History of Panama Canal

Essay by Smonkey January 2006

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The popular acclaim that carried Teddy Roosevelt to the governorship of New York didn't stop there. In 1900, Republicans nominated Teddy as President McKinley's running mate. McKinley won a second term, and Teddy was sworn in as vice-president. Six months later, an assassin's bullet killed McKinley. At age 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the nation's youngest president.

Roosevelt assumed the office with the same vigor with which he charged up Kettle Hill. A long believer in Captain Mahan's theory of sea power, Roosevelt began to revitalize the navy. Now that America's empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific, the old idea of a canal between the two oceans took on new urgency. Mahan had predicted that "the canal will become a strategic center of the most vital importance," and Teddy agreed.

"The canal," Roosevelt said, "was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President.

When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it."

Abandoned French machinery

in Panama, c. 1910-1914

Joining the Waters

In 1878 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who built the Suez Canal, began to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Colombia. Tropical disease and engineering problems halted construction on the canal, but a French business (the New Panama Canal Company) still held the rights to the project. Roosevelt agreed to pay $40 million for the rights, and he began to negotiate with Colombia for control of the land. He offered $10 million for a fifty-mile strip across the isthmus. Colombia refused.

"We were dealing with a government of irresponsible bandits," Roosevelt stormed. "I was prepared to . . . at once occupy the Isthmus anyhow, and proceed to dig the canal. But I deemed it likely that there...