The Panama Canal Essay

American Foreign Policy
November 30, 1994
In 1825, a group of American businesspeople announced the
formation of a canal building company, with interests in constructing a
canal system across the Isthmus. This project was to take place in an
area now called Panama. The endeavor was filled with controversy.
Though the canal itself was not built until the early 1900’s every step
toward the building and ownership, was saturated with difficulty.
Walter LaFeber illustrates the dilemmas in a historical analysis. In
his work he states five questions that address the significance of the
Panama Canal to United States. This paper will discuss the historical
perspective of the book’s author, address pertinent three questions and
give a critique of LaFeber’s work, The Panama Canal.

For proper historical analysis one must understand the
importance of the Canal. The Panama Canal and the Canal Zone (the
immediate area surrounding the Canal) are important areas used for
trade. Even before the canal was built there were to large ports on
both sides of the Isthmus. Large amounts of cargo passed through the
Isthmus by a railroad that connected the two ports. The most important
cargo was the gold mined in California before the transcontinental
railroad was completed in the United States. It has strategic
significance because of its location, acting as a gateway connecting the
Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This allows for rapid naval deployment
between fleets in either ocean. These two facets make the Panama Canal
very important in the region.

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LaFeber notes that Panamanian nationalism played a large role in
the creation of the canal and, consequently, the cause for the area’s
constant instability. The first expression occurred in the late 1800’s
with Panamanian struggle for independence from Columbia. The United
States eager to build the canal, and control its operation, used and
backed Panamanian nationalist. During the Roosevelt administration, not
only did the United States manipulate factors isolating Panama from
other world powers through the Monroe Doctrine; but it committed troops
aiding the revolutionaries against another sovereign state. The reason
this is a surprise is because the Roosevelt administration normally held
a position favoring stability. The United States had no legal right to
use force against Columbia.
Nationalism came back to haunt the United States. With the
treaty signed and a 99-year lease given to the United States, the Canal
was built. Since then, the United States has varied on its stance of
ownership and the principles of sovereignty concerning the Canal. The
ever persistent debate of who owns the Canal and who should have
sovereign control over it, has not been solved. The United States has
occasionally attempted to “claim” the Canal zone through various methods
such as military occupation, exclusion of Panamanians for important jobs
in Canal operations and even through the customary aspect of
international law. However, each time the Panamanians have managed to
maintain claim to the Canal despite the United State’s imperialistic
posturing to get it.
The most recent and notorious of the United States’ attempts to
annex the Canal Zone was during the Reagan administration. President
Reagan said that the Canal Zone could be equated as a sovereign
territory equal to that of Alaska. The question here is, was he
correct? LaFeber points out that, “the United States does not own the
Zone or enjoy all sovereign rights in it.” He uses the treaty of 1936 in
Article III that states, “The Canal Zone is the territory of the
Republic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the United States.” The
entire topic was summed up neatly by Ellsworth Bunker, a negotiator in
the region, when he said, “We bought Louisiana; we bought Alaska. In
Panama we bought not territory, but rights.”
A second important question, is the Canal a vital interest to
the United States? LaFeber gives three points suggesting that it is
not. First, the importance of the Canal decreased after 1974, because
of the end of the Vietnam War and all related military traffic ceased.
Second, is the age of the antique machinery dating back to 1914.
Inevitably the machinery will need to be replaced.Lastly, the size of
the new tankers and cargo ships. The capacity of the canal is too small
to handle such a large amount of tonnage. These are viable factors;
however, the first argument is concerning whether a war is taking place.
It is circumstantial in providing a solid reason for increased traffic
through the Zone. This can easily change through and emergence of a new
conflict or trading habits of other countries.

Thirdly, why have the Panamanians insisted on assuming total
control of the Canal. The Panamanians are making millions of dollars
annually and the United States run the Canal efficiently. LaFeber
points in the direction of economics as the principal factor and
nationalism as secondary. The Panamanians fear the amount of reliance
they have on U.S. investments. The fear is enhanced by the large
dependence of their national economy on MNC’s, American banks and mining
companies. LaFeber continues saying that Panamanians find it difficult
to cross the Zone because of check points and resent their country being
split in half. Continuing he asserts that perhaps if the Panamanians
were to have complete control the Zone the amount of revenue would
increase. Panamanians could also develop spinoff industries such as
drydocks and ship building creating an increase in profits.

Walter LaFeber develops a persuasive argument for the
interpretation of historical events surrounding the creation of the
Panama Canal. As is consistent with other LaFeber’s works, his research
and fact finding technique in The Panama Canal is complete if not
exhaustive. He presents an objective outlook on issues surrounding the
Canal. He uses a historical approach in presenting his contribution to
a subject that is lacking in information and scholarly examination.

In conclusion, this paper has addressed the historical
perspective that the author of the book used. A discussion also
included three important questions concerning the Canal, its importance
and the relationship between the United States and Panama. Furthermore,
this paper examines the effectiveness and usefulness of LaFeber’s, The
Panama Canal.


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