America and the Panama Canal

To be ignorant of history is to remain always a child - Cicero
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Big Stick Diplomacy            Beginning of exhibit            Panama Canal

Many lives were lost to disease, particularly yellow fever, when the canal was built. It took 7 years to complete.

more on the building of the Panama Canal

The Path Between the Seas
by David McCullough

Panama book cover
more info

The idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific had been around since the Spanish discovered the americas. The French heavily invested in a canal project after their success with the Suez Canal in Egypt. But the problems in Central America were much greater than those of Egypt. The engineering challenge was enormous, the terrain very difficult, and the climate poisonous. However, a canal was important to the United States interests and Theodore Roosevelt was determined to complete the project. When the Spanish American war began with the destruction of the battleship Maine, the Oregon was on the Pacific coast. It made the journey around the tip of South America, barely arriving in time. It pointed out the great need for a shortcut to a nation bordering both oceans.

After debating on the most appropriate place for the canal, the United States Congress authorized Theodore Roosevelt to purchase the French assets and take over the Panama project. Panama, where the isthmus was located, was part of Colombia. Negotiators from both countries agreed upon terms, but Colombia rejected the treaty, holding out for more money. Angered, Roosevelt stopped negotiations and found another way to get the isthmus. He supported the Panamanian rebels in their fight for independence from Colombia. An American fleet was dispatched to both sides of the isthmus, blocking sea approaches. Colombian forces were forced into a land approach through the dense Darien jungle, and were forced to turn back. Panama achieved its independence. The United States acquired the lease to build the Panama Canal on very favorable terms with the newly independent country. The new country could not survive without American support.


Panama Canal Murals

Part of Uncle Sam Plants the Flag: American Imperialism in Latin America exhibit