History: Theodore Roosevelt on the panama canal



     Theodore Roosevelt on the Panama Canal


    Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most controversial presidents of the United States modern history. Adored by some for being a leader, a reformist and disliked by others for being a political opportunist, a racist and an imperialist. In this essay I will try to present Theodore Roosevelt the family man, the author, the hunter, the soldier, the naval strategist, the conservationist and finally the president. I will also discuss “The panama canal affair” that built the legacy of this notorious president.

    Theodore "T.R." Roosevelt, Jr. (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) was the 26th President of the United States (1901–1909). Born into a wealthy family in New York City, Roosevelt had a difficult childhood. He suffered from asthma and stayed at home studying. The isolation status made him to excel in his studies and specially geography, history and sciences. At the age of 19, he attended Harvard University, where he studied biology, boxed, and developed an interest in naval affairs. Theodore Roosevelt was a fervent hunter. Roosevelt did not hunt just for the sake of killing, and was against senseless massacre of animals. His famous nick name “Teddy Bear” came during one long, unproductive bear hunt in Mississippi; his guide tracked a bear and tied it to a tree so that the president could at least say he shot something. But Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured old bear, a scene that political cartoonist Clifford Berryman famously illustrated. After the cartoon appeared, a shopkeeper decided to call his toy bears “Teddy’s Bears,” and one of the most popular toys in the history of this nation was born.

    Roosevelt's Rough Riders is the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry included cowboys and gamblers, hunters and prospectors, Buffalo soldiers, college boys, and Native Americans from all 45 states then in existence, four U.S. territories and 14 countries. The Rough Riders, consisting of 1,060 soldiers and 1,258 horses and mules, trained at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The Rough Riders were formed to fight in Cuba against Spain in the Spanish-American War. This military campaign was a failure, more than one-third of the volunteers were killed, wounded, or stricken by disease, giving them the highest casualty rate of any American unit that took part in the Spanish-American War .However, T.R managed to manipulate the opinion public through journalists who accompanied him and returned to the US as a war hero. Theodore Roosevelt was a pioneer as naval strategists. He knew the immense power of military use as diplomatic force. After all it was the best illustration of what Roosevelt meant by the old African adage, "speak softly and carry a big stick [and] you will go far." For decades, he attempted to transform the Navy into a highly capable instrument to turn the U.S. into a great power. Roosevelt started to articulate a theory that America’s greatness depended on the robust deployment of sea power. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the days following the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, Roosevelt found opportunities to apply his theories. As acting secretary for only a few hours, he mobilized the navy for war with Spain. He ordered supplies and ammunition, sought support from Congress to recruit more sailors, and ordered the North Atlantic and Asiatic Squadrons to prepare for war.

    When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the U.S. in 1901 America’s society and economy were changing rapidly. Roosevelt believed the federal government had a role, even an obligation, to ensure a level of equality in Americans’ daily lives and used government regulations and policies to bring about social and economic justice. However, his legacy reposes mainly on cutting edge with the isolationist era on foreign affairs of his predecessors and starting the first chapter in the history of imperial America. He was famous or (infamous) for the "gunboat diplomacy" in Latin America. In international affairs, Roosevelt also acted boldly and decisively. He negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and became the first American honored with the Nobel Peace Prize .Considered the father of the modern American Navy, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to provide funding for modern steel-hulled battleships and sent the Great White Fleet—16 ships from the Atlantic fleet—in an around-the-world cruise, which raised America’s visibility and respect among world powers. However, Roosevelt needed it to show the world the greatness of America through a magnificent project called “This Great Enterprise”. For 400 years humans tried to link the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean through a canal, but the enterprise was judged impossible at that time.

    "By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President was related to the Panama Canal," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography. In a speech several years after the “conquest” of Panama, Roosevelt explained: "There are plenty of other things I started merely because the time had come that whoever was in power would have started them. But the Panama Canal would not have started if I had not taken hold of it, because if I had followed the traditional or conservative method I should have submitted an admirable state paper to Congress… the debate would be proceeding at this moment… and the beginning of work on the canal would be fifty years in the future. Fortunately [the opportunity] came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me."

 The building of Panama Canal was not an extravagant enterprise led by an adventurer President rather it was a military and economic necessity. It was set to avoid thousands of miles of sailing around Cape Horn, the traverse from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean will be shorten to 80km.The ships will be able to sail in only 8 hours , forty time faster than the journey around Cape Horn. Americans first became interested in Panama during the California Gold Rush of 1849.Miners walked across the isthmus on mules, avoiding thousands of miles of sailing around Cape Horn. After the Civil War, the United States expanded its trade relations with Asian countries like China and Japan, sparking interest in an isthmus canal. The necessity to deploy American fleet quickly around the world to protect US interests was another reason behind this growing interest. Roosevelt did not forget when the U.S. warship Oregon took 67 days to sail 12,000 miles from San Francisco around Cape Horn to Florida during the Spanish-American War. The risky enterprise of Panama Canal started with the French Chief Engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps.  De Lesseps was the most famous canal builder of his time. He conceived the idea and raised the money to construct the enormously successful Suez Canal. In 1875, de Lesseps began promoting a sea-level canal through the Isthmus of Panama. However, the enterprise turned to a nightmare. De Lesseps underestimated the huge difference between the arid desert of Egypt and the tropical climate in Panama. The repeating flooding seasons and the heavy toll death within the workers pushed the French canal company to declare bankruptcy by 1885. An estimated 20,000 workers died, mostly from malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases. In 1903, the United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia that granted the United States the right to construct and operate a canal for 100 years within zone six-miles wide across Panama. Colombia’s senate refused to ratify the treaty. The 1903 treaty offered the Colombian government $10 million in cash and an annual payment of $250,000. But the Colombian senate refused to ratify the treaty, holding out for $25 million. Roosevelt refused to cede to this extortion.

    Panama was an isolated province, and its inhabitants often rebelled against the government of Colombia. While the Colombian senate was debating and rejecting the canal treaty with the United States, a group of Panamanians was plotting a revolution. Establishing an independent Panama, might be the way to secure the elusive canal treaty. Roosevelt did not express a view on this but did order U.S. Navy ships in the Caribbean and Pacific to sail nearer to Panama. A move consider by Panamanians as a clear support to their revolution. On November 2, the U.S. warship Nashville with 500 Marines aboard docked at Colon on the Caribbean side of Panama. The appearance of the Nashville was all the revolutionaries needed to launch a bloodless takeover of Panama. Colombian troops in Colon left after the officer in charge received a bribe advanced by the American superintendent of the Panama Railroad. More U.S. gunboats and Marines soon arrived in Panama. Three days after the revolt began, the United States recognized the Republic of Panama. Roosevelt declared later, "While I was President I kept my foot on these revolutions… [in this case] I did not have to foment it; I simply lifted my foot."

    President Roosevelt moved rapidly to begin building the Panama Canal, which he called “this great enterprise.” The first chief engineer in charge of construction, John Wallace, introduced massive steam shovels. At that time, everyone still assumed the canal would be at sea level from ocean to ocean. Soon Americans encountered the same difficulties that their French predecessors faced. Wallace soon resigned and a railroad man, John Stevens, replaced him. Stevens concluded that digging a sea-level canal was impossible and recommended a lock canal instead. Three locks, or water chambers, on the Atlantic side would raise ships as large as the Titanic until they could sail into a huge manmade lake. After the ships sailed 23 miles on the lake and nine more through the Culebra Cut, another set of three locks would lower them back to sea level on the Pacific side. Twin locks would allow two-way traffic. However, the death toll continued to rise slowing the advancement of the project. In 1904, U.S. Army Colonel William C. Gorgas, an expert in tropical diseases, had helped eliminate yellow fever and malaria in Cuba by proving that two different kinds of mosquitoes carried these diseases to humans. Gorgas discovered in Cuba how to eliminate the mosquitoes by such methods as removing uncovered containers of water and screening houses and hospitals. Gorgas conquered yellow fever and malaria in the Canal Zone. At the same time Stevens resigned in 1907 because of exhaustion. A U.S. Army engineer, Lt. Col. George W. Goethals, took over. He remained in charge of all canal construction until the completion of the project in 1914.Goethals directed a workforce of up to 50,000 laborers. About 6,000 white Americans, some with their families, worked as administrators, engineers, and at skilled jobs. They lived in communities with free housing and all the comforts of home. Most of the remaining employees were West Indians laborers and service workers from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Coming to Panama to escape poverty, they lived in racially segregated barracks, or jungle huts.

The grand opening of the Panama Canal occurred on August 15, 1914, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Theodore Roosevelt’s “great enterprise,” completed six months ahead of schedule, cost $352 million. Shortly before the Panama Canal opened for traffic, President Wilson signed a treaty with Colombia, agreeing to pay $25 million “to remove all misunderstandings.” About 5,000 canal workers, almost all of them West Indies laborers, died due to disease and accidents. This was a quarter of the death toll of the failed French effort.

    Critics of Roosevelt called his intervention in Panama “an act of sordid conquest.” It’s without any doubt an imperialist act that led to the secession of the panama province from Colombia. However, the outcome of what we call the 8th wonder of the world overcame all the negative critics.



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