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The Strange Affair Of The Taking Of The Panama Canal Zone

July 2024
44min read

What happened at 6:40 p.m., November 18, 1903?

PROLOGUE: Washington, November 18, 1903

As John Hay, Secretary of State of the United States of America, prepared for bed in his comfortable home just across Lafayette Park from the White House, it must certainly have struck him that the day just concluded had been altogether one of the most curious in his four-year tenure in office—or, in fact, in a long diplomatic career that had taken him as a representative of his country to London, Paris, Vienna, and Madrid.

The hands of the clock had stood at twenty before seven when he signed a treaty with the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Panama. And extraordinary was assuredly the word. The minister, a small man with fierce mustaches and an outthrust chin, was one who spoke not in sentences but in proclamations. Hay had asked him if he had a choice between two drafts of the treaty, which would permit the construction of an interoceanic canal by the United States. “I am at the orders of Your Excellency,” came the reply, “to sign either of the two projects which, in Your Excellency’s judgment, appears best adapted to the realization of that grand work.” And when it turned out that the minister had no signet ring to seal the document, Hay had proffered two, one of them bearing his own family arms. “The share which Your Excellency has in the accomplishment of this great act determines my choice,” said the minister as he reached for Hay’s ring. “I shall be happy that the Treaty, due to your generous policy, should bear at the same time your personal seal and that of your family.”

Such nobility of style was modestly ironic under the circumstances, a point not lost to the writer’s eye of Hay, who had occasionally composed novels, humorous poetry, and editorials. For one thing, the Napoleonic little minister represented a country that was only about the size of South Carolina. Of its jungle-covered and mountainous terrain only a strip of the serpentine isthmus between North and South America was basically habitable—and the treaty had just handed over most of that region to the absolute and sovereign control of the United States forever.

In addition, the Republic of Panama had existed among the family of nations for precisely twelve days—brought into being by a revolt that was foreseen, aided, and just possibly arranged by the United States. Finally, in the most bizarre touch of all, the minister was not a Panamanian, or even a citizen of Colombia, from which Panama had been detached. He was a French engineer named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, whose diplomatic career was beginning and ending with this single episode.

All in all, a most unusual international pact. It would undoubtedly get through the Senate, for the canal that it would make possible was a universally popular project. But it would always remain tainted with suspicion and resentment among Panamanians, Colombians, and some Americans as well. It was not, in fact, the treaty that Secretary Hay himself had wanted. What was more, no knowledgeable observer would have predicted its achievement five years earlier. Time after time in Hay’s administration of the Department of State the Panama Canal had appeared to be doomed. Yet at each point of crisis it had been rescued and put back on the long road to realization. Its history seemed to prove that despite the complexity of the world and the domination of chance and error in human affairs, a man with energy and enormous fixity of purpose could now and then shape the course of history.

ACT ONE: THE COURSE OF EMPIRE Scene I. Washington, December, 1898

One of the many callers on President William McKinley in the crowded days just before the opening of the Fifty-fifth Congress was a partner in the New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Though only forty-four, William Nelson Cromwell already had silvery white hair and mustaches, surprising complements to his smooth complexion and baby-blue eyes. These features could mask, for the unwary, certain other assets—a salesman’s rapid tongue, a wizardry with figures, and, in one reporter’s observation, “an intellect that works like a flash of lightning, and … swings about with the agility of an acrobat.”

Cromwell’s specialty was corporate reorganization, and it was on behalf of a corporate client that he had presented his card at the White House. Ostensibly he merely wished to present to the President the report of an international technical commission which declared that the most practicable route for a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—from an engineering point of view—lay through the Isthmus of Panama. But both Cromwell and McKinley knew that there was already a partially dug canal in Panama; that its right of way, equipment, concessions from Colombia, and other assets were the property of the New Panama Canal Company of Paris; and that Cromwell had recently been hired to represent that company.

The concern had called him in for what was essentially a salvage job. The original French Panama Canal Company (or Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique) had been organized nearly twenty years earlier under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had won world acclaim by creating the Suez Canal. In seven years the company, sometimes using as many as 14,000 workers, had managed to gouge out some eleven miles of canal in Panama, less than half of the total length necessary. Heart-breaking difficulties had been encountered—swift floods on the isthmian rivers and landslides that wiped out months of work. In addition, yellow fever and malaria, which the medical technology of the eighties could not control, were claiming over a thousand lives a year by 1885. Valor was not enough to beat these odds. More capital was required, and there was a desperate struggle for fresh money, some of it through lotteries. But in 1894 it was revealed that in the fund-raising campaign certain politicians and journalists had been bribed. The grand design collapsed in scandal, investors shut their pocketbooks, and de Lesseps died brokenhearted.

The New Panama Canal Company was created to inherit and liquidate the machinery, buildings, contracts, and good will (such as it was) of the old. Its directors correctly despaired of reawakening French interest in another long, expensive struggle with the elements. But they knew that the United States was eager to have the oceans joined, and they conceived the idea of selling their properties to the Americans. To that end they had hired Cromwell.

The conversation between the lobbyist and the President went unrecorded, but there is little doubt about the prevailing sentiment of the day, which the President probably articulated. He would shortly be pointing out, in his State of the Union message, that stunning events had taken place in the preceding twelve months. As a result of the brief war with Spain the United States would shortly acquire a protectorate over Cuba and absolute control of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. She had also, in that summer of empire, annexed the Hawaiian Islands. The United States was now a colonial power with holdings in two oceans, and undoubtedly desired, needed, and planned a canal to shorten the travel time between them.

Furthermore, the entire Western world would smile on such a canal. A great seaborne traffic was in motion, carrying to the factories of the United States and of Europe the crude ores, rubber, petroleum, lumber, fibers, and food-stuffs of a colonized Africa and Asia and a weak Latin America, and returning to them manufactured goods ranging from rails and locomotives to kerosene and calico. The whole fabric of civilization would benefit from speeding up this interchange.

But, the President might have gone on, the great inter-oceanic highway would not necessarily go through Panama. The American Congress had, in fact, long been considering a route through Nicaragua. Mr. Cromwell might learn more about that subject from one of the Nicaraguan canal’s most ardent supporters, Senator John T. Morgan of Alabama, ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Foreign Relations and that on Interoceanic Canals.

All of this was surely already known to Cromwell. His first task for his clients, therefore, in pursuit of which he had called on McKinley, was in some way to forestall a sudden, enthusiastic rush by Congress to embrace Nicaragua.

Scene II. Washington, March 3, 1899

As the Fifty-fifth Congress worked its way through final business in the closing hours of its life Senator Morgan was furious. It was more than thirty-three years since he had been Brigadier General Morgan, Cavalry, Confederate States of America, but he remembered enough to know that he had been outflanked.

During the winter months the aging but vigorous senator had steadily nursed along a bill for a Nicaraguan canal. Behind it he had put parliamentary and oratorical skills acquired in a classical education in Tennessee. Morgan’s measure would instruct the President to open negotiations with Nicaragua to secure the right of way for such a canal, and would have the effect of giving financial support to an American organization, the Maritime Canal Company. Like the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, the Maritime Company had begun its canal, dug a few miles, and then succumbed to the financial panic of 1893. Senator Morgan held stock in it.

Yet it was not merely for himself that Morgan was working. Though he had fought for the old South of cotton and slavery, he represented a new South of coal and iron and shipping and banking. He was eager to see New Orleans and Mobile and perhaps other southern ports become the centers of a lusty interhemispheric trade that would stimulate the struggling southern economy. To enhance that traffic a canal was an absolute necessity, and Nicaragua seemed, to Morgan, a logical location. It was two days closer in sailing time to American ports. It could be built so as to utilize natural watercourses, including the great expanse of Lake Nicaragua, and would therefore be cheaper and quicker to finish. Nicaragua’s government, unlike that of Colombia, indicated a strong interest in dealing with Washington for the canal; so did that of neighboring Costa Rica, which would be involved for part of the route. And Nicaragua’s high plateaus would be free of the pestilences that lurked in the sinister Panamanian jungles.

As the session neared an end Morgan had won Senate passage of his bill. But then something had happened. The burden of getting a Nicaraguan canal law through the House fell on Iowa’s William P. Hepburn, a Republican regular serving his sixth term and elevated by seniority to the chair of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Hepburn was in favor of Nicaragua, too. But someone had played upon his vanity in such a way as to induce him to introduce a bill of his own rather than simply sponsoring Morgan’s in the lower chamber. Because the bill contained some provisions differing from Morgan’s, when it passed the House a conference committee had to be created to reconcile the discrepancies.

As the hours ticked away someone got an amendment tacked on to the committee’s revised bill providing for that favorite device of compromisers, a study commission to look into all the feasible routes for a canal, Panama included. Someone got Hepburn to accept it. After a brief deadlock someone persuaded the Republican senators on the conference panel to go along, abandoning their Senate colleague Morgan for their party brother Hepburn and accepting a new canal commission.

Someone had dealt Senator Morgan a defeat and bought time for pro-Panama forces to plan and to organize. The senator was perfectly sure that the someone was William N. Cromwell. And while the attorney kept discreetly silent about it at the time, he was not choked by modesty when, much later, he submitted his firm’s thumping bill (for over $800,000) to his clients. At that time he declared: “We think we are justified in stating that without our efforts the new commission would not have been created.”

Whether that boast was valid or not, Cromwell’s efforts continued as the oncoming Presidential election approached. They included a campaign contribution of sixty thousand dollars to the Republicans. When that party’s national convention met in Philadelphia in June of 1900 to tender the garland of renomination to McKinley, it raised Cromwell’s hopes by calling, in its platform, for an isthmian—not a Nicaraguan, note, but an isthmian—canal. Cynics might assume a direct connection between the gift and the declaration, but in fact, until the route-investigating commission made its final recommendation, it was a natural political act for the Republicans to hedge their bets on the canal’s location.

On November 30, 1900, however, just after McKinley’s re-election, Panama’s prospects appeared to plummet. The investigating panel—two colonels, two professors, a lawyer, and three civil engineers, chaired by retired Admiral John G. Walker and generally known by his name—issued a preliminary report favoring the Nicaraguan route. But if, in the popular view, the Walker Commission had thereby doomed Panama, the popular view was unaware of the persistence of Mr. Cromwell or the astonishing energies of Reserve Captain Philippe Bunau-Varilla, graduate of France’s Ecole Polytechnique, class of 1879.

ACT TWO: THE DOWNFALL OF NICARAGUA Scene I. New York, February-March, 1901

On a brisk midwinter evening a coach with several occupants in evening dress drew up before New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel just as a small, dapper man emerged from its front door. He and one of the men in the carriage exchanged cries of mutual recognition. “What luck to find you here!” exclaimed the passenger, who was Myron T. Herrick, a prominent Ohio Republican. “I am going to introduce you to Senator Hanna.”

Thus did Philippe Bunau-Varilla get an introduction for which he had long been hoping. A consuming passion had brought him to America, and he knew that the influential Hanna, if won over, could help him realize it. The goal of Bunau-Varilla’s quest was neither power, nor money, nor a woman, nor even fame for himself. It was an idea: the idea of the Panama Canal.

A Parisian, born in 1859, Bunau-Varilla grew up believing that “the greatest virtue in a Frenchman is to cultivate truth and to serve France.” For him cultivating truth meant sharing in the stupendous triumphs over nature achieved by nineteenth-century engineers. When, at the age of twenty-five, he joined a contracting firm that sent him to Panama to work on the French canal, his two loyalties became fused. To join mighty oceans had been a dream of humanity for centuries. French genius had fulfilled the dream in Suez and would do so in Panama. Bunau-Varilla flung himself zealously into the work, undaunted by a bout of yellow fever in 1886. By 1889 he had risen to the superintendency of a major part of the work in the so-called Culebra Cut and had worked out what was, in his own mind, a brilliant plan of lock building that would have the waterway ready for use in a few years.

The collapse of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique was, for the young technician, a social, moral, and political catastrophe. The canal must be finished! As tides of scandal eddied around the project he became increasingly monomaniacal. The great work must not end in the verdict that Panama had been a swindle; history would record that to France’s everlasting shame. But despite articles, interviews, letters, and petitions arranged by a nearly frantic Bunau-Varilla, France’s interest in the canal had waned and died by 1900. “From that moment on,” he wrote later, “I devoted myself to the single idea of saving the honour of this great creation by preserving its life.” To save its life—for France’s sake—Bunau-Varilla gave up on France and began to campaign for the completion of a Panama canal by the United States.

Bunau-Varilla made it his business to meet any and all Americans with an interest in isthmian affairs and canal construction. By chance he encountered two of them in Paris at a restaurant one night in 1900. Over the wine and the sauces, the voluble Frenchman poured out his usual stream of pro-Panama propaganda, with that zeal achievable only by those to whom the truth is never in doubt. Soon after, an invitation was arranged for him to come and lecture on the subject in the United States.

Arriving in Cincinnati on January 17, 1901, Bunau-Varilla lectured before that city’s Commercial Club. Then a luncheon for prominent businessmen of Cleveland was set up by his friends, and it was there that he met Herrick. Back in New York, he dashed off a booklet, “Panama or Nicaragua,” personally paying for the printing and distribution of fifteen thousand copies. And then more lectures —in Chicago, New York, and Princeton.

The meeting with Hanna capped these weeks of effort, especially when the Ohio senator made a date with Bunau-Varilla for an interview in Washington. Hanna was a portly Cleveland businessman, and though he was sixty-four years old, his wide eyes and slightly protuberant ears gave him something of the expression of a perpetually attentive adolescent. In 1896, as McKinley’s campaign manager and fund raiser, he had been cruelly caricatured by opposition cartoonists as a fat plutocrat. But by 1901 he was committed to such modern viewpoints as accepting and recognizing labor unions—and empire. And he was one of the undisputed powers in Republican circles.

Therefore, at the interview Bunau-Varilla bombarded him hard. Did the senator know that the Panama route was shorter? Healthier? Easier to complete than Nicaragua, thanks to France’s head start? Above all, safer. Nicaragua (said Bunau-Varilla, brandishing statistics) was notoriously susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Panama was the obvious route of choice, of necessity, of wisdom, of destiny.

Senator Hanna had no doubt heard it before, from pro-Panama members of the Walker Commission and from Cromwell. But what mattered was not who convinced Hanna but rather that, by April of 1901, he was converted. The friends of Panama had made an impressive gain.

Scene II. Washington, July, 1901

Dr. Carlos Martinez Suva looked briefly out of the window of the Colombian embassy, then turned back to his half-packed suitcases. He would soon be off to the high, thin air of Mexico City as a delegate to the second Pan-American Congress. It would be more pleasant there than in the sultry heat of Washington, and he would escape that undercurrent of patronizing that any cultivated Latin-American diplomat sensed in the capital of the Colossus of the North. No matter how formal the courtesies, one was considered a “dago” ambassador from a powerless and insignificant state.

Nonetheless, Dr. Suva was not happy with his government for removing him from Washington at a crucial stage in his negotiations. It was undoubtedly because he had been telling them things they did not wish to hear—a classic case of punishing the messenger with bad news.

But Suva was no ordinary envoy. A former minister of foreign relations, he was a close friend of Colombia’s president, José Marroquin. Both of them were academics: Suva held a doctorate in political science, while Marroquin, who wrote satire and poetry, was a university professor of literature who had turned to politics late in life. Both men represented a Colombian elite, supported by fortunes earned through ownership (or inheritance) of Colombian coffee plantations and cattle ranches.

Marroquin had been vice president but had taken power in a coup in July, 1900. Though he was automatically assumed by the Americans to be a dictator, he was actually in a precarious position. He took office after two years of a civil war between Colombia’s political parties (one episode in a long history of constitutional turmoil), which had shattered the economy and cost a toll in human life estimated at something between 100,000 and 250,000. With revenues down and costs up, huge deficits had been incurred, leading to the usual inflationary devices that had rapidly made the peso all but worthless. To heal these wounds and ensure tranquillity money was needed. And if the United States would pay for the privilege of completing the canal through Panama, it was urgent to find out how much and set the wheels in motion. To do these things Marroquin had sent Suva to Washington early in 1901.

Silva soon found, in his talks, that he faced most delicate and difficult problems. The United States might in the end close with Nicaragua and offer nothing to the Republic of Colombia or the New Panama Canal Company. Indeed, one argument for Nicaragua was that it was free of the added complication of negotiation with a private concern. Secondly, if the United States did in fact elect to build a Panama canal, it would want a degree of control over the right of way that could be humiliating to Colombia. And thirdly, the United States, in the end, had the power to take what it wanted; making it an offer was something like holding out a morsel to a tiger. The tiger might merely shake its head in the negative, or it might snap off the entire hand.

Silva’s task was made harder by the fact that, figuratively and literally, his principals were hard to reach. Bogota was an inland capital, several thousand feet above sea level. It had telegraphic communication with Colon and Panama City, and from there by underwater cable to the United States. But wire service was often interrupted, and all steamer mail had to be unloaded and brought by mule over tortuous, weather-vulnerable trails, a trip of several days to several weeks.

Hence the politicians in Bogota heard little from the outside world and suffered from a kind of parochialism that made them refer to their city—which had poorly paved streets and almost no telephones but had an auditorium for plays and operas—as the Athens of South America. In “Athens,” in the spring of 1901, the feeling was that there was plenty of time to negotiate with the United States. To begin with, the United States had a half-century-old agreement with Great Britain, known as the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Under it the two nations had cooled a long rivalry in Central America by agreeing that neither would seize exclusive control of, or fortify, any trans-isthmian canal or land route; that both would support the neutrality of any such route; and that neither would “occupy, fortify, colonize or exercise dominion over” any part of Central America. That agreement would hold things up for some time. Moreover, in 1904 the New Panama Canal Company’s rights would expire and remove that distraction from the picture. The Americans might make better terms then.

Dr. Silva had labored in vain to correct these impressions. He had written dispatches pointing out that Secretary Hay was making excellent progress with the British ambassador on a new agreement that would abrogate Clayton-Bulwer and allow for an American-defended canal. (The result, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, was, in fact, signed in December of 1901 and soon ratified.) He had also read American journals of opinion carefully and knew the “tiger” was not very patient. The only result of all this caution was to provoke messages from Bogota telling him to go slowly, make no price concessions, and yield as little sovereignty as possible. And finally, Bogota was sending him on another mission, though only temporarily, quite possibly to silence his negativism.

Scene III. Washington, January 20, 1902

William Nelson Cromwell had a lawyer’s familiarity with (and distaste for) sudden and unexpected strokes of fortune that totally reversed the direction a case was taking. Yet even he could scarcely believe what he had read in the newspapers for the preceding two days. President Roosevelt was forwarding to Congress the final recommendation of the Walker Commission. It was that “the most practicable and feasible route” for an isthmian canal was “that known as the Panama route.” And yet just one month earlier, to the very day, the battle had seemed hopelessly lost to Nicaragua, and Cromwell himself had been fired by the New Panama Canal Company.

The first bombshell had burst on November 16, but the fuse had been lit in the middle of the preceding month. In answer to repeated proddings from the Walker Commission, the New Panama Canal Company finally put a price tag on its properties. The sum read $109,141,500 for everything, from maps and blueprints and the forty-seven-mile-long Panama Railroad that crossed the isthmus to prospects of future profits. Admiral Walker was a New Hampshire Yankee with at least seven generations of merchants and traders behind him, and he had no difficulty in recognizing an inflated figure when he saw one. Whatever the French stockholders might think, their holdings were only, in the estimates of his experts, worth forty million dollars. His official answer to the French was in the commission’s final report of mid-November. The cost of digging the Nicaragua canal was estimated at about $190,000,000. That of a Panama canal would be, to the last penny of the estimate, $144,233,358. But to go through Panama the United States would have to add the purchase price of the New Panama Company’s holdings, and anything much over forty million would not only be a bad bargain but would push the Panama Canal’s price beyond that of a Nicaraguan cut. Therefore it was eminently clear: the “practical and feasible route” would be through Nicaragua.

Two days later the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty was signed. With the verdict in from the commission and the green light flashing from London, Nicaragua seemed inevitable, and Panama doomed.

Swiftly, somehow, the directors of the New Panama Canal Company came to terms with the reality that they had one and only one potential customer. They wired Secretary Hay that forty million was an acceptable price to them. The news came too late to head off House passage of a new Hepburn bill for a Nicaragua canal on January 9—but not too late for Theodore Roosevelt to call the Walker Commission back into session on January 16.

Cromwell’s last-minute reprieve from disaster owed much to Leon Czolgosz, who, on September 6, 1901, had fired a mortal gunshot wound into the belly of President McKinley. McKinley’s death brought Theodore Roosevelt to the Presidency and changed the terms of the Panama equation. The country had never had such a President. He was only forty-three. He was well-read, knowledgeable about world affairs, a splendid if dominating conversationalist, and a supple writer of history, biography, nature lore, essays, and letters.

But there was another side to him. He was as relentlessly single-minded about some things as Bunau-Varilla (whom he later came to admire). He was restless and impulsive. A friendly observer described him as “pure act.” A less flattering description came from a member of the diplomatic colony, who wrote to an acquaintance: “Always remember that the President is about six years old.” And so it sometimes seemed.

With Roosevelt the canal was a top-priority item. He wanted to set the dirt flying. And, possibly through Hanna, he came into office ready to see it fly in Panama. This was worth an incalculable amount to Bunau-Varilla, Cromwell, the New Panama Canal Company, and all pro-Panama forces. He reconvened Walker’s consultants on January 16, 1902; on the eighteenth they reversed their decision in the light of the new offer from the Paris directors. On the twentieth Congress was informed of their action. And on the twenty-seventh William Nelson Cromwell was re-hired. Finally, on the twenty-eighth, when the Hepburn bill was brought up for consideration in the Senate, it was freighted with an amendment added by Senator John C. Spooner, an expert in business and constitutional law from Wisconsin and a most regular Republican. The Spooner Amendment directed the President to buy the properties of the New Panama Canal Company for forty million and to treat with Colombia for “perpetual control” of a canal zone in Panama, to be secured within a “reasonable” time. The final battle would turn on substituting this amendment for the original pro-Nicaragua wording. Experts believed that though Spooner’s name might earn immortality through being on the amendment, the actual impetus had come from the White House and from Mark Hanna.

Scene IV. Washington, June 19, 1902

The newspapers agreed that there had been no such debate in the Senate since the oral pyrotechnics of the pre-Civil War giants. It was a warm June Friday, and the ninety members of the upper chamber (minus a few absentees) were moving, after two weeks of discussion, to decide on the route of the interoceanic canal. The parliamentary convolutions, as always, were confusing to the uninitiated but clear enough to the reporters and the senators themselves. The motion was to adopt a minority report of Senator Morgan’s Canal Committee—one that favored Panama. If that were done, it would show that the pro-Panama group had the votes to add the Spooner Amendment to the Hepburn bill, the subject of the Canal Committee’s report. And the final “Panamized” bill would automatically go through as laggards switched and jumped aboard the bandwagon. For fall elections were coming, and no one wanted to be caught without a recorded favorable vote for the “right” canal bill.

Senator Hanna watched with his usual calm. On the fifth and sixth of the month, at the start of the two-week debate, he had given what some regarded as the most impressive speech of his career. Meticulously, calmly, now and then accepting a page of figures or a chart from a secretary seated behind him, Hanna had made the Panama case: the shorter route, the fewer locks, the already existing harbors and railroad, the backlog of French experience, the lower maintenance costs. So effective was it that at least one senator, announcing that it had changed his opinion, would for the rest of his life think of the canal as the “Hannama Canal.” Now Hanna sat easily, joking, awaiting the verdict.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, back in the United States, was following the struggle and waiting for the result, too. In his mind he had furnished unanswerable arguments in response to the pro-Nicaragua case being made on the floor by Senator Morgan and others. The country was in the midst of what might have been called a volcano scare. On May 8 Mount Pelée, an active crater on the West Indian island of Martinique, had erupted, wiping out the port of St. Pierre and forty thousand lives. To Bunau-Varilla even adversity on this gargantuan scale had its uses. In a philatelic store in Washington he picked up ninety copies of a stamp issued by Nicaragua, showing a smoking volcanic peak that could have been Mount Monotombo, only a few miles from the line of the proposed canal. He affixed each one to a sheet of paper and neatly typed underneath: “An official witness of the volcanic activity of the isthmus of Nicaragua.” Then he mailed one to each senator. He counted on these “bombs, loaded with explosive truth,” which arrived on the legislators’ desks June 16, to do their work.

The new Colombian minister to Washington was also following the arguments intently, waiting to learn if the negotiations he had begun with Hay would reach completion. His name was Dr. Vicente Concha. He had taken over from Dr. Suva in February, and faced the same difficulties of communication. But he labored on valiantly to get a good treaty from the United States while the United States remained in a treaty-making mood.

Colombia wanted the canal zone to be ten kilometers, or about six miles, wide. She wanted to lease the zone to the United States for one hundred years and to keep a specific acknowledgment of her sovereignty. She wanted a flat payment on signing the treaty—a first suggested figure was $7.5 million—and $600,000 annually at some point after the canal had paid off its costs and was earning money from tolls, say, fifteen years after completion. She wanted the zone to be neutralized, with Colombia responsible for its defense but with the United States having the power to land troops (at Colombia’s request) in emergencies. Finally, she wanted mixed Colombian and American tribunals to deal with Colombians in the zone who ran afoul of American laws.

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.

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.

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.”

This breathtakingly broad construction of the compact of 1846 could have afforded the President some kind of lawyerlike arguments for simply seizing the isthmus and landing the steam shovels behind the troops—although, when he later tried Moore’s ideas out on the Cabinet, his Secretary of War, Elihu Root, simply laughed and said: “Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer any taint of legality.”

But there was another avenue that might offer fewer difficulties of a diplomatic kind. That one simply involved waiting to see what would happen to various efforts to cut the slender stem that attached Panama politically to Colombia. Officially Roosevelt knew nothing of any conspiracies against the integrity of a “friendly” state. Privately he could not have been unaware of at least some of the activities in progress since June. First there had been a New York World story—planted by Cromwell—about the “unrest” in Panama; then a telegram came from Bunau-Varilla, in Paris, to Marroquin, warning him of Panamanian secessionism.

A few weeks later, in July, an American superintendent of the Panama Railroad had traveled up to New York on company business, which included a call on William Nelson Cromwell. When he returned, he held a meeting with Amador, Arango, Boyd, Arosemena, and other Panamanian nationalists. After this conference Amador had booked passage to New York for early September, using the public excuse that he was visiting a sick son who was in the United States.

It was then that Amador’s troubles had begun. Unknown to him, someone had tipped off the Colombian minister, Herrân, who had set private detectives on his trail. Through his Washington channels Cromwell found this out and went into a cautious, lawyerlike vanishing act. He did not want a Panamanian revolution traced directly to his office. So he bought a ticket for Paris, to confer with his clients. And when poor Amador, seeking instructions and help, called at the offices of Sullivan and Cromwell, there was no one there who would see him.

Then, by a marvelous coincidence, on the twenty-third of September he received word that M. Bunau-Varilla was in town and wished to talk with him. The meetings that followed were recorded for posterity by the Frenchman and not the doctor, but later investigations established that Bunau-Varilla was usually accurate in essential outline, despite imaginative flights of ego.

Amador confided to the engineer that he had come expecting to get help from Cromwell in a secret loan of six million to buy gunboats and arms for the Panamanians. Now he was at a loss as to what to do. Bunau-Varilla, who insisted that he, too, had come to the United States only on personal business, was sympathetic and brisk. He had no clients Io worry about and was happily ready to jump in. “Let me reflect,” he said. “I shall try to find a solution if it is at all possible.” Leaving Amador to await word from him, he plunged into a zesty twenty days of activity.

Bunau-Varilla instantly and correctly dismissed the idea of a real armed struggle for Panamanian liberation as too costly, too drawn-out, and too likely to fail. The trick was a modest revolt—confined largely to the zone of the canal, which must be instantly recognized as a new nation and protected by the United States. For two solid weeks Bunau-Varilla made appointments, made telephone calls, wrote notes, and sat in waiting rooms, working every one of his excellent American contacts, until he got what he wanted. On Friday morning, October 9, he sat down across a desk from President Roosevelt. The two men, so close in age and temperament, hit it off well as they ranged over favorite subjects: the importance of the canal, the perfidy of Colombia, the Moore Memorandum (the substance of which had, by another odd coincidence, been contained in an article written by Bunau-Varilla for a Paris paper on September 2). What they said about United States action in case of a Panama revolution—if anything direct was said—would never emerge. But Roosevelt wrote to a friend, after it was all over, that he assumed Bunau-Varilla was telling the Panamanians that Washington would interfere. “He would have been a very dull man indeed had he been unable to forecast such interference, judging simply by what we had done the year before.”

Bunau-Varilla was anything but dull. He rushed back to New York and summoned Amador to meet him in room 1162 of the Waldorf on Tuesday morning the thirteenth. He told the doctor that no subsidy was forthcoming. “It is for us to act,” he announced, admitting himself to the movement. Amador then raised the key question of how they could “act” with five hundred Colombian troops on the isthmus. The answer was simple for Bunau-Varilla. He knew that the soldiers had not been paid in months. Let them be bribed with twenty dollars each. Amador countered realistically: “That is not enough.” He worked the figure up to two hundred apiece—a total of a hundred thousand dollars. “Well, my dear sir,” said Bunau-Varilla, “it is a relatively small sum which it will be easy to find at bankers, I suppose, and if it is not to be found there, I can provide it, myself, from my own personal fortune.”

For a time Amador resisted the whirlwind of Bunau-Varilla’s self-confidence, then gave in and placed himself at the Frenchman’s disposal. Bunau-Varilla virtually flung himself on a train to Washington, and on Friday morning was closeted with Hay. He announced to the Secretary: “Prepare yourself for the outbreak of a revolution.” So far as is known, the expression on Hay’s grave, bearded face remained unchanged. He neither smiled nor winked. But he said that he, too, expected trouble and that orders were out sending cruisers toward the Gulf of Panama. That was all Bunau-Varilla wanted to know.

On Saturday morning Amador showed up again in answer to a wire that Bunau-Varilla had sent him as his train rumbled through Baltimore. This time Bunau-Varilla had an unpleasant surprise in store. Amador was assured that the revolt would be supported by the Americans. He was to show up the following Tuesday to receive a flag, a declaration of independence, a constitution, and a secret communications code. He would also get his hundred thousand dollars—half when the revolt was proclaimed and half when it was completed. But the first act of the new government must be to appoint Bunau-Varilla minister plenipotentiary.

Amador considered darkly what he was going to tell his compatriots in ten days. They were supposed to make a revolution, entirely on the assurance of an insane French civilian that the United States would safeguard them. They were to get not six million but a hundred thousand dollars from the madman, and he was to be appointed their minister plenipotentiary. Poor Amador demurred, struggled, argued feebly. Bunau-Varilla, who was at the moment Amador’s only possible card to play, drew himself up. No one but he could guarantee success. “Any motive of vanity, of ambition, or even of national pride,” he orated, “must yield to the imperative necessity of succeeding.” Amador sighed, agreed, and made his date for the following Tuesday morning.

Bunau-Varilla, who was enjoying making revolutions as much as Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed big-game hunting, proceeded to Macy’s, where he bought some colored silk. He then entrained for Highland Falls, some sixty miles up the Hudson, where he had a weekend invitation from his friend John Bigelow, former American minister to France. Ignoring the crisp outdoor delights of a pleasant fall weekend, he set to work composing his documents, assisted in English by Mr. Bigelow’s secretary. The flag was sewn by Bigelow’s daughter Grace and Mme. Bunau-Varilla, following an attractive design. It consisted of blue, red, and white rectangles, with a red and a blue star, presumably for the two oceans that were to be joined.

These were the creations Bunau-Varilla handed to Amador early on the twentieth as he sent him off to board the Yucatán . The goal was at last in sight.

Scene III. Colón, November 3-4-5, 1903

The day began badly and in anxiety. Great anxiety. Early in the morning the Tiradores Battalion of the Colombian army came marching into Colón. Somehow Bogotá had become suspicious and ordered the movement. The Panamanian plotters were not entirely taken by surprise. In panic Amador, only two days back from New York, rushed to the telegraph office to send Bunau-Varilla a wire in the code they had devised, which would have delighted the hearts of a boys’ club: “ FATE NEWS BAD POWERFUL TIGER. SMITH .” It meant: “For Bunau-Varilla. More than two hundred Colombian troops arriving on the Atlantic side within five days.” “ URGE VAPOR COLON ,” continued Amador. (“Send a steamer to Colón.”)

Bunau-Varilla, who had no authority whatever over any American VAPOR, took the train to Washington once more, asked questions, predicted disasters—but, above all, read the newspapers. He noted that the u.s.s. Nashville was at Kingston, Jamaica, the nearest point to Colón. His sense of the situation was that U.S. action was imminent. And so he wired back: “ PIZALDO PANAMA ALL RIGHT WILL REACH TON AND A HALF OBSCURE. JONES .” This went to Amador in care of a bank in Panama City, and meant that help would arrive in two and a half days.

Now it was the first Tuesday in November, the slated hour for the uprising. The two and a half days were almost gone, and the Panamanian underground in Colon looked in vain for the comforting gray hull of an American battleship, full of armed men who would land and prevent the Colombians from moving on down to Panama City.

While the hours ticked away the railroad officials worked at their part of the plot. They explained that rolling stock for conveying troops and equipment was temporarily unavailable. But perhaps General Tobar, the commander, would like to go on ahead, with his staff, in a passenger car? In Panama City there were more comfortable facilities available for them. Leaving his troops in charge of Colonel Eliseo Torres, the general accepted. He reached Panama City in midafternoon and soon found himself arrested by the forces recruited by the insurgents—the Colombian garrison, which had been promised its back pay, and the city’s police and fire brigades.

With this done, a provisional revolutionary committee felt safe enough by six in the afternoon to go out to the cathedral plaza and announce to a happy crowd, which had gathered in response to rumors, that on the next day Panama would formally become independent. This news was somehow conveyed to a Colombian gunboat, the Bogotá , sitting in the harbor. Her commander loyally fired five shells into the town, then withdrew. They killed a donkey and a Chinese named Wong Kong Yee, the only two victims of the revolution.

The American consuls in Panama City and Colón knew what was happening. The former had already received a message from the State Department at 5 P.M. : “ UPRISING REPORTED .” Calmly, he cabled back: “ NOT YET .” Washington was unwontedly eager, possibly because President Roosevelt was due in from New York on an evening train, having gone home to Oyster Bay to vote in local elections.

The consul in Colón knew that the Nashville was en route because he had already gotten cabled orders to deliver to her captain. They were, not surprisingly, to bar the railroad to all troops. Late in the afternoon the American vessel arrived. After some confusion Commander Hubbard got his directive and by 10:30 had acknowledged and executed it.

Wednesday, nonetheless, found the revolution only half completed. Hearing of its proclamation in Panama, Bunau-Varilla had sent his first cash installment. But in Colón, Colonel Torres remained stubbornly waiting for his trains. Finally one of the local revolutionary committee members took him to a hotel barroom and gently broke the news to him over a drink. Perhaps more than one drink. The colonel was outraged at the arrest of his superior and ready to do his duty as a soldier. He sent word to the American consul. Either they would get a train for his men or he would kill every American in town.

Commander Hubbard, confronted with this news at mid-day, sent boats out to evacuate U.S. nationals to ships in the harbor, deployed an armed landing party, and swung his cannon in a deadly arc aimed at the Colombian position. Before any shooting started, cool heads reached Colonel Torres. His patriotism was admirable, but he could not fight the United States Navy. Honor was satisfied by his gesture. It would now be the better part of wisdom, as well as valor, to withdraw to a waiting steamer in the harbor—troops and all—and leave. A night of meditation helped Torres to see the essential logic of this view, particularly when it was reinforced by a gift of two cases of champagne and eight thousand gold dollars for himself and his men.

And so, on Thursday afternoon, the fifth of November, the Colombian troops left, and Panama was free. The New York papers had the story now, including an interview with Bunau-Varilla, who opined:

It is a spontaneous combustion, due to the accumulation of injured feelings, and the result of the Spanish colonial system, for Panama was as much a colony of the Bogota government as Cuba was of the grandees at Madrid.

But the more important statement was yet to come. At 10 A.M. on Friday the sixth, in Colón, in the presence of a gathering of all the foreign and local officials who could be mustered, the steering committee of the revolution announced that Panama had joined the family of nations. A United States Army officer on hand was given the honor of raising the Panamanian flag over the city hall. No sooner had he finished than official cables notified the American State Department. And at 12:51 the consuls on the isthmus had the equally official response. The people of Panama having “resumed” their independence, the United States representatives were told, and a new government having been established, “you will enter into relations with it as the responsible government of the territory.”

Panama was made and recognized. That night Bunau-Varilla, after some telegraphic dickering, got his official appointment as minister plenipotentiary and sent off the final fifty thousand dollars. He had given Amador instructions on October 20. It had taken just seventeen days to carry them out.

Scene I. Washington, November 13, 1903

Wearing a uniform came naturally to Bunau-Varilla, and he looked formidably official in the one he had quickly ordered for his presentation to President Roosevelt as the official spokesman for Panama. As he waited for Secretary Hay to take him in and present him, thus converting the de facto recognition of November 6 to a de jure one, his mind was busy as always. And as always it lingered over possible plots against the future of the dream of four centuries, the Panama Canal.

Bunau-Varilla had experienced some difficult moments since assuming his new office. On November 7 he received a wire sent by the revolutionists prior to his being named minister plenipotentiary. It declared that the provisional government appointed him a confidential agent to negotiate a loan from the United States. Confidential agent indeed! The minister bristled at the very thought of the implied demotion. Fortunately, he could disregard this piece of conspiratorial “impertinence” because the higher appointment had subsequently come through.

But on Monday the ninth Hay had stunned him by asking: “What is this commission coming from Panama?” Rushing to the wires, Bunau-Varilla learned that Amador and Federico Boyd would be leaving Panama the next day to come to Washington, carrying his instructions. For Bunau-Varilla any instructions from Panama were incompatible with his dignity. He had spun his webs with an utter and delicious freedom up to then. Hay, after all, had been answerable to Roosevelt and the Senate, Cromwell to the New Panama Canal Company. Bunau-Varilla had bowed to no one, and he was not of a mind to spend a fruitless period of time in Washington rushing back and forth between Hay on the one hand and Amador and Boyd on the other. But he had only a week of freedom left. After that he would be the captive of Panamanian pride. And the Panamanians were capable of the unthinkable crime of delaying the canal by insisting on their narrow and selfish interests.

He must work fast for humanity. And he did. As he and Hay left the White House after the official reception he turned to the Secretary and delivered a tactful, almost gossamer but recognizable ultimatum:

For two years you have had difficulties in negotiating the Canal Treaty with the Colombians. Remember that ten days ago the Panamans were still Colombians and brought up to use the hair-splitting dialectic of Bogotá. You have now before you a Frenchman. If you wish to take advantage of a period of clearness, in Panaman diplomacy, do it now! When I go out, the spirit of Bogotá will return.

Hay understood. “You are right,” he said. “I wish to put the finishing touches to the project of the treaty. I shall send it to you as soon as possible.”

Bunau-Varilla went back to his hotel to wait out the weekend. He was not kept in suspense for too long. On Sunday the fifteenth a messenger delivered Hay’s draft to him. It was basically the old Hay-Herrân Treaty, with blanks left for possible insertion of new figures. The envoy extraordinary had perhaps three days left to retain his extraordinary liberty of maneuver.

Scene II. Washington, November 18, 1903

Wednesday morning in Washington. Cool weather, the town preparing for the approaching slack weekend of Thanksgiving, followed by the bustle of the opening of Congress the first week in December. Bunau-Varilla sat waiting for his telephone to ring and counting minutes.

He had worked relentlessly and purposefully, reading and rereading the treaty draft on Sunday. During the night he had slept only two hours, which he described as a “complete rest.” By the time dawn was silhouetting the Capitol dome, he had worked out the problem. The prime objective was to win the approval of the Senate by making the treaty irresistible. Every American objection raised during passage of the Hay-Herrán ratification must be satisfied.

At 6 A.M. Bunau-Varilla began to scribble. The money would remain the same—a $10,000,000 flat sum, plus $250,000 per year. But the Canal Zone would be, not ten kilometers, but ten miles wide—a 60 per cent increase. And it would not be leased but “granted” to the United States “in perpetuity.” Naturally the United States could place its armed forces as and where it wished to defend both the canal and the independence of Panama. And as for the question of jurisdiction in the zone, Bunau-Varilla cut through all that by a simple formula:

The Republic of Panama grants to the United States all the rights, power and authority within the zone mentioned … which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory … to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.

There would be no question of whose laws would be obeyed. The United States would be—save only in a technical sense—sovereign. It was fortunate that the Panamanian commissioners, on the high seas, were unaware of the conception of the national interest entertained by their envoy extraordinary. In a prewireless age disaster did not descend so peremptorily upon statesmen.

Bunau-Varilla had asked Frank D. Pavey, an American friend and attorney, to come down and help him with the wording of the treaty. Pavey arrived, and he, Bunau-Varilla, and a stenographer labored through the day. At ten o’clock that night the Frenchman drove up to Hay’s home but found it darkened. Next morning, Tuesday the seventeenth, he got his draft delivered, and then was condemned to wait for a response. Unfortunately, Amador and Boyd were due in New York that morning. By nightfall they would be on hand, and Bunau-Varilla’s wings would be clipped.

But then came one of those lucky accidents that had a way of befalling Bunau-Varilla. Amador and Boyd did indeed debark in New York Tuesday morning. They immediately and naturally went to make contact with Sullivan and Cromwell. And there they learned that Mr. Cromwell himself was due, late in the afternoon or early the next morning, on his return ship from France. The two Panamanians wanted to talk to Cromwell about the future dealings of their country with his client. So they sent a cordial note to Bunau-Varilla that they would be along the next afternoon and settled into a New York hotel, still enjoying the tranquillity of ignorance as they awaited Cromwell.

Bunau-Varilla thus had a twenty-four-hour reprieve. Meantime Hay himself was not dawdling. He was sensitive to the Frenchman’s time problem and eager to have the treaty wrapped up so that it might be reported in the President’s State of the Union message of December, which would, as usual, become a campaign document for 1904. Roosevelt himself, that Sunday evening, had written to his son in characteristic fighting fettle:

I have had a most interesting time about Panama and Colombia. My experiences in all these matters give me an idea of the fearful times Lincoln must have had in dealing with the great crisis he had to face. … Why, even in this Panama business the Evening Post and the entire fool Mugwump crowd have fairly suffered from hysterics; and a goodly number of the Senators even of my own party have shown about as much backbone as so many angle worms. However, I have kept things moving just right so far.

Late Tuesday, Hay did call in Bunau-Varilla for a conference. He had busily gone over technical points with his specialists and with other members of the Cabinet, working right through lunch and, as he wrote somewhat complainingly to his daughter a day or so later, “putting on all steam.” If either he or Bunau-Varilla were concerned with possible Panamanian rejection of the pact, they did not express their doubts. Both knew that the new government had little choice in the matter and had gotten at least one sop—an enlargement of their boundaries beyond the narrow strip of isthmus first envisioned. Incredible as it may seem, Bunau-Varilla may even have believed what he afterward wrote. When he thought about presenting the finished work to the Panamanians, he declared: “I did not doubt it would be received with pleasure.”

At approximately 4:3o Wednesday afternoon Amador and Boyd boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad express to Washington. And sometime around that moment the long crusade of Philippe Bunau-Varilla, begun when the old French canal died in 1889, ended. He was called to come to Secretary Hay’s home. There the drafts were matched. The one Hay chose was essentially Bunau-Varilla’s, with minor changes in wording. Seated at a desk in a blue drawing room, Hay took a pen from an inkstand that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln. When they had finished, he handed the “precious souvenir” to Bunau-Varilla. The task was achieved. At that moment Amador and Boyd were somewhere on the track between Philadelphia and Baltimore, rolling southward.

Hay went on to supper, presumably, and Bunau-Varilla, in a glow of self-satisfaction, made his way to the railroad station. When the train carrying the Panamanians groaned to a stop, he rushed up to greet Amador, who was the first of the two commissioners to emerge.

“The Republic of Panama is henceforth under the protection of the United States,” Bunau-Varilla shouted. “The Canal treaty has just been signed.” To the Frenchman’s surprise, the elderly physician’s reaction was not joyful. “He nearly fainted upon the platform,” recollected the envoy.

Dr. Amador was overwhelmed by emotion and by history—by the events that had whirled him about and perhaps by his awareness that the stream of world commerce would one day flow through his nation, even though it was to be, in effect, a country partially occupied by a greater power.


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