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Samuel Eliot Morison Award 1978

July 2024
2min read

David McCullough’s

It is very rarely that a book of history has an important impact on current events. That happy fate came to The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal , by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1977), which American Heritage is pleased to announce is the winner of this year’s Samuel Eliot Morison Award. The prize is given annually for “the best book on American history by an American author that sustains the tradition that good history is literature as well as high scholarship.” President Jimmy Carter has remarked repeatedly that the treaties recently concluded, whereby ownership and operation of the Canal will eventually go to Panama, would never have passed the United States Senate had it not been for McCullough’s book.

This is all the more remarkable since the book is entirely historical and does not go into the current controversy over control of the Canal. “All through the Senate debates on the issue,” McCuIlough observes, “the book was quoted again and again, and I’m pleased to say that it was quoted by both sides. Real history always cuts both ways.”

McCullough first became aware of the interest The Path Between the Seas was exciting in Washington a year ago, when he and his wife, Rosalee, were invited to the White House to meet the President and the First Lady. They learned that both Mr. and Mrs. Carter had read the book, and that the President was recommending it highly to the members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as background for the Canal debates. In January, 1978, McCullough testified before the committee, urging approval of the treaties; meanwhile, he had been operating as a one-man lobby, at his own expense, talking to key senators about the issues involved. “I did not take sides in the book,” he explains, “but afterwards I came to feel that it was my obligation to openly take a stand, and that the treaties were absolutely the right thing to do in order to insure the best use of the Canal in the future.” In June, 1978, he had the pleasure of flying to Panama with the President to observe the ceremonies there in honor of the signing of the treaties.


David MeCullough grew up in Pittsburgh, where he was born in 1933. After graduation from Yale in 1955 he worked for Time Inc. until 1961, and then for three years edited a magazine published for distribution in the Arab world by the United States Information Agency. From 1964 to 1970 he was an editor with American Heritage Publishing Company, but after the success of his first book, The Johnstown Flood (1968), he decided to free-lance. His second book, The Great Bridge —about the building of Brooklyn Bridge—was an even greater success; and The Path Between the Seas not only was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club but also won the 1978 National Book Award for nonfiction as well as the Parkman Prize, given annually by the Society of American Historians for a work of history. To these honors is now added the Morison Award of $5,000 offered by American Heritage. Mr. MeCullough lives in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, with his wife and five children. He is now at work on a book about the youth and young manhood of Theodore Roosevelt.

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