August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
The technician, as a matter of fact, can be extremely important in American history, and when the story is his alone we do get the traditional success story. Increasingly, we are a people who work with gadgets, whether the gadgets be rapid-fire guns or earth-moving machines, and the man who knows how to use gadgets properly becomes increasingly worth attention. Not all of our profound efforts take place in wartime. Some of them are directed against the physical environment itself—the environment and the physical weariness, or indecision, or doubt and confusion that seem to go with an attack on it. One of the most notable of these was the immense effort which, beginning more than half a century ago, resulted in the digging of the Panama Canal.
To mention this operation in the same breath with mention of the Battle of Gettysburg is hardly to go out of line. Theodore Roosevelt himself—who had about as much to do with this enormous project as anyone—went down after he had left the White House to look at the job that was being done, and in 1910 he told an audience in Omaha that every American who wanted to travel ought to go down to see “what is being done on the Isthmus.” This, he said, was “one of the great feats of modern times … which can only be paralleled in our past history by some of the services rendered in certain wars.”
This was no overstatement. The idea of cutting a canal across Panama was old, but the job had begun to look impossible. The French had tried it and failed, and the Americans’ first effort looked no better. Jungle heat, soggy earth that kept sliding down into excavations that had just been completed, endemic yellow fever, earthquakes, uncontrollable rivers that cut straight across the line where the Canal was supposed to go—all of these, plus conflicts of national interest, varying ideas about the place and the manner in which the Canal ought to be dug, and a perennial inability on the part of important congressmen to understand just what was being done and why it should cost such immense sums of money, made the job at times look utterly impossible. Following Mr. Lee’s account of the project, one hardly believes that the Canal will ever be completed until one finally reads about the ships passing through it. Here, by any standards, is one of America’s great achievements.
Not all of it was pretty. To begin with, there was the financial thimblerigging which accompanied the attempts of the French diggers to unload their equity on the American taxpayer. There was also the business of persuading Panama to cut itself loose from the republic of Colombia and of making a quick deal with the new nation that was born under the protecting guns of United States warships and marines. There was in addition the high human cost involved—deaths from yellow fever, deaths of day laborers killed by explosions of dynamite, by landslides, by train wrecks, and by plain human clumsiness—and the paternalistic caste system which governed all of the men who actually did the job. The cost of getting the Panama Canal ran into figures that can hardly be entered on any dollars-and-cents ledger.
But the job itself compels admiration and wonder, even at this distance. Americans can do prodigious things in the purely material realm, and this was one of their most prodigious achievements. The technique of leveling mountains, damming rivers, draining swamps, and making highways through the wilderness had not yet been perfected; it is interesting to note that from first to last not one motor truck was used in the construction of the Canal.
We take the Canal for granted now, much as we take many other things for granted, including the result of that Civil War that was mentioned a page or so previously. It does no harm to look at the job itself, at the effort that went into it, and at the human toll which the job levied.