In1825, a group of American businesspeople announced the formation of a canalbuilding company, with interests in constructing a canal system across theIsthmus. This project was to take place in an area now called Panama.
Theendeavor was filled with controversy. Though the canal itself was not builtuntil the early 1900’s every step toward the building and ownership, wassaturated with difficulty. Walter LaFeber illustrates the dilemmas in ahistorical analysis. In his work he states five questions that address thesignificance of the Panama Canal to United States. This paper will discuss thehistorical perspective of the book’s author, address pertinent three questionsand give a critique of LaFeber’s work, The Panama Canal. For proper historicalanalysis one must understand the importance of the Canal. The Panama Canal andthe Canal Zone (the immediate area surrounding the Canal) are important areasused for trade. Even before the canal was built there were to large ports onboth sides of the Isthmus.
Large amounts of cargo passed through the Isthmus bya railroad that connected the two ports. The most important cargo was the goldmined in California before the transcontinental railroad was completed in theUnited States. It has strategic significance because of its location, acting asa gateway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This allows for rapidnaval deployment between fleets in either ocean.
These two facets make thePanama Canal very important in the region. LaFeber notes that Panamaniannationalism played a large role in the creation of the canal and, consequently,the cause for the area’s constant instability. The first expression occurred inthe late 1800’s with Panamanian struggle for independence from Columbia. TheUnited States eager to build the canal, and control its operation, used andbacked Panamanian nationalist. During the Roosevelt administration, not only didthe United States manipulate factors isolating Panama from other world powersthrough the Monroe Doctrine; but it committed troops aiding the revolutionariesagainst another sovereign state. The reason this is a surprise is because theRoosevelt administration normally held a position favoring stability. The UnitedStates had no legal right to use force against Columbia.
Nationalism came backto haunt the United States. With the treaty signed and a 99-year lease given tothe United States, the Canal was built. Since then, the United States has variedon its stance of ownership and the principles of sovereignty concerning theCanal. The ever persistent debate of who owns the Canal and who should havesovereign control over it, has not been solved.
The United States hasoccasionally attempted to “claim” the Canal zone through variousmethods such as military occupation, exclusion of Panamanians for important jobsin Canal operations and even through the customary aspect of international law.However, each time the Panamanians have managed to maintain claim to the Canaldespite the United State’s imperialistic posturing to get it. The most recentand notorious of the United States’ attempts to annex the Canal Zone was duringthe Reagan administration. President Reagan said that the Canal Zone could beequated 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 ownthe Zone or enjoy all sovereign rights in it.” He uses the treaty of 1936in Article III that states, “The Canal Zone is the territory of theRepublic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the United States.
” The entiretopic was summed up neatly by Ellsworth Bunker, a negotiator in the region, whenhe said, “We bought Louisiana; we bought Alaska. In Panama we bought notterritory, but rights.” A second important question, is the Canal a vitalinterest to the United States? LaFeber gives three points suggesting that it isnot. First, the importance of the Canal decreased after 1974, because of the endof the Vietnam War and all related military traffic ceased. Second, is the ageof the antique machinery dating back to 1914. Inevitably the machinery will needto be replaced. Lastly, the size of the new tankers and cargo ships. Thecapacity 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 awar is taking place. It is circumstantial in providing a solid reason forincreased traffic through the Zone. This can easily change through and emergenceof a new conflict or trading habits of other countries. Thirdly, why have thePanamanians insisted on assuming total control of the Canal. The Panamanians aremaking millions of dollars annually and the United States run the Canalefficiently. LaFeber points in the direction of economics as the principalfactor and nationalism as secondary. The Panamanians fear the amount of reliancethey have on U.
S. investments. The fear is enhanced by the large dependence oftheir national economy on MNC’s, American banks and mining companies. LaFebercontinues saying that Panamanians find it difficult to cross the Zone because ofcheck points and resent their country being split in half.
Continuing he assertsthat perhaps if the Panamanians were to have complete control the Zone theamount of revenue would increase. Panamanians could also develop spinoffindustries such as drydocks and ship building creating an increase in profits.Walter LaFeber develops a persuasive argument for the interpretation ofhistorical events surrounding the creation of the Panama Canal. As is consistentwith other LaFeber’s works, his research and fact finding technique in ThePanama Canal is complete if not exhaustive. He presents an objective outlook onissues surrounding the Canal.
He uses a historical approach in presenting hiscontribution to a subject that is lacking in information and scholarlyexamination. In conclusion, this paper has addressed the historical perspectivethat the author of the book used. A discussion also included three importantquestions concerning the Canal, its importance and the relationship between theUnited States and Panama. Furthermore, this paper examines the effectiveness andusefulness of LaFeber’s, The Panama Canal.Education