré, minister of the United States of America to the Republic of Colombia, sat with pencil in hand, thinking of the best possible outline for the note he was about to draft to the Colombian government. He was by now an experienced Latin-American diplomat, having gone from a law practice in Illinois to a consulship in Guatemala in 1897, a reward for Republican faithfulness. He had also been in Honduras before being assigned to Bogota as secretary of legation. On February 12 of this year, 1903, his friend Theodore Roosevelt had boosted him to ministerial honors. Undoubtedly it was because Roosevelt wanted someone who knew how to deal politely but firmly with temperamental Latins. Talking to them was, as Secretary Hay had once remarked, “like holding a squirrel in your lap.” Beaupré was prepared to hold the squirrel tightly.
The preceding six months had been crowded ones. After the resignation of Dr. Concha the new Colombian minister in Washington, Tomas Herrân, had moved briskly. He was the son of a diplomat and had grown up, in part, in Washington and attended Georgetown University; he understood the American mentality and American politics. He knew that there was pressure from Roosevelt upon Hay to get moving and that his own room for maneuver was limited. He sparred briefly for a $600,000 annuity, but when, on January 21, Hay offered him “final” terms of a flat $10,000,000 payment and $250,000 annually there after, Herrán settled. The zone was to be leased for a century, was to be six miles wide, and could be “defended” by the United States. Mixed tribunals were to settle conflicts between Colombian and American laws and nationals.
The treaty was signed on January 22, with William N. Cromwell at Hay’s side. Hay ceremoniously presented the signature pen to the lawyer as a well-deserved souvenir. The Senate, with unwonted speed, overrode various objections and ratified the agreement on March 17. And the nation then sat back and waited for Colombia’s congress to do likewise.
And waited. And waited. And grew impatient. In the American popular mind Marroquin was a caricature—a little man with a mustache and a sombrero, who had only to snap his fingers in order to have flunkies in the “lawmaking body” run his errands. But in point of fact Marroquin was in full control of very little, and the United States soon moved to erode even that little.
In April, Marroquin opened negotiations with the New Panama Canal Company, looking to get for Colombia a percentage—say, a quarter—of the forty million that would be forthcoming from the American treasury. Horrified, the company directors alerted Cromwell. Cromwell spoke to Hay. By June 10 Beaupré was handing Foreign Minister Rico a sharp protest. Bogota (it said) did not have the right to interfere in any way with the forthcoming purchase arrangements between the company and the United States by any new demands. Colombia was, it appeared, no longer sovereign over a private business firm operating on her own soil.
News of this note sharpened a dilemma that had been gnawing at Marroquin for a year. Panamanians were absolutely insisting that he close the deal quickly—something that, despite American misconceptions on the subject, he was by this time entirely willing to do. But other Colombians, running for the congress due to meet in June, were denouncing the Hay-Herrân Treaty as a shameful sellout of Colombian rights to the encroaching Yankee monster. As Herrân sadly wrote as early as mid-1902:
History will say of me that I ruined the Isthmus and all Colombia, by not permitting the opening of the Panama Canal, or that I permitted it to be done, scandalously injuring the rights of my country
Even in mid-April it was apparent to Beaupré, who warned Hay, that the treaty would not go through. When Colombia’s congress did in fact gather, it did so among floods of antitreaty oratory that invoked national honor and denounced Marroquin in splendidly balanced phrases.