The 100th Anniversary of the Opening of the Panama Canal

Today we have a guest post by Michael E. Donoghue, Associate Professor of History at Marquette University and author of Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone. He discusses the history of the building of the Panama Canal, and its continued impact on US foreign relations and the world.


Donoghue cover, image, 5678-3The opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914 marked a monumental event in U.S., Panamanian, Latin American, and global history.  The opening confirmed the ascension of the United States to the first rank of world powers, a process that had begun years earlier with Washington’s victory in the 1898 Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War. While other European and Latin American nations had dreamt of its excavation and France had failed in its recent attempt, only the United States had succeeded, affirming its technological and moral superiority in the minds of many of its citizens.  (Though, Americans were irked that the outbreak of World War I relegated the story to page two).  In global terms, the completion of this strategic waterway made the world a much smaller place, saving cargo and passenger carriers thousands of miles of travel and millions in costs with its shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific, ending the necessity of rounding the horn of South America to traverse from one ocean to the other.  As such, the Canal’s opening facilitated the process of interconnecting the entire world in networks of trade and culture, what we now call globalization. And the workers from all over the world who helped build the channel in a brutal ten-year struggle (1904-1914) of man versus tropical nature, accentuated the Canal’s globalized character.  The conquest of yellow fever, mudslides, cave-ins, and dynamite explosions during construction took a terrible human toll especially on the non-U.S. workforce.

Fig 2

While the Canal’s opening aided Latin American trade, it had more unfortunate consequences for
America’s southern neighbors by enhancing U.S. dominance of the hemisphere, particularly in the circum Caribbean region and on the isthmus of Central America where the Canal and its surrounding Zone bases established the United States as a hegemonic power.  Numerous U.S. interventions in the region would now be justified “to protect the Panama Canal.”  These interventions often occurred in the republic of Panama itself, where U.S. troops marched in to “establish order” and “protect U.S. interests” nine times between 1904 and 1925.  Indeed no nation was more intimately affected by the waterway than Panama, a small new country that seceded from Colombia in 1903 with U.S. prodding and military aid to avoid Colombian intransigence on negotiations and ensure a favorable treaty that granted nearly sovereign U.S. rights to build, maintain, and guard the Canal. The fifty-mile-long, ten-mile-wide zone around the Canal created by the 1903 treaty quickly coalesced into a state-within-a-state with a U.S. government, military bases, police force, law code, prison, and numerous clubhouses and commissaries for U.S. and foreign workers.  Within this Zone, foreign laborers, the overwhelming number of them imported West Indians, endured lower wages and segregated facilities on the “silver roll” versus American foremen and workers on the higher-paid “gold roll.”  West Indians carried out most of the dangerous and arduous work on the Canal with over 4,000 official deaths and perhaps three times more undocumented ones.  Their ancestors still lament their lack of recognition for these sacrifices and the racial discrimination they endured.

After construction, the overwhelming U.S. presence in Panama eventually sparked local resistance and complaints about unequal treatment and an unfair sharing of the financial benefits of the Canal.  Racial discrimination in the Zone and the relatively privileged lifestyles of the U.S. workers and their families in comparison to impoverished Panamanians provoked frustration.  Access to the Zone was barred for most Panamanians and when crossing from one side of their country to the other, they faced questioning from a foreign police force speaking a foreign language threatening at times to send them to a foreign prison, Gamboa Penitentiary in the Zone.  In 1964 pent-up Panamanian anger exploded in an uprising that took the lives of twenty-one Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers.   In 1977 the Jimmy Carter administration negotiated new treaties that called for the end of the Canal Zone and the gradual transfer of the waterway to Panama which culminated on December 31, 1999 with complete local control. In recent years Panama has begun construction on a new set of wider locks to enlarge the Canal’s capacity and make it viable for the larger supertankers and cargo carriers.  These new locks are planned to open in 2015.  Today Panamanians celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Canal’s opening and much of the bitterness over their colonial relationship with the United States has faded.   Both the old and the new Canals have and will greatly amplify global trade and the interconnected nature of our world.   The August 15, 1914 opening of this monumental triumph in engineering and human sacrifice (once hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”) forever altered the destiny of the United States, Panama, and the world.

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