The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

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In desperation, Marroquin sent private emissaries to the American minister to see if the noose could be loosened slightly. Would Washington renegotiate the treaty to allow for a first payment of fifteen million to Colombia? And to permit her to vindicate her dignity by getting ten million from the New Panama Canal Company? Hay’s answer crackled back on July 12: “Neither of the proposed amendments … would stand any chance of acceptance by the Senate of the United States.” And two days later President Roosevelt, learning of the request, shot a note to Hay from his summer residence at Oyster Bay: “Make it as strong as you can to Beaupré. Those contemptible little creatures in Bogota ought to understand how much they are jeopardizing things and imperilling their own future.”

On the fourth of August the “contemptible little creatures” took a fatal step toward darkening their future. A study committee of the Colombian senate reported back on the Hay-Herrán Treaty, suggesting no fewer than nine amendments. All of them, in one way or another, aimed at clarifying and preserving Colombia’s sovereignty over the isthmus, its residents, and its two port cities. It was in response to this development that Beaupré was composing his note. He was doing so without the benefit of fresh advice from Washington, since the telegraph company, in a dispute with Colombia’s government, had shut off service to Bogotá.

Beaupré deliberated for a while and then firmly did what he knew Roosevelt and Hay unquestionably wanted him to do. His handwriting rapidly filled the blank pages that would be transcribed for delivery to the ministry of foreign affairs on the Plaza Bolivar. The very first of the proposed amendments, he scribbled, was “alone tantamount to an absolute rejection of the treaty.” As for the others, they would have a hard time in the American Senate even if submitted, which was “more than doubtful.” And there was a final burst of undiplomatic bluntness:

If Colombia really desires to maintain the present friendly relations existing between the two countries … the pending treaty should be ratified exactly in its present form, without any modifications whatever. I say this from a deep conviction that my Government will not in any case accept amendments.

Beaupré completed his work and paused for a moment of reflection. He knew precisely what would happen. The Colombians would be outraged at his peremptory tone, but Hay’s instructions, when they finally arrived, would support him to the limit. The Colombian senate would also certainly reject his virtual order to sign. (Both predictions were to prove wholly accurate.) For the moment the Panama Canal would be dead once again. The next move would be up to the United States. What resurrecting miracle would her leaders now attempt?

Scene II. New York, October 20, 1903

Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero tried to listen patiently to the instructions of the fast-talking man who sat with him in a room of the Waldorf Astoria. Since he had first become involved, in May, in planning a Panamanian revolution, some curious things had happened to him, but talking with M. Bunau-Varilla always seemed especially bizarre and taxing. Amador—who was usually called by the first of his surnames only—was due to catch a steamer in a few hours that would take him home in seven days, and Bunau-Varilla, who seemed to have materialized from nowhere, had taken charge of the revolution and was telling him that it must be accomplished within five days after Amador arrived in Colón.

Amador must have felt, like others who dealt with Bunau-Varilla, that he was simply a chip being swept along on a tide of irresistible purpose. At seventy years of age, Amador did not appreciate the ride. In the entire Panama story, in fact, it often appeared that the impetuosity of the young—Bunau-Varilla, Cromwell, and Roosevelt, all in their forties—was overriding the desire of older men to do things in orderly and seemly fashion.

Roosevelt, for example, had received the news of Colombia’s rejection of the treaty on August 12 with intense anger, though not with surprise, and had immediately begun to explore his options. There was one, in fact, that was not only open to him but in fact required by the Spooner Act. He could wait a “reasonable time” and then turn to Nicaragua. He had no intention of doing that. A second alternative, odd as it sounded, was to claim a right to go ahead with the Panama Canal whatever the “cat-rabbits” in Bogota might say. Roosevelt could base that claim on a “brief prepared by Professor John Bassett Moore, of Columbia University, an expert on international law who had previously worked for the State Department, which he requested and got on the fifteenth.

The Moore Memorandum was a strange exercise in jurisprudence. In essence it said that under the 1846 treaty with New Granada the United States had the right to guarantee free transit across the isthmus. Implied in the right of maintaining that freedom was the right to provide the most up-to-date and expeditious means of travel. So long as the United States kept its part of the bargain and preserved Colombian sovereignty, as it had time and time again done under the Monroe Doctrine and during rebellions, Colombia had no right to object if the United States went ahead with the canal—or, for that matter, any other mode of “transit” that was feasible. Once the canal was built, the United States would naturally own and operate it. “The ownership and control would be in their nature perpetual.”