Tag Archives: Panama Canal

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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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: kids.britannica.com)

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source: kids.britannica.com)

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: Wikipedia.org)

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source: Wikipedia.org)

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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