Digging across Panama

By Tenner, Edward | Humanities, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Digging across Panama


Tenner, Edward, Humanities


THE PANAMA CANAL MARKED A TRANSITION: from the great public works of classical Egypt, Rome, and China, built by backbreaking labor, to the far more mechanized triumphs of the twentieth century. And as a monument to optimism and national pride, only the U.S. space program of the 1960s has been its true successor. Both the canal and the moon landing were assertions of American military power and engineering prowess. Both mobilized outstanding international talent to overcome obstacles that could not be gauged fully at the outset. Each was launched by a charismatic new president in the wake of a crisis: by Theodore Roosevelt shortly after assuming office following President William McKinley's assassination, by John E Kennedy not long after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Each project subordinated economic calculation to political and military logic and was a bonanza for suppliers of state-of-the-art equipment. Each pushed the endurance of the human body to its limits, enlisting physicians alongside engineers. They aimed, respectively, at control of the sea and of space, but each also changed global consciousness: one by linking the two great oceans, the other by creating iconic images of an astronaut planting the American flag on the moon and of the earth as a fragile blue island.

Though the program does not mention the Apollo missions, the evidence of the PBS documentary Panama Canal suggests that for all these similarities, there were equally striking differences. In the 1960s, America was the dominant superpower, challenged in space by the Soviets and Sputnik; in the early 190Os, America was just emerging as a global force after defeating Spain. In the canal's case, though, the impetus was not the threat of a European power's success but the consequences of what was deemed the century's most spectacular technological and financial failure, the French sea-level canal project in Panama.

France had been America's scientific inspiration. Thomas Jefferson eagerly noted its eighteenthcentury standardization of military parts, which sparked American mass production after its introduction in our own arsenals. Our first academic engineering program was created at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point by its superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer, a civil engineer who revered French technical education and reformed the curriculum on the model of his other alma mater, the Ecole Polytechnique (still under the French Ministry of Defense today) with compulsory French instruction. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had become a world hero of civil engineering as well as a national icon as the builder of the Suez Canal, believed he could repeat his success with a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He discovered too late the exceptional difficulties of the site: unstable soil, overpowering vegetation, virulent diseases, and especially the turbulent Chagres River. Over eight years, twenty thousand lives were lost to work hazards, malaria, and yellow fever. There was little to show for an investment of more than a billion francs, the equivalent of $280 million today. By the time the project collapsed, the eight hundred thousand shareholders had lost their savings, the greatest crash of the nineteenth century, according to Matthew Parker 's Panama fever.

While de Lesseps never recovered professionally or psychologically, his chief engineer, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who had a personal fortune at stake, refused to abandon the project, even after a new Panama Canal company was ready to give up and American politicians and strategic planners were leaning toward a canal through Nicaragua instead. He allied himself with the original superlobbyist and master fixer, the attorney William Nelson Cromwell. Then, as sole representative of the newly independent nation of Panama (freed from Colombia by a revolution protected by American warships), Bunau-Varilla signed a treaty that gave the United States virtual sovereignty in the Zone and a free hand to build the canal.

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