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A transit of the Panama Canal aboard a ninety-foot yacht prompted the author to reflect on the waterway’s interesting history, which also produced some intriguing speculations about American engineering and foreign policy, both past and present. — JLA

by David Jones

Panama, once high in the consciousness of Americans, has now largely dropped from their mental maps. Once the textbook illustration of early twentieth-century U. S. imperial outreach or dynamic American engineering accomplishment, it has now become consigned to a tertiary concern of Central America specialists. Panama and its canal nevertheless remain worthy of more than an intellectual or literary revisit. Prompted by recent travel and a coast-to-coast canal transit, I offer a few personal insights.

According to the throwaway line, Americans learn geography from their wars. Recently, for example, they have “learned” the location of Afghanistan and Iraq (and now maybe even Iran). Following the withdrawal of U. S. forces from the Panama Canal Zone and the transfer of canal administration to the Panamanian government, however, direct American interest in the country sagged. Perhaps the last time Washington paid significant, though fleeting, attention to Panama occurred in 1989 when Operation Just Cause jettisoned Panamanian strongman-thug Manuel Noriega and effectively demilitarized the country. The geography learned by one generation is either never acquired or quickly forgotten by the next.

For the boomer generation and its parents, though, the Panama Canal remains a compelling tale about realizing an epic vision through a combination of ruthless executive leadership, innovative engineering, and won’t-quit execution that overcame massive obstacles. That eleven-year effort (1903-1914) witnessed the reinvention of “Panama” as something other than a dangling province of Colombia. In its place emerged an Atlantic-Pacific waterway connection eliminating the requirement to sail to the Antarctic and back if one wanted to travel between New York and San Francisco without changing equipment and crew. The Panama Canal represented early twentieth-century America’s “moon shot”, and, in contrast to the transient lunar explorations of the Sixties and Seventies, the canal still operates.

One can therefore draw even currently valuable foreign policy lessons from Teddy Roosevelt’s unilateral commitment to nation building in Panama and to construction of a canal despite being faced with vigorous debate, congressional opposition to a “lock” canal, massive expense, and far from trivial human losses. Still other lessons emerge from Teddy’s ability to secure congressional support and maintain public enthusiasm, and from the fact that he and his successors delivered the canal ahead of time, under budget, and corruption free.

The story makes for great history. Nobody tells the tale better than David McCullough in his 1977 epic Path Between the Seas. As a reading experience, Path remains outstanding. Perhaps someday, someone comparably worthy will revisit the topic and successfully supplement McCullough; at this point, he remains as defining for the Panama Canal as Douglas Southall Freeman for Lee’s Lieutenants. 

A Mini History Lesson. Panama emerged as a Spanish colonial holding shortly after Rodrigo de Bastidas, sailing westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, became the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama. A year later, Columbus visited the isthmus and established a short-lived settlement at Darien. In 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa trekked from the Atlantic to view the Pacific. His successors recognized the obvious: it was a tough path on the way to East Asia, but shorter than any other. Panama consequently evolved as the crossroads of Spain’s New World empire with gold and silver shipped from the west coast of South America, hauled across the isthmus, and then shuffled on to Spain. In return, trade goods from Spain headed south to Spain’s Pacific coast colonies. Fragments of the original trans-isthmus path remain, along with tales of how in 1671 Sir Henry Morgan’s English strike force comprehensively ravaged and looted both coasts, including burning Panama City.

The Spanish legacy lasted from 1538 to 1821, when Panama became part of an independent Colombia. The area generated U. S. attention starting with California gold rush, when many forty-niners seeking a quick way west judged the perils of disease in the fifty-mile isthmian transit as less, and certainly much quicker, than those of a “round the Horn” sea voyage. North American entrepreneurs, surmounting classic challenges of climate and disease, completed the continent’s first “transcontinental” railroad in 1855, making it possible to transit the isthmus in a day, for the then princely sum of $25 to ride or $10 to walk the tracks.

Though a canal became the obvious next step, it represented an even longer, more expensive, and very deadly effort.

Building the Canal. 
From 1880 to 1890, a French corporation under Ferdinand de Lesseps, successful builder of the hundred mile long Suez Canal, attempted to construct a sea-level canal through Panama. A catastrophic failure, the effort cost upwards of 20,000 lives and bankrupted the corporation. Prompted by the strategic naval concerns highlighted by the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the challenges of trying to fight in both the Atlantic (Cuba) and the Pacific (Philippines), the United States seized on the need for an isthmian canal.

The debate over where to build, Nicaragua versus Panama, and what to build, sea level versus locks, has left a fascinating diplomatic and political legacy. An unpropitious volcanic eruption and a postage stamp scuttled the Nicaragua option, momentarily putting Colombia in the catbird seat. When its legislature overplayed its hand regarding the financial price of U. S. access, Teddy lost patience. As the State Department’s fact sheet on Panama judiciously puts it, “In November 1903, with U. S. encouragement [italics added], Panama proclaimed its independence and concluded the Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States.” In reality Washington orchestrated and facilitated a Panamanian liberation movement that achieved a bloodless coup lest the Columbian province lose its chance to become the site of an isthmian canal. In return, the United States received an immensely favorable “zone” in perpetuity.

Having gotten what they wanted, Americans were almost undone by the consequences of success. Throwing themselves into the construction process (“make the dirt fly”), Americans blithely assumed that U. S. can-do-ism would make quick work of what had frustrated the effete French. They soon learned, however, that the French, who attempted to build a sea-level canal, were as much unlucky as incompetent. Americans quickly found themselves hampered by the same combination of debilitating climate and deadly disease that had defeated the French. The first U. S. chief engineer just quit–partly from fear of disease. Rumor had it that he and his wife had brought coffins with them.

The second chief engineer, John Stevens, started by saying “stop.” Although a civilian, he demonstrated that military maxim that amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics. Stevens stopped digging and concentrated on solving medical and disease problems and constructing a railroad net extensive and heavy enough to move massive amounts of debris. The chief medical specialist, the army’s Colonel William Gorgas, directed a mosquito suppression campaign that would turn white the hair of modern environmentalists. He drained swamps (now known as precious “wet lands”) and used oil to coat water and kill insect larvae. His methods eliminated yellow fever (the disease that most terrified the work force) and greatly reduced malaria. That changed the construction job from deadly dangerous to merely massively difficult.

Roosevelt made another army officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Goethals, the project’s third chief engineer. (Stevens had quit in a never fully explained fit of pique that so infuriated the president that he never mentioned Stevens in his autobiography’s long section on the Panama Canal.) A military officer and more goal-oriented than his predecessors, Goethals appealed to Roosevelt, who had said in effect that he wanted a man who wouldn’t quit until he said he could. (An army officer of that era probably couldn’t spell “quit.”)

In the end, the U. S. excavation effort cost 5,600 lives and moved 225 million cubic yards of rock and earth, approximately sufficient to build a barrier the equivalent of the Great Wall of China between New York City and San Francisco. The project also created the world’s largest earth-filled dam (Gatun) and its second largest artificial lake (Gatun Lake). If tipped on end, the locks at 1,000 feet would have stood higher than the Eifel Tower (and almost twice the 555 foot Washington Monument). Opening just as Europe went to war, the canal’s inaugural almost completely lost out to the roar of the Great War’s guns of August.

Accepting a mammoth national challenge, the United States had eagerly undertaken to build the canal, overcame some serious reverses, regrouped, refocused, changed leadership, and brought the project to a successful conclusion.

And Today. Physically, the canal remains tremendously impressive, especially so because its original, century-old channels, locks, lock gates, dams, and construction work remain in use. Some of the construction processes also set precedents: e.g., using concrete without steel reinforcing bars for massive constructions such as locks.

Transiting the canal takes eight to ten hours, depending on “traffic.” Starting on the Atlantic side, a vessel goes “uphill” when lifted eighty-five feet through the three-stage Gatun locks and then sailing across the Gatun Lake through the Culebra Cut. This “cut” represents the most difficult portion of the Panama Canal’s construction, digging an 1,800-foot channel through nine miles of rock. A westbound vessel then goes “down hill” to the Pacific, first through the single stage Pedro Miguel lock and then the double-stage Miraflores lock.

Watching these locks in operation cannot fail to impress and fascinate, using fifty-two million gallons to raise a vessel (and an equal loss when one goes “down hill”). Despite handling such large volumes of water, the locks operate smoothly and efficiently; the time involved appeared minimal for both getting water into the locks and lowering it to move our vessel up and down through the lock set. 

Canal Expansion. To understand the canal, you must appreciate the ecology of Panama. Although it might appear obvious, water makes a canal work. The Suez Canal, a sea-level canal, uses readily available seawater. The Panama Canal is a “lock” canal, using chambers filled and emptied with water to raise or lower the vessels transiting a range of mountains. The water for the passage of the ships comes from damming the Chagres (“crocodile”) River to create the huge man-made Gatun Lake. Very heavy rains (over 100″ per year on the Atlantic and 200″ per year on the Pacific sides) filtered through rain forests provide the massive amounts of water required. No rain forests would mean no quality water to feed the dammed lakes that in turn send water into the locks. The Panamanians increasingly focus on preserving these forests–good ecological practice for 21st century environmentalists though really a reflection of the canal’s needs.

Ecological arguments as well as economic, political, and sociological debate thus affect plans for the canal’s future. One could, for example, seriously argue that the devastation accompanying the original construction, which reportedly laid waste to the ground for five miles on each side of the canal, would be unacceptable in a twenty-first century expansion of the canal. The point for expansion, however, is the increasing percentage of world shipping now exceeding “Panamax” dimensions, the 110-foot by 1,000-foot dimensions of the locks.

A proposal of long standing includes installation of a third set of locks designed for supertanker-size vessels (or for warships the size of U. S. S. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers). Extensively debated in Panama, that proposal must overcome its projected six to eight billion dollar cost, something beyond trivial for a country of three million. Moreover, only an insignificant percentage of the current global “Panamax” shipping actually uses the canal; the proportion of the supertanker fleet that would use an expanded canal remains unknown. Additionally, the local Catholic Church reportedly opposes expansion because it would increase the country’s debt load and detract from attacking poverty’s problems in some sections of the country. Other Panamanians express concern for the possibility of additional damage to the ecosystem, although a more efficient new set of locks would supposedly use less water. Still others argue that increased transshipment of containers, perhaps by upgrading the railroad, would suffice at much less cost.

Pressure nevertheless grows in favor of expanding the canal, or constructing a totally new route in Nicaragua. Some of the Nicaragua route rumors probably aim only to spark a competitive reaction among Panamanians. Though not officially announced, a referendum on canal expansion seems certain in the relatively near term. Unsurprisingly, the Panamanian government is said to be calculating the date most likely to secure maximum support.

Several things increase the likelihood of a favorable vote: A very significant part of the proposed new locks has already been built, along with a spare set of lock gates. Between approximately 1940 and 1943, the U. S. Army dug a good portion of the channel for those proposed locks but stopped construction to focus on World War II. Construction, some therefore claim, could proceed relatively quickly and with no need to use nuclear explosives for the excavation, as hypothesized in some earlier studies.

On the other hand, the likelihood that new construction would match the record of the original canal (completed ahead of time and under budget) remains questionable. Nor could the total absence of corruption, another remarkable quality of the 1903-14 construction, be guaranteed. The most challenging issue might be whether environmentalists could ever accept the massive ecological disruption that would accompany expansion.

The Panama Canal remains an accomplishment for which the United States can take serious pride–even if a Chinese firm now manages the port, albeit from a distance; the Japanese provide the electric locomotive engines, once a GE specialty; Spanish has become the working language of the canal, along with the descriptions in the principal museum devoted to the canal; and Japan and China have become the countries most wanting an expanded canal. Nor should anyone anticipate that anything on the scale of the canal built today would last a century in solid working condition. 

Just Cause and U. S.-Panama Bilateral Relations. Not surprisingly, Panamanians remain highly cognizant of American political and military power. Our treaty agreement grants the United States the right to assure the neutrality of the canal, a provision wide enough into which one might drop the 82nd Airborne Division. At one point, our guide gave an idiosyncratic portrayal of the U. S. liberation of Panama in 1989, suggesting massive civilian casualties in the process. As I was the Army Chief of Staff’s foreign affairs advisor in the Pentagon at the time, I presented an alternative view, noting in passing that Noriega had declared war on the United States. (Noriega’s declaration suggests that in 1989 he did not highly regard our pre-Gulf War armed forces.) 

Some Surprises.

— Odd Geography. This European and Asian scholar must ruefully confess persistent ignorance of the United States’ southern neighbors. Finding that Panama lies in the same time zone as Washington and Atlanta became a pleasant surprise for one who recognizes that jet lag makes the after effects of “getting there” none of the fun. Likewise, those believing that all good things begin on the East Coast are surprised to discover that Panama City, no sleepy tropical capital, lies on the Pacific coast. A vibrant, surging city of over one and a half million (sixty percent of Panama’s population) Panama City has a mushrooming, high-rise skyline and over two hundred banks. Whether some of them have more in common with laundromats than standard financial institutions remains another story.

— A Path, Not a Superhighway. I somehow also had the impression that ships moved through the canal in a virtual elephant train of nose-to-tail constant action. Despite operating 24/7 with full lighting along parts of the canal, the system handles little more than forty ships per day–and the average, according to one canal expert, rarely exceeds twenty-nine to thirty-one, figures that include the occasional trivial pleasure yacht.

In double sets, the locks can handle two vessels at a time going in the same direction or two going in opposite directions. For greater efficiency, the canal’s operators push traffic into the canal using both locks in the morning and out to the oceans on the opposite side in the evenings.

— Unfinished Pan-American Highway. This highway presently stops (or, from another perspective. begins) in Panama. The southbound connection to Colombia remains unfinished. A key nature preserve lies in the path of the highway and, perhaps more important, unarmed Panama sees the terrain as a buffer against the narco-violence characterizing Colombia.

— Valuable, but Not a Huge Money Maker. Canal transit costs are determined according to complex formulas assessing tonnage and passengers. Our guide reported a $200,000 maximum cost for a passenger cruise ship sailing approximately half way through the canal and then returning to its point of entry. A relatively standard container carrier might pay about $40,000, a figure still significantly lower than costs associated with the two to three weeks required to sail around South America. Our ninety-foot yacht paid a thousand dollars to make the transit. (One passenger dubbed it the “Panama Queen” in memory of the rather battered boat, “African Queen”, made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. We learned that Richard Halliburton paid the lowest toll–36 cents, when he swam the length of the canal, something now prohibited.

Inconspicuous and Feeble Security. The vulnerability of the canal appears obvious, the gates being the clearest point of weakness, but many others are discernable. Other than a rather cursory inspection of the airport variety at one lock’s observation site, we observed no other security. The massive U. S. force presence that previously provided protection has become history. Whether existing Panamanian security could thwart new threats remains untested.

Conclusion. During their history, Americans undertook vast feats of construction within the continental United States, many of which are now irrelevant. Few of us have much interest in such great projects of the past as the Erie Canal or even the transcontinental railroads. We have become well aware of the failure of some more recent works, though the overwhelmed levees around New Orleans speak as much to the hubris of attempting to build a city below sea level as of engineering shortcomings. Other great works now appear imprudent, even when they demonstrate superior engineering. Does building the world’s tallest building simply provide enemies with their tallest target?

Despite those present doubts, the Panama Canal demonstrates that even a century ago the United States possessed outstanding engineering competence, an excellence that remains undiminished. The canal serves clear and continuing national strategic interests, and the United States will remain deeply engaged with it for the indefinite future. There is no better way to appreciate what a sustained commitment of both dollars and lives can accomplish than transiting the canal “up close and personal.”End.


David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively for American and Canadian publications.


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