Category Archives: 1900s

Military Significance of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal (Source: Wikipedia.org)

The Panama Canal (Source: Wikipedia.org)

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. [GlobalSecurity.org] 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: Wikipedia.org)

USS Missouri passes through the Panama Canal in 1945 (Source: Wikipedia.org)

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 – Before Central Park

Frederick Law Olmsted (Source: NYCgovparks.org)

A younger Frederick Law Olmsted (Source: NYCgovparks.org)

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.

SOURCES:

  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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Panama Canal Turns 100

Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

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: Ebay.com)

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

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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The Little Bank that Could and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

It’s like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life. A small bank provides a place for small depositors and borrowers to do business in a city dominated by big banks that serve only the wealthy. Then, after an earthquake and a fire destroy a quarter of the city, the small bank immediately rises from the ashes to provide its customers loans to rebuild and a place to safely deposit their money while the big banks close their doors for six months.

But unlike the popular movie, this story is true. In 1901, Amadeo P. Giannini had retired at the age of 31 after selling his share of a produce business for $100,000 ($2.7 million in 2014 dollars). He came out of retirement three years later to establish the Bank of Italy as “the little people’s bank,” eighteen months before the April 18, 1906 earthquake.

To his surprise on the morning of the earthquake, his employees had removed the bank’s $80,000 dollars in gold and silver from the Crocker National Bank vaults, and were ready to operate business. By early afternoon, he realized he had to remove the bank’s assets out of the city. He and an employee acquired two wagons to haul the bank’s fixtures and, more importantly, the money.

They hid the bags of money under crates of oranges. They traveled only four miles, during daylight, to the home of Giannini’s brother. After nightfall, they resumed the journey to Giannini’s home in San Mateo, fourteen miles south of San Francisco, where they hid the money in the ash pit of the living room fireplace.

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

As important as it was to get the bank’s assets out of the city, it is what Giannini did the next two days that set his bank apart from the big banks. He encouraged his customers to borrow money to rebuild and to deposit their money in his bank, where it would be safer than in the refugee camps that sprang up to house San Francisco’s homeless 225,000 citizens. He set up the bank’s “main branch” at his brother’s house and a second branch on the waterfront once the fires were contained. While the big bankers wrung their hands, Giannini put his bank to work, affording average San Franciscans the means to begin rebuilding the city.

Giannini made loans based on his knowledge of the borrowers’ character, not their credit reports. Years later, after he expanded and merged his way to build the Bank of America, he said every one of those 1906 loans had been repaid. The early version of the “Bailey Savings and Loan,” i.e., the Bank of Italy, did not remain small for long. At his death in 1949, the Bank of America was the largest bank in the United States.

Sources:

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Adlai Stevenson II: Intellectual, Graceful Loser to Eisenhower

TIME Magazine from October 1952 cover featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source: TakeMeBackTo.com)

TIME magazine cover from October 1952 featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source: TakeMeBackTo.com)

Continuing last week’s theme, this article addresses the 1952 and 1956 Presidential elections, when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II suffered resounding defeats at the hands of General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the western allied forces in Europe in World War II.

In an earlier article on the 1960 Presidential election, I discussed the states of the largely “solid South” which, with several exceptions, cast their votes for the candidate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Stevenson largely enjoyed the same support in 1952, when he carried West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In 1956, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana threw their support to Eisenhower, while Stevenson won a majority of Missouri’s voters. Eisenhower won over 80 percent of the electoral vote in both elections, 442-89 in 1952 and 457-73 in 1956. (One Alabama elector cast his 1956 vote for an Alabama politician, Walter B. Jones.)

In the absence of a scandal, Eisenhower, like U.S. Grant 88 years earlier, was a shoo-in whether he ran as a Republican or a Democrat. With great justification Stevenson reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination in 1952. Having been bitten by the bug, however, he successfully pursued the nomination again in 1956 and was swamped by John Kennedy in 1960. His ambition irritated the Kennedy team and cost him the position of Secretary of State in 1960. Instead, he was relegated to serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, where he served with great distinction until his death in 1965.

Stevenson campaign button (Source: AntiquesNavigator.com)

Stevenson campaign button (Source: AntiquesNavigator.com)

The Bushes and Clintons are not the first American political dynasties. They were preceded by the Kennedys and the Roosevelts (and, of course much earlier, the Adamses). Adlai Stevenson II also was part of a political dynasty. His namesake grandfather served as Vice President under Grover Cleveland. His maternal great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Republican Party, counting Abraham Lincoln among his friends. Adlai II’s father served as secretary of state in Illinois and his son, Adlai Stevenson III, served as a United States Senator.

Adlai Stevenson II is remembered best for his grace in defeat and his intellectual wit. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from him:

“It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.” [Fools and Foolishness Quotes]

“An independent is a guy who wants to take the politics out of politics.” [Politics Quotes]

“Some people approach every problem with an open mouth.” [Quips and Comments Quotes]

For more about Adlai Stevenson II, please see the following sources:

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Filed under 1800s, 1900s, American history, Elections, history, Presidential elections, Presidents, United States, World War II

Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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Filed under 1900s, American history, Civil War, history, Lincoln, Presidents