Panama Canal: A Reflection on America’s Historical Pride

Panama Canal: Should Americans look back with pride on the building of the Panama Canal?


The Panama Canal, one of the most significant and ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken, stands as a testament to human innovation and tenacity. Stretching approximately 50 miles, this waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, serving as a conduit for international maritime trade. Its completion heralded a new era of naval transportation, reshaping global shipping routes and catalyzing economic growth. Yet, like many great achievements, the construction of the Panama Canal was marred with controversy, ethical quandaries, and political maneuvers. This essay delves into the intricate tapestry of the Canal’s history, dissecting the multifaceted narrative to discern whether Americans should look back on its construction with genuine pride.


The concept of a canal that would bridge the Atlantic and Pacific was not new to the dawn of the 20th century. The Isthmus of Panama, the narrowest land strip separating the two vast oceans, had always beckoned explorers and empire-builders with its potential. Indeed, the Spanish crown in the 1500s under King Charles V had already envisioned such a project, although it remained a distant dream due to the insurmountable technological challenges of the age.

Fast forward to the late 19th century, and the allure of the canal became even more pronounced. The global powers recognized its strategic importance. A canal would not only slash the arduous maritime journey around the treacherous Cape Horn but also establish dominance in naval power and trade for the nation that controlled it. Thus, the race to build this megastructure commenced.

The first tangible effort came from the French, inspired by their success with the Suez Canal. Led by Ferdinand de Lesseps in the 1880s, the French embarked on the mission with enthusiasm. However, the challenges they faced were vastly different from those in Egypt. The treacherous terrain of Panama, coupled with rampant tropical diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria, proved too daunting. By the late 1890s, with over 20,000 lives lost and the project mired in financial scandal, the French effort crumbled in failure.

It was against this backdrop that the United States, burgeoning with industrial might and keen to assert its influence on the world stage, took up the mantle. With the Spanish-American War freshly etching the need for naval mobility in American strategic thinking, the construction of a canal through Panama became more than a commercial endeavor; it was a geopolitical imperative.

Achievements in Engineering and Medicine

The task facing the United States was gargantuan. Beyond the mere excavation and engineering challenges lay the specter of tropical diseases that had devastated previous attempts. Yet, under these formidable circumstances, American engineers and medical professionals achieved remarkable successes.

From an engineering perspective, the Panama Canal was a Herculean task that required innovative solutions. The project was led by engineers like John F. Stevens and George W. Goethals, who recognized that the sea-level canal approach, which had been attempted by the French, was unviable due to the region’s rainfall and topography. Instead, they conceptualized a lock-based system, which would raise and lower ships across the canal, accommodating the region’s hilly terrain and immense Chagres River. This was a novel approach at such a scale, requiring the construction of the massive Gatun Dam – then the largest of its kind in the world.

Another engineering marvel was the Culebra Cut (originally called the Gaillard Cut). This 9-mile stretch of the canal carved its way through the Continental Divide, requiring the removal of approximately 100 million cubic yards of earth and rock. The sheer effort of this excavation, combined with the challenges of frequent landslides, showcased American persistence and ingenuity.

Parallel to the engineering triumphs were the advancements in medicine and public health. Yellow Fever and Malaria had been the banes of the French attempt, causing a staggering number of fatalities. Recognizing this, the Americans, under the leadership of Dr. William Gorgas, launched an extensive campaign against these diseases. Gorgas understood that controlling the mosquito population was crucial. Through large-scale efforts like draining stagnant water, fumigation, and the widespread use of mosquito nets and screens, the team successfully curbed the spread of these diseases. This not only made the construction feasible but also led to groundbreaking understandings in tropical medicine.

Together, the dual achievements in engineering and medicine demonstrated the zenith of early 20th-century American capability and innovation. However, while these accomplishments were indeed laudable, they were achieved amidst a backdrop of complex political maneuverings and ethical considerations, which are explored in the subsequent sections.

The Political Landscape: Pros and Cons

Beyond the marvel of engineering and medical advancement, the construction of the Panama Canal was deeply intertwined with political machinations, some of which have cast long shadows over the legacy of the project. The Canal’s history is punctuated with strategic maneuvers, treaties, and, inevitably, controversies.

Central to the Canal’s political narrative was the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Before the United States could commence construction, it needed to secure the rights to the land. Panama, at the time, was a province of Colombia, and initial negotiations between the U.S. and Colombia for the rights faltered. This impasse led to a fortuitous opportunity for the U.S. when Panamanian rebels sought independence from Colombia. The U.S., sensing an opportunity, quickly recognized the new Panamanian government post their declaration of independence in November 1903. Just days later, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed, granting the U.S. the rights to the Canal Zone in perpetuity.

This rapid sequence of events has been a point of contention among historians. Critics argue that the U.S. actively encouraged or even orchestrated the Panamanian uprising to serve its interests, effectively manipulating geopolitical dynamics. Supporters, on the other hand, posit that the U.S. was merely capitalizing on a pre-existing sentiment for independence in Panama and that the resulting treaty benefited both nations.

The treaty, however, did more than grant land rights. It solidified U.S. geopolitical dominance in the region, ensuring that any threats to the canal, and by extension American commercial and naval interests, could be swiftly dealt with. This dominance was further emphasized by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the U.S.’s right to intervene in Latin American nations to stabilize their economic affairs. While this was framed as a means to prevent European intervention in the Americas, it further entrenched U.S. influence and control in the region.

Economically, the Canal proved to be a windfall for the U.S. By drastically reducing maritime travel times, it facilitated trade, strengthening the U.S.’s position in global commerce. Strategically, it allowed for quicker naval deployments, a fact that would prove crucial in subsequent world conflicts.

However, while the Canal brought undeniable benefits to the U.S., its construction and the political maneuvers surrounding it were not without cost. The shadow of American imperialism, questions about the ethicality of its dealings with Panama and Colombia, and the broader implications of its interventions in Latin America all invite introspection. These aspects, set against the backdrop of the Canal’s undeniable achievements, make the question of American pride in its construction a complex one.

Ethical and Social Implications

While the technical and political aspects of the Panama Canal are often the most discussed, it is crucial not to overlook the ethical and social ramifications of its construction. The canal’s creation had profound effects on both the local population and the laborers brought in from other parts of the world, raising important questions about the human cost of such a grand endeavor.

One of the most pressing concerns was the treatment of the labor force. Tens of thousands of workers were imported, primarily from the West Indies (particularly Barbados), to work on the canal. These laborers, in search of better wages and opportunities, often found themselves in perilous working conditions. While the American administrators made significant strides in health and sanitation following the disastrous French attempt, the risk of disease remained. Accidents, challenging working conditions, and exposure to elements meant that the laborers faced daily hazards.

Moreover, there was a clear racial and ethnic hierarchy in the Canal Zone. American and European workers held supervisory roles and received better housing, amenities, and wages. In contrast, West Indian laborers, who comprised the majority of the workforce, faced segregation, subpar living conditions, and lower pay. This stratification sowed seeds of social discontent and has been critiqued for perpetuating racial prejudices of the era.

The impact on indigenous and local communities was also significant. Many local Panamanians were displaced from their homes due to the construction. Their traditional ways of life, deeply intertwined with the land, were disrupted as vast tracts of jungle and settlements were cleared to make way for the canal and its associated infrastructure. While some found employment opportunities in the canal project, many faced dislocation and cultural upheaval.

The environment, too, was profoundly altered. The construction of the Gatun Dam and the creation of the Gatun Lake, essential components of the canal’s lock system, resulted in significant ecological changes. Vast areas of land were submerged, and water systems were rerouted. The long-term implications of these alterations on local biodiversity and habitats remain subjects of study and concern.

In assessing the legacy of the Panama Canal, these ethical and social considerations are vital. While the project stands as a testament to human ingenuity and determination, the sacrifices, both voluntary and imposed, of countless individuals underscore the multifaceted nature of its history. The canal was not merely a feat of engineering; it was a profound intersection of cultures, ambitions, and, at times, exploitation.

Comparison with Modern Infrastructure Projects

The Panama Canal, at the outset of the 20th century, was a marvel that showcased the zenith of available engineering capabilities. As we reflect upon its legacy and the myriad challenges it presented, it’s insightful to compare it with contemporary infrastructure endeavors, which, although technologically advanced, still grapple with similar themes of ethics, politics, and societal impacts.

One contemporary parallel can be found in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Heralded as a modern marvel of infrastructure and economic cooperation, the BRI aims to link China with Europe, Africa, and other parts of Asia through a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and shipping lanes. While the engineering and logistical challenges are immense, the project has been critiqued for its geopolitical implications, potential for environmental degradation, and concerns of economic dominance.

Similarly, the construction of the High-Speed Rail networks in Europe and Asia showcases modern engineering prowess. However, these projects too have faced controversies regarding land acquisitions, environmental concerns, and the social displacements caused by such massive undertakings.

In the domain of renewable energy, the proliferation of massive hydroelectric dams, such as the Three Gorges Dam in China, mirrors the Panama Canal’s environmental and societal trade-offs. While they offer sustainable energy solutions and economic advantages, they also result in substantial ecological shifts, displacement of local communities, and significant alterations to the natural landscape.

These modern endeavors, much like the Panama Canal, walk the tightrope between progress and its associated costs. They bring into focus the ever-persistent questions: At what cost does progress come? Who pays the price, and who reaps the benefits? And how do we ensure that such mammoth projects serve the greater good rather than a select few?

The Panama Canal, when viewed through the lens of today’s infrastructure projects, serves as a poignant reminder that while technology and methodologies evolve, the core challenges of balancing progress with ethical, environmental, and social considerations remain. It underscores the timeless necessity for thoughtful planning, transparent governance, and an inclusive approach that prioritizes both human and environmental well-being.

Reflections from Various Perspectives

The Panama Canal, a multifaceted endeavor, is perceived differently through the lenses of various stakeholders and observers. Reflecting on these diverse viewpoints offers a holistic understanding of the canal’s impact and legacy.

American Perspective: For many Americans, the Panama Canal epitomized the nation’s engineering might and global influence at the onset of the 20th century. It heralded America’s ascent as a global power and solidified its role in ensuring maritime and trade security. The canal’s successful completion, overcoming the challenges that thwarted the French, was a source of national pride and a demonstration of American ingenuity and resilience.

Panamanian Perspective: For Panamanians, the Canal has been a double-edged sword. While it brought economic opportunities and put Panama on the global map, the years of American control, the displacement of local communities, and the loss of sovereignty over a significant part of their territory have been points of contention. The 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which eventually returned the Canal to Panamanian control, were a significant step in restoring national pride and sovereignty.

Global Trade and Maritime Perspective: From a global commerce viewpoint, the Canal was revolutionary. By significantly shortening the maritime route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it reshaped global trade routes, enabling faster and more efficient movement of goods. This impact is still felt today, with the Canal continuing to be a critical artery in global commerce.

Environmental Perspective: Environmentalists view the Canal with mixed feelings. The creation of Gatun Lake and the subsequent flooding was one of the world’s largest artificial lakes at the time, resulting in habitat destruction. The continued operation and expansion of the Canal also pose challenges in terms of water usage and impact on local ecosystems. However, the Canal’s presence has also led to the establishment of protected areas and heightened environmental awareness in the region.

Indigenous Peoples’ Perspective: The indigenous communities of Panama, especially those in the path of the Canal’s construction, faced displacement, cultural upheaval, and disruptions to their traditional way of life. The canal’s legacy, for them, is intertwined with the challenges of navigating modernity while preserving their cultural heritage.

These varied reflections underscore the complexity of the Panama Canal’s legacy. It is not just an engineering marvel or a geopolitical tool but a mosaic of experiences, aspirations, and challenges that intersect at the heart of human endeavor and ambition.


The Panama Canal, beyond its undeniable engineering brilliance, stands as a multifaceted chapter in the annals of history. It is a testament to human determination, a reflection of the complexities of geopolitical ambition, a lesson in environmental and social responsibility, and a symbol of the intricate dance between progress and its consequences.

As we navigate the 21st century, marked by rapid technological advancements and global interconnectedness, the lessons from the Canal’s construction remain ever pertinent. The pursuit of grand projects, be they infrastructural, technological, or societal, demands a holistic perspective that weighs not only the potential benefits but also the ethical, environmental, and societal implications.

The Panama Canal’s legacy is neither solely triumphant nor entirely cautionary. Instead, it offers a nuanced tale of ambition and introspection, of progress and its costs. As future generations reflect on this marvel, it serves as a reminder that true achievement lies not just in the grandeur of the end product but in the journey’s integrity and the values upheld along the way.

For Americans, looking back at the Panama Canal with pride is justified, but it must be accompanied by a deep understanding and appreciation of the broader tapestry within which this monumental endeavor is woven. It underscores the imperative of learning from history, of celebrating achievements while continually striving for a more equitable, just, and sustainable future.

Should Americans look back with pride on the building of the Panama Canal?

The US negotiated the “rights” to build the canal from the British in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty and then negotiated with
Colombia to gain the Canal Zone for 10 million and 250,000 per year. After a revolution in Colombia the new government refused to ratify the treaty. The US, dealing with French Engineer Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, agreed that if Panamanians revolted the US would stop the Colombians from interfering. A US fleet, led by the USS Nashville, entered the harbor at Colon and the next day a revolution broke out. Four days later the US government recognized Panama and Bunau-Varilla became the new countries first foreign minister to the US. 12 days later the Panamanian government agreed to the terms previously offered the Colombians.

Now that America’s empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific, the old idea of a canal between the two oceans took on new urgency. Mahan had predicted that “the canal will become a strategic center of the most vital importance,” and Teddy agreed. “The canal,” Roosevelt said, “was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President. When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it.”

In 1878 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who built the Suez Canal, began to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Colombia. Tropical disease and engineering problems halted construction on the canal, but a French business (the New Panama Canal Company) still held the rights to the project. Roosevelt agreed to pay $40 million for the rights, and he began to negotiate with Colombia for control of the land. He offered $10 million for a fifty-mile strip across the isthmus. Colombia refused.

“We were dealing with a government of irresponsible bandits,” Roosevelt stormed. “I was prepared to . . . at once occupy the Isthmus anyhow, and proceed to dig the canal. But I deemed it likely that there would be a revolution in Panama soon.”

Teddy was right. The chief engineer of the New Panama Canal Company organized a local revolt. Roosevelt immediately sent the battleship Nashville and a detachment of marines to Panama to support the new government. The rebels gladly accepted Roosevelt’s $10 million offer, and they gave the United States complete control of a ten-mile wide canal zone. Roosevelt ordered army engineers to start digging. Thousands of workers sweated in the malarial heat. They tore up jungles and cut down mountains. Insects thrived in muddy, stagnant pools. “Mosquitoes get so thick you get a mouthful with every breath,” a worker complained. The mosquitoes also carried yellow fever, and many fell victim to the deadly disease before Dr. William Gorgas found a way to stop it.

Some Americans did not approve of Roosevelt’s behavior. “There was much accusation about my having acted in an ‘unconstitutional’ manner,” Teddy shrugged. “I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress — not to debate the canal, but to debate me. While the debate goes on, the canal does too; and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal.”

Work did go on. Despite lethal landslides, workers with dynamite and clumsy steam shovels cut their way across a continent. They built a railroad, three sets of concrete locks, and a huge artificial lake. Nine years later the freighter Ancon entered the new channel. Hundreds of construction workers hopped aboard for the historic ride. A shiny towing locomotive pulled the Ancon into the first lock. Bands played and crowds cheered as the ship slipped into the Pacific.

Digging the Canal

Roosevelt liked to repeat an old African saying: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick. You will go far.” In Panama, Teddy proved to the world that he was willing to use his big navy as a stick to further American interests.

The Culebra Cut