Panama Canal

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. 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.

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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.