The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal

The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal

The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal

The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal


On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal officially opened for business, forever changing the face of global trade and military power, as well as the role of the United States on the world stage. The Canal's creation is often seen as an example of U.S. triumphalism, but Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu reveal a more complex story. Examining the Canal's influence on Panama, the United States, and the world, The Big Ditch deftly chronicles the economic and political history of the Canal, from Spain's earliest proposals in 1529 through the final handover of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999, to the present day.

The authors show that the Canal produced great economic dividends for the first quarter-century following its opening, despite massive cost overruns and delays. Relying on geographical advantage and military might, the United States captured most of these benefits. By the 1970s, however, when the Carter administration negotiated the eventual turnover of the Canal back to Panama, the strategic and economic value of the Canal had disappeared. And yet, contrary to skeptics who believed it was impossible for a fledgling nation plagued by corruption to manage the Canal, when the Panamanians finally had control, they switched the Canal from a public utility to a for-profit corporation, ultimately running it better than their northern patrons.

A remarkable tale, The Big Ditch offers vital lessons about the impact of large-scale infrastructure projects, American overseas interventions on institutional development, and the ability of governments to run companies effectively.


One of the the best things about having great colleagues is that they recognize implications of your work in ways that had never occurred to you. This book began as a short social savings exercise. After we presented our preliminary results, Gavin Wright encouraged us to expand the analysis to include some of the linkages we had mentioned wholly offhandedly during our talk. Alan Dye further encouraged us to explore the political ramifications of the Panamanian-American relationship, and what it implied about the economic impact of American interventionism at home and abroad. At this point we realized we had a book on our hands. All that was left for us to do was to write it.

As the book grew, the number of people and institutions who contributed to it grew as well. At Harvard, Veronica Martini, Zac Pelleriti, and Juliana Seminerio provided irreplaceable support, without which we would have been unable to complete this book. In Panama, Carlos Mendoza gave us more help in locating people and archives than we could have possibly hoped for. We would also like to thank Celestino Araúz, Rubén Dario Carles, Osvaldo Heilbron, Carlos Alberto Mendoza, and Stanley Motta for taking the time to talk to us in Panama City. Special thanks go to the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá for their help with this project, particularly José Barrios Ng and Guillermo Chapman. In New York City, the librarians of the New York Public Library at the Stephen Schwarzman Building and the Science, Industry and Business Library were invaluable in their help locating historical materials. In Washington DC and College Park, Maryland, the staff of the . . .

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