Panama Canal

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been pulling clapboards off an old house, and has found a little history underneath.

(Lange) A few weeks ago we were pulling old clapboards off the house we’re working on. Behind them, someone had stuck some copies of the New Hampshire Farmer and Weekly Union. One of them had been printed exactly 100 years to the day before we exhumed it; another is datelined Wednesday, November 11, 1903.

As I scanned the tiny agate type, I came across several articles about a diplomatic dustup in Panama. The United States, fresh from the Philippines and Cuba, was at it again. I read the articles, then called my friend Professor Shewmaker, whose specialty is American foreign policy.

I hit pay dirt. He had his lecture on the subject right at hand. The theme was the Theodore Roosevelt administration’s lust for Panama. The story was how it satisfied it.

The idea of a canal had been around since the 1850s. Roosevelt made it the focus of his presidency. But the isthmus was under the thumb of the Colombian government, which was reluctant to cede, lease, or sell it. The failure of the French Panama Canal Company to complete the canal had left a sour taste. The people of Panama had revolted every year for 53 years, requiring an annual Colombian naval foray to reestablish order.

A French lobbyist, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, arrived in Washington with schemes to revive the project. He met with the president and his Secretary of State, John Hay. A prominent law firm in New York City was also involved.

In March of 1803 Hay negotiated a treaty with Colombia which would pay Colombia $10 million, plus an annual fee, for a 99-year lease on a strip of land across Panama. Congress ratified the treaty, but to the president’s dismay, the Colombians rejected it.

“A corrupt, pithecanthropoid community!” declared Roosevelt. Secretary Hay seconded him: “…greedy little anthropoids!” The administration seethed with desire to acquire the isthmus.

Though the Roosevelt White House kept meticulous records of meetings, there’s no record of any with Bunau-Varilla. Many years later, the aged Bunau-Varilla admitted that Roosevelt approved a plan to strip Colombia of Panama. He agreed to it with, literally, a wink and a nod.

On November 3, 1903, the Panamanians launched their 54th annual revolt. The very next day the United States recognized Panama, and the cruiser Boston arrived in Panama Harbor. The revolt succeeded.

On November 18th the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed. It ceded a canal zone in perpetuity, in which the United States was a sovereign power. Eleven years later the canal was completed.

“I’ve always been skeptical of conspiracy theories,” says Professor Shewmaker. “But this comes as close to the appearance of one as any other I know of.” Ah, the things you can learn pulling clapboards off old farmhouses!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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