Apr/May 2009

Water World

How the Panama Canal shaped American social thinking

Chris Rasmussen


In September 1913, Woodrow Wilson pushed a button in the White House, sending an electric pulse that detonated the Gamboa Dike, some two thousand miles to the southwest in the Panama Canal Zone. The dam’s collapse sent water rushing from Gatun Lake into the canal, the culmination of a mammoth, decade-long construction project.

The project’s payoff was still a year away, however—in 1914, the Ancon sailed across the Isthmus of Panama, through the Miraflores locks, and into the Pacific Ocean. The new fifty-one-mile gap in the isthmus knitted the Atlantic and Pacific oceans together, a breakthrough widely hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. But it was also, and primarily, a potent symbol of the imperial ambitions of the United States. Henceforth, American power and prosperity would flow through the canal. Theodore Roosevelt reckoned its creation to be not only the most important achievement of his presidency but also the most important event in American foreign affairs since the republic’s founding. The canal expanded American trade, linked the navy’s Atlantic and Pacific fleets, and marked America’s ascendancy as a world power.

The canal project itself involved considerable flexing of American might. Until 1903, the isthmus was part of Colombia. When negotiations between that country and the US over the proposed canal broke down, Roosevelt sent warships to back the Panamanian independence movement, then quickly framed an agreement with Panama, which had become an independent nation in November 1903. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, ratified by the Senate in 1904, granted the United States complete control over the canal and the ten-mile-wide Panama Canal Zone in perpetuity. As Roosevelt declared flatly in 1911, “I took the Canal Zone.”

Alexander Missal’s Seaway to the Future focuses on Americans’ image of the canal’s construction as a model for the orderly, conflict-free society that canal boosters hoped to create in the United States. Between 1880 and World War I, the US underwent rapid industrialization, experienced wrenching strikes, and absorbed millions of immigrants. Missal endorses historian Robert Wiebe’s contention that many middle-class white Americans, fearful of a militant working class, embarked on a “search for order,” seeking innovative management techniques to maintain stability in a newly industrialized, urbanized society. America’s ambitious undertaking, the Panama Canal, became more than a stupendous engineering feat, also furnishing a model of a “utopian” middle-class community, in which class divisions were rendered invisible and unthreatening.

Missal, a journalist, focuses on the “Panama authors,” who chronicled the decade-long effort to cut a channel across the country and ballyhooed the canal to the American public. These writers, he contends, were more significant than the canal itself: “For their middle-class audience, the writers’ construction of the Canal was more relevant than the concrete on the Isthmus.” His “alternate history” of the canal thus “takes place not on the Isthmus but within the United States—not in excavations of dirt but in people’s minds.” Photographers produced thousands of images of the canal, which complemented the work of the writers by offering Americans an “engineered view” of the project and a vision of a new America.

The Panama writers hailed the Canal Zone as a model society, a collectivist “mini-state” in which the government would not only oversee construction but also regulate virtually every aspect of society. The project was overseen by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), which reported to the secretary of war, William Taft; day-to-day management of the zone was entrusted to a series of chief engineers: John F. Wallace (1904–1905), John F. Stevens (1906–1907), and George W. Goethals, who presided over the canal’s construction from 1907 until its opening in 1914, then served for two years as the zone’s first governor. (To ensure that Goethals would have complete control, Roosevelt named him chairman of the ICC, as well as chief engineer.)

Like most would-be utopias, the Canal Zone was far from democratic. Goethals, an accomplished engineer, considered the task of governing the zone’s sixty thousand residents (“Zonians”) both more important and more difficult than the technological feats of digging the canal and erecting its monumental locks. An autocrat, Goethals unflinchingly assumed the role of benevolent despot and strove to maintain a tightly controlled community that would furnish a model for Progressive reformers in the United States. Artist Joseph Pennell, who produced a renowned series of lithographs of the canal’s construction, pronounced the zone “the best governed section of the United States.” A mechanic put it differently: “There ain’t any democracy down here.”

Goethals was especially determined to maintain discipline among his workforce. In order to prevent workers from developing a sense of solidarity, organizing, or striking, he (like Stevens before him) deliberately maintained sharp distinctions between white Americans, black Americans, West Indians, and Europeans. White and black employees were segregated. African Americans and West Indians received lower pay.

As Missal observes, the Panama writers created their utopian vision of the canal by relentlessly excluding nonwhites and the specter of labor strife from their accounts. The writers and photographers depicted the excavation, the steam shovels, and the canal’s locks in copious detail but promulgated a sanitized version of a well-ordered society by consciously discounting the aspirations of thousands of workers. Missal concludes his book with a plea that the Panama writers’ fictive utopia, predicated on “exclusion and discrimination,” be “shattered.”

Julie Greene’s The Canal Builders reverses the blinkered logic of these original portrayals and provides a thorough breakdown of how the canal project fell far short of its ballyhooed democratic promise. A history professor at the University of Maryland, Greene painstakingly recounts the hard, dangerous jobs of the men who dug the canal. The construction project was a “global magnet” that drew tens of thousands of workers from the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, India, and elsewhere. Half the workers were West Indians, most of them unskilled. Some five thousand workers died due to disease and construction accidents.

Stevens and Goethals deliberately sought to divide and conquer their workforce, Greene writes, by exploiting racial and ethnic divisions against any threat of growing class solidarity. Initially, skilled and highly productive workers, regardless of race or nationality, were paid in gold-backed American dollars, while unskilled laborers received silver Panamanian currency. “Gold” workers received not only higher wages but also better housing and food, annual vacations, and other perks. In 1906, Stevens ordered all nonwhite workers transferred to the silver roll; two years later, Roosevelt decreed that only American citizens (who made up between 14 and 19 percent of the workforce) could be on the gold roll. Workers were divided, and the zone’s model society was riven by economic, ethnic, and racial tensions. Professionals disdained skilled laborers, and both despised the unskilled. In a notable effort to transform the zone from a rugged, nearly all-male construction camp into “a small bit of the United States,” with a more contented, stable labor force, the ICC in 1906 began encouraging women to come. (There were also sensational reports that the US government had retained several hundred prostitutes for canal workers, a charge Roosevelt sought to dispel when he visited the zone in a 1906 PR offensive.)

Greene seconds Missal’s view that Americans invested the canal project with great psychic significance. But while Missal describes the Panama writers’ Canal Zone as intended to be a model for United States society, Greene suggests a more complex relationship between the US and the zone. The zone would offer “a display of America’s domestic strengths in a world setting” and furnish a laboratory permitting reformers to experiment with activist government and expert management in ways that could improve American society and create a “progressivism for the world.” Social engineering in the zone could thus aid the cause of reform both at home and abroad.

Goethals strove to keep the zone, which he regarded a model of order, distinct from Panama—particularly from the nightlife of Panama City, which he dreaded as a source of chaos and trouble. Goethals’s undisguised contempt for the country, and that of many American workers, stoked resentments that smoldered for decades. Panamanians in turn resented the zone, which had sliced their nation in half, and the Americans who had “foreignized” Panama by gaining influence over the nation’s political elite.

Tensions between Americans and Panamanians erupted in 1912, as upward of one thousand American workers, soldiers, and marines boisterously celebrated the Fourth of July in Cocoa Grove, Panama City’s red-light district. Fearful of violence and vandalism, barkeeps and madams shut their establishments. Undeterred, the revelers battered their way into saloons and bordellos. Ordered to quell the disturbance, Panamanian police and soldiers arrested many Americans, beat several others, and killed one. Recriminations between the Panamanian and American governments, each of which blamed the other for the riot, dragged on for three years. And as Greene observes, “For a day the Cocoa Grove riots had brought Goethals’s efficient machine to a standstill.”

The Ancon’s historic journey through the canal’s locks in August 1914 was overshadowed by the war in Europe, which had broken out only days earlier. Europeans’ deployment of deadly new technologies to slaughter one another by the millions shattered many Westerners’ faith in progress, technology, government —and, for some, humanity itself. In 1915, the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, a world’s fair held to commemorate the completion of the canal and America’s newfound power, opened in San Francisco. The fair’s most renowned attraction, a five-acre model of the canal, celebrated the historic achievement. As Greene observes, this model, like most published accounts of the canal’s construction, depicted a world of perfect order, obscuring the privation of the workers who cleared trees, excavated soil, and blasted rock for a decade to link the Atlantic and the Pacific.

While most Americans regarded the canal as a symbol of American technological, commercial, and military prowess, it remained a source of resentment for Panamanians. In 1964, violent protests against the United States’s continued control over the Canal Zone left nineteen Panamanians and three Americans dead. In the aftermath, international pressure mounted on the US to transfer control to Panama. A majority of Americans, however, opposed relinquishing the canal, and the issue vexed the nation’s politics throughout the 1970s. “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours . . . and we are going to keep it,” declared Ronald Reagan in his 1976 primary campaign against Gerald Ford. Conservative Republicans’ fervent determination to retain control of the canal revived Reagan’s flagging candidacy, bringing him to the verge of wresting the GOP nomination from Ford, the sitting president. The Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977, in which the United States agreed to transfer the canal to Panama on New Year’s Eve of 1999, provoked intense opposition among Americans, many of whom viewed the canal as an object of national pride and a bulwark of national security. In his victorious campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan castigated the “giveaway” of the canal as a vestige of Vietnam-era defeatism.

Nearly a decade after Panamanians gained control over the canal, and nearly a century after its completion, it is now, according to Greene, a lost symbol of America’s rise to global power. The canal has receded as a hallmark of American technological prowess and military might. Its construction also suggests another story, one overlooked by contemporaries, who, in much the same fashion that they overlooked its workers, failed to recognize the canal as a harbinger of a globalized market not only for goods and capital but for labor. Workers from the Americas, Europe, and Asia forsook their homes and families for jobs in the zone, inaugurating an era in which transnational labor migrations became a fixture of the global economy.

As Missal points out, the Panama Canal could inspire middle-class hopes for an America devoid of class and racial conflict only by effacing workers and nonwhites from the vision of a US-administered utopian world order. Likewise, Greene has delved into the mythology of the canal as a heroic achievement of engineers and social visionaries to highlight how the tens of thousands of workers resisted becoming cogs in Goethals’s “efficient machine.” These interlocking new narratives of the canal’s construction not only supply a corrective to the willful blind spots of the past but also provide a useful vantage on the world bequeathed to us by the forces that set out to put America astride the globe nearly a century ago.

Chris Rasmussen teaches history at Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ.

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