Military Significance of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal (Source:

The Panama Canal (Source:

While few commentators doubt the commercial benefits of the Panama Canal, many question the canal’s continued military significance. Much of that is due to the presence of United States naval fleets around the world and the canal’s inability to accommodate the larger ships. That said, one military event served as the catalyst for America’s drive to acquire the right to build the canal.

In the early days of the Spanish-American War, the battleship Oregon was in San Francisco when the Maine’s explosion in Havana served as America’s excuse to declare war on Spain. The Oregon took more than two months to sail from San Francisco to Palm Beach, Florida. Had there been a suitable canal across the Isthmus of Panama, the Oregon’s journey would have been 4,000 miles rather than 12,000. America’s acquisition of the Philippines enhanced America’s role in the Pacific. Whether or not politicians chose to accept the label, America had become an empire that required a greater naval presence around the globe and less obstacles in the path of American warships.

During World War II, the Panama Canal served as a deterrent to Germany and Japan, as the Canal gave the United States Navy the strategic flexibility to make up for the numerical disadvantage of the United States fleet. [] The Canal also shortened the Army’s supply line. While the Canal allowed the United States strategic flexibility, it also posed an attractive target for the enemy.

USS Missouri passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 (Source:

USS Missouri passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 (Source:

The United States had implemented several measures in 1939 to protect the Canal: special equipment to detect underwater mines in the lock chambers; restriction of commercial traffic to one side of the dual locks; and inspection of all ships before they entered the Canal. Once the United States entered the war, the government reached agreements with neighboring countries to allow the United States to install or expand naval installations in the region to provide a protective ring for the Canal.

The Canal has lost much of its strategic usefulness, particularly with the Navy’s reliance on aircraft carrier-centric fleets and the construction of other ships too large to pass through the Canal. That, together with the Canal’s vulnerability to attack, allowed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support the 1979 Carter-Torrijos treaty, which returned the Canal to Panama in 2000. [Creighton, “Panama Canal Role Fades for Military,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1988] For an account about the challenges the Canal poses for aircraft carriers, see “Towing the Big E,” Daily Press (July 29, 2012).


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Frederick Law Olmsted – Central Park and More

Through his writing, his farming experience, and his social and publishing contacts, Olmsted had established the credentials that won him the Central Park directorship in September 1857. Half the battle was won. He still had to fight for the new park’s design.

Calvert Vaux (Source:

Calvert Vaux (Source:

To his benefit, the architect Calvert Vaux solicited Olmsted to partner with him in the design competition. The London-born Vaux had won substantial recognition when he came to work as Andrew Jackson Downing’s assistant seven years earlier. After his initial hesitation, Olmsted joined forces with Vaux. The two men were awarded the design along with a $2,000 prize ($60,000 in today’s money) in April, 1858. Their plan had to accommodate the traffic of a large city while affording a 700-acre country-like setting to the park’s visitors. The designers did this largely by building four transverse roads that ran beneath pedestrian traffic.

Olmsted biographer Laura Roper highlighted the fact that the label “landscape architect” was new to the American lexicon:

With Central Park, Vaux and Olmsted stood at the beginning of the life work that was to raise them and their calling to recognized professional standing. Olmsted understood well that this first essay in the creation of beautiful and extensive landscape for public enjoyment was an important departure for the art in the United States, making its benefits available not to a privileged few but to citizens generally.   – Roper, FLO, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, p. 144 (emphasis added).

While Vaux’s name is seldom mentioned when commentators speak of Central Park, Vaux’s contribution was every bit equal to that of Olmsted.

Over the next nine years, Olmsted worked off and on with Vaux on the Central Park project. The “off” came with the Civil War, when Olmsted directed his energies to the private Sanitary Commission, a medical philanthropy that provided severely needed support to the Union army during the Civil War. Olmsted served as Executive Secretary of the commission. Both in New York and on the battlefield, Olmsted found his greatest obstacles were political – Central Park’s controller in New York and a host of politicians, especially the army’s surgeon general, in Washington. In both instances, Olmsted learned to work around the obstacles. During the Civil War, he won praise from both Lincoln and Grant for his work on behalf of the troops.

Despite his contribution to the care of the Union soldiers, Olmsted grew tired of the politics, and was persuaded by Charles Dana in August, 1863, to take leadership of the Mariposa Company, the struggling gold mining company that occupied 70 square miles in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The land had originally been claimed in 1847 by John Fremont, the adventurer who ran as the Republican Party’s first candidate for President in 1856. Whether due to too little gold or poor business acumen, Fremont managed only to run up debts. Despite Olmsted’s best efforts, the mining company remained unprofitable, and Olmsted left his post in the fall of 1865.

Photo Yosemite National Park

Photo I took at Olmsted Point in Yosemite National Park

Olmsted did not leave California empty-handed. While there, he fell in love with Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias. He wrote in support of protecting the land from private development. His work earned him appointment to the first Yosemite Commission. For the rest of his life, he continued to support the landmark’s preservation for public enjoyment. (Yosemite was designated as a National Park in 1890.)

In the summer of 1865, Olmsted and Vaux were reappointed as landscape architects to Central Park. With an annual salary of $5,000 (at a time when the average annual wage was around $350), Olmsted could return to the profession for which he was most suited. With the rebellion and Mariposa behind him, he was ready to build his legacy as America’s premier landscape architect. That legacy included parks in Boston, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Milwaukee, among others.

He did miss the mark once when he said San Francisco’s climate and topography precluded construction of any park similar to New York’s. Mining engineer William Hammon Hall proved him wrong with Golden Gate Park. But unlike many inflated egos, Olmsted later confessed error and had only praise for the accomplishment. Olmsted’s work included a proposal ultimately put into effect at the United States Capitol – broad marble terraces on each side of the Capitol Building, providing a formal transition from the building to the mall extending to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Whether one visits New York City or San Francisco, the nation’s capital or Yosemite – to mention only a few – the visitor likely sees some significant contribution by America’s preeminent landscape architect. His legacy continues to reward those of us fortunate enough to witness his achievements.


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Frederick Law Olmsted – Before Central Park

Frederick Law Olmsted (Source:

A younger Frederick Law Olmsted (Source:

In the world of landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for his first major project, New York City’s Central Park. But one must know Olmsted’s interests and accomplishments before Central Park to grasp a full understanding of the man.

Born the son of a prosperous Connecticut merchant in 1822, Olmsted received a smattering of schooling, less than one term at the university level, but more than most men of his day. Pampered by an indulging father, Olmsted spent most of his formative years meandering from one interest to another.

At 21, Olmsted attempted to find some direction in life by going to sea. His service on a ship bound for China taught him that he was not cut out for a seafaring life. Service was hard. Officers took the best food and treated crewmen little better than slaves. Then, of course, came the seasickness. Olmsted returned home in 1844, not hale and hearty as he might have hoped when he left New York Harbor, but an ill skeleton of his former self. The experience led him in later years to advocate for a professional merchant marine, where officers and crew were bound by rules and regulations rather than by cruel captains meting out harsh punishment to the dregs of society.

No surprise, Olmsted’s interest shifted from the sea to land. He apprenticed with family friends who owned a Connecticut farm. He pursued an active social life and attended numerous lectures as an informal means of continuing his education. He tried Yale, but left before the end of the term. He returned to farming, and wanted to work on a model farm where he could enhance his scientific approach to farming. In a New York editorial office, he met and impressed Andrew Jackson Downing, the preeminent authority on gardening and domestic architecture. With Downing’s reference in hand, Olmsted landed an apprenticeship at George Geddes’s New York farm, Fairmont.

Olmsted stayed at Fairmont only six months, but with lessons learned from his service, he persuaded his father to purchase a 70-acre farm, Sachem’s Head, on Staten Island. The island was home to a number of prominent families, including the Vanderbilts. While he brought the farm up to snuff, Olmsted had difficulty remaining still. In 1850, he traveled to England with his brother John and their friend, Charles Loring Brace. While there, he saw the first public parks he had ever seen, parks open to everyone. No such parks had been set aside in America’s cities. He was smitten by the idea that large open spaces should be open to everyone, not just the wealthy.

After his travel, Olmsted directed his attention to writing, primarily about farming. His writing included a compilation of his travel journal, molded into Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England in 1852.

Although he considered slavery evil, Olmsted had little tolerance for abolitionists. He wanted to take a different tact, one analyzing slavery purely from an economic viewpoint. In December 1852, he set out to interview slaves and slave owners for a series of New York Daily-Times (now the Times) articles. He came to the conclusion that the slave economy benefited neither master nor slave. Slaves were kept in a perpetual state of ignorance and had no incentive to improve their performance.

Free Northern laborers were two to four times as productive as slaves in comparable tasks. In the few cases where slaves received some form of reward for productivity, the slaves worked harder. Thus, apart from the immorality of the practice, the “peculiar institution” was economically inferior to free labor. Olmsted’s observations converted him to the cause of abolition.

Not all went well for Olmsted. He joined a publishing venture, Putnam Magazine, with literary colleagues. While the magazine received widespread literary acclaim, it failed as a financial venture. After that failure he was not sure where his life was headed.

In August 1857, Olmsted traveled to Morris Cove, Connecticut, to work on a book. While at tea one day, he sat next to a member of New York’s new Central Park commission. Life would never be the same.


  1. Roper, Laura Wood, Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore: 1973).
  2. Martin, Justin, Genius of Place, Da Capo Press (Philadelphia: 2011).
  3. Rybczynski, Witold, Clearing in the Distance, Scribner (New York: 1999).

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The Panama Canal – And Then Came the Americans

Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal under construction, in 1906 (Source: BBC)

Roosevelt visits the Panama Canal under construction, in 1906 (Source: BBC)

Teddy Roosevelt wanted to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, and no one was going to stop him. First, we need to remember that before the Americans began the massive engineering project, what we now know as Panama was part of Colombia. When the Colombian government did not agree to the terms desired by the Roosevelt administration, the United States supported a junta-led rebellion that otherwise would have been crushed by the Colombian military.

The United States sent gunboats to both shores and a battleship to Colón, Panama to insure success of the rebellion. The collaboration included a French engineer (and investor in the earlier French project, who stood to gain significantly when the United States compensated the French company for its rights) who immediately after the rebellion negotiated an agreement with Secretary of State John Hay on behalf of the junta. The terms included United States sovereignty over a ten-mile-wide swath of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This was not one of those bright, shining moments in United States history.

Once the United States took control of what would become the Panama Canal Zone, the Isthmus Canal Commission, the governing body of the zone, had to conquer the enemy that had ground the French to a halt – the yellow fever- and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Timing is everything. In 1880, French Army Surgeon Charles Laveran first discovered parasites in the blood of a patient suffering from malaria. In 1886, 1890, and 1897, Italian scientists made further discoveries about the specific malaria parasites. Also in 1897, British medical officer Ronald Ross demonstrated that malaria parasites could be transmitted from patients to mosquitoes and from bird to bird, and that the parasites could be developed in and spread by mosquitoes.

During the American occupation of Havana after the Spanish-American War, army surgeons developed programs that reduced mosquito breeding, thereby eradicating yellow fever and greatly reducing malaria. In 1904, Colonel W.C. Gorgas applied the lessons of Cuba in a seven-prong program to attack mosquito breeding in tropical Panama: draining pools near villages and homes; cutting brush and grass near villages and homes; using oil to kill mosquito larvae where drainage was not possible; spreading larvacide where oiling was ineffective; dispensing quinine to workers as a prophylactic measure; screening government buildings and living quarters (screening for living quarters was limited largely to quarters for white workers); killing adult mosquitoes found in houses during the daytime.

Just as in Cuba, the program largely eradicated yellow fever and dramatically reduced deaths from malaria. Hospitalizations for malaria decreased from 9.6% of employees in 1905 to 1.6% in 1909.

As I said earlier, timing is everything. Without the discoveries made in the decades preceding the United States’ success in Panama, the Americans may well have met the same fate as their French predecessors.


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Before the Americans Built the Panama Canal

Before it became a republic, Panama was a department within the country of Colombia. Before the Americans built the Panama Canal, the French attempted to build one. And before the French attempted to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the French and the Egyptians built the sea-level Suez Canal, which on November 17, 1869, knocked six thousand miles off the nautical journey from Western Europe to India.

As a young diplomat and entrepreneur, but not an engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps achieved great fame for orchestrating what many said could not be done – constructing a canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His role was that of promoter extraordinaire, convincing the Egyptian viceroy of the merits of the massive engineering project. Egypt put up half of the money and 25,000 Frenchmen put up the other half. Upon completion of the canal, de Lesseps was honored as the world’s greatest living Frenchman. [Parker, Panama Fever, Doubleday Edition, pp. 50-51 (first published in the United Kingdom by Hutchinson in 2007)]

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

De Lesseps was 64 years old when the Suez Canal opened. One might think he would have rested on his laurels. But men had dreamed of a nautical passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific since 1513, when Balboa laid eyes on the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. De Lesseps thought he was just the man to turn the dream into reality.

When an international group to study the prospects for an interoceanic canal assembled in Paris in 1879, the Suez Canal was paying investors 14% annual dividends. De Lessep’s primary opponent to the sea-level concept was a French civil engineer, Godin de Lepinay. De Lepinay recommended constructing a series of locks on either end of the canal, the approach the Americans ultimately would adopt after conceding the futility of a sea-level canal.

Panama presented a host of problems that Egypt did not: a complex mountain chain, a tropical jungle, 105 inches of annual rainfall, and endemic diseases for which the real culprit (mosquitoes) had not been identified. But hubris is a terrible fault. Virtually all of Western Civilization had spent the past ten years extolling de Lesseps as the man who had accomplished what most men had said was impossible.

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Blinded by praise, convinced that he could accomplish what others could not, de Lesseps led 800,000 French investors to financial disaster and over 20,000 men to their deaths in yellow fever- and malaria-ridden Panama. His insistence on a sea-level canal doomed the project from the start. When he finally brought Gustav Eiffel into the project to build a lock-system canal, it was too late. Too much money had disappeared. The company had spent one billion francs and had accumulated three billion francs in debt. (At the time one U.S. dollar traded for five francs.)

Along the way, the canal company had lined the pockets of French politicians, money-men, newspaper men, and foreign companies. De Lesseps’ son, Charles, went to prison after an 1893 corruption trial. The father escaped prison only because of his failing health. Eiffel was among those prosecuted; his company had made a seven-million-franc profit on work it had barely started. (Convicted, Eiffel’s conviction was reversed by the French Supreme Court.) Ferdinand de Lesseps died in 1894, remembered for the great Panama failure and the accompanying corruption scandal rather than the great Suez achievement.

SIDE NOTE: Last week, I noted the Panama Canal’s expansion plan, which is nearing completion. The Egyptian government has announced plans for expanding the Suez Canal. Egypt contends that upon completion of the expansion, the Suez Canal will accommodate double the number of ships it currently handles and will afford a speedier route than the Panama Canal for container ships travelling from Shanghai to the East Coast of the United States (26 days rather than 28 days).



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Panama Canal Turns 100

Panama Canal toy (Source:

Panama Canal toy (Source:

When I was five years old, I inherited a plastic Panama Canal play-set. I could not have been happier.

But the toy contained a crack – in the wall of the literally man-made lake – through which little toy ships had to be floated between the two sets of elevators. The crack required me to constantly refill the lake. On one summer weekday morning, I filled a glass jar for probably the twelfth time, and, as I carefully poured the water into the plastic lake, I dropped the jar on the concrete sidewalk. Shards of glass went everywhere, of course, but most significantly, one shard lodged in my neck.

All ended well, obviously, but the attending physician told me the glass had come within an inch of my windpipe. When I responded with a confused expression, he said, “Son, you came within an inch of losing your life.”

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source:

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source:

At the tender age of five, I had survived a near-death experience. None of my five-year-old pals could claim such notoriety. Even better, I retained a tiny scar even after the stitches were removed. That meant that in the never-ending show-and-tell game of battle scars played by young boys, my battle story outshone all the rest.

So, what’s the point? The Panama Canal opened for operation on August 15, 1914. That 100-year anniversary reminded me of my childhood encounter with a smaller version of the real thing. The Panama Canal is often cited as one of the engineering wonders of the twentieth century.

Much like the 1950’s toy, the real canal is divided into essentially three parts. A series of locks on each end of the canal allows the ship to rise to the level of fresh-water lakes before descending to sea level on the other end. The canal extends approximately 50 miles between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Just like the toy, the locks are built in pairs to accommodate two-way traffic.

Many of the newer freight carriers are too large to pass through the current canal. The larger cargo ships sailing from Asia, which otherwise would transport cargo to the United States East Coast, currently have to drop their cargo at Long Beach, California, where freight trains carry the cargo to its ultimate destination. The Panama Canal is nearing completion of an expansion project that will double the canal’s capacity and thereby allow those cargo ships to bypass West Coast ports. The Canal will have to further expand its capacity, however, because shipbuilding companies continue to build even larger ships.

Happy (belated) 100th birthday to the man-made wonder that has captivated my attention from 5 years old until now at the ripe old age of…well we’ll leave it at ripe old age!


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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When I attended law school at the University of Richmond in the 1970’s, my classmates included FFV’s (First Family of Virginia), the NY/NJ (New York/New Jersey) crowd, and the rest of us, who fell into a wide range of categories. For most of us, our social hour and dinner hour were one and the same – filling ourselves with the poor to fair offerings of the university cafeteria while discussing a wide range of topics. While young male humor accounted for most of the conversation, more interesting topics sometimes arose.

Aerial view of Monument Avenue

Aerial view of Monument Avenue (Source: Monument Avenue Wiki)

One evening, an FFV student decided to wax on and on about his Confederate ancestors and the Confederate statuary for which one of Richmond’s most prominent streets is named – Monument Avenue. (The Arthur Ashe statue would come years later.) All of the non-FFV’s found the subject matter uncomfortable. Protests to the contrary, the Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s Republicans wanted to preclude extension of slavery into the territories and Southern politicians wanted no bar whatsoever on the practice. So there we sat, all but the FFV student very uncomfortable.

After almost fifteen minutes of revisionist Confederate history and accolades about Monument Avenue, one NY/NJ student finally spoke up: “Oh, you’re talking about the street where they keep the second-place trophies.” The FFV student’s face turned fire engine red. The rest of us broke out in uncontrollable laughter. So ended the social hour.

I digress.

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

In August, 1864, the Union Navy won a major victory in Mobile Bay, Grant’s forces stretched the rebel line near Petersburg, and Sherman was poised to take Atlanta. But Confederates could cite their victories on other fronts.

Although his commanding officers did not use his talents to their greatest effect, Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest remained a thorn in Sherman’s side. In the early morning hours of August 21, armed with detailed information from his home-town Memphis spies, Forrest led a small cavalry unit into Memphis, hoping to capture three Union generals, free Confederate prisoners from a Union prison, and compel Union forces to withdraw from northern Mississippi.

He accomplished only the third objective, although he did manage to take Union General Washburne’s uniform, which Washburne left behind as he rushed from his lodging to avoid capture. Forrest returned the uniform under a flag of truce. Washburne later returned the favor, by sending Forrest a uniform made by Forrest’s personal tailor. While Forrest failed to capture the generals or free the Confederate prisoners, he let the Union commanders know he was still active, seemingly able to harass them at will.

At sea, the Confederates dispatched the CSS Tallahassee to disrupt Yankee shipping. Over a 19-day period in northern waters, the Tallahassee destroyed 26 private vessels and captured seven others, which were bonded or released. (Department of the Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships) The ship sailed into Halifax for a fresh supply of coal and a new main mast, before making her way back to Wilmington, North Carolina. Built in England, the ship began her life as the Atalanta, a blockade-runner, was commissioned as the Tallahassee in August 1864, was later re-named the Olustee, and finally was re-named once again, perhaps most appropriately, the Chameleon, before its commander turned the ship over to the Confederacy’s financial agent in Liverpool on April 9, 1865. The British seized the ship and turned it over to the United States government on April 26, 1866.

Thus, while August witnessed great success by the Union forces on land and sea, the Confederates demonstrated they would not go away without inflicting considerable damage.



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