Columbus first landed in Panama on Oct. 6, 1502, during his fourth and final voyage.
In 1534, the King of Spain, Charles V, who ruled the first global empire, ordered a survey of the Isthmus of Panama to assess the feasibility of a canal. It would save having to sail the long and dangerous trip around South America’s Strait of Magellan, first crossed by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.
A canal across Panama was again suggested in 1658 by Sir Thomas Browne in England, and by Thomas Jefferson in 1788. In 1827, Simón Bolívar, president of La Gran Colombia (Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia), studied the feasibility of a railway across the Isthmus, as did U.S. President Andrew Jackson in 1836. In 1838, a French company attempted to build a road, rail and canal route, but it failed for lack of funding and technology.
In 1846, the U.S. signed a treaty with New Granada (Colombia) for rights to build a rail or canal route. In 1852, after the Mexican-American War and the California gold rush, Captain Ulysses S. Grant and the 4th Infantry were ordered to relocate to San Francisco, traveling by way of Panama.
While crossing the Isthmus, a cholera epidemic killed so many soldiers that Grant organized a field hospital and cared for the ill himself, writing: “The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description.”
The Panama Railroad Company, formed by New York businessmen, began building the first transcontinental railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Construction workers were English, Irish, Germans, African, Caribbean, Indian, and Chinese. Completed in 1855, the 50-mile railroad across muddy insect-infested, disease-ridden swamps, cost over 5,000 lives.
The idea for the Panama Canal gained momentum in 1869 when France, led by builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, finished the Suez Canal, which had originally been built by Darius of Persia in the 5th century B.C. This enabled ships from the Far East to reach the Mediterranean Sea without having to sail around the continent of Africa. French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi originally designed the Statue of Liberty to stand as a lighthouse to guide ships to the entrance of the Suez Canal.
In 1880, France’s Ferdinand de Lesseps began building a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama. France had to abandon the effort because of landslides from heavy seasonal rains and tropical diseases of malaria and yellow fever, which killed 25,000.
After the Spanish-American War, U.S. Army physician Dr. Walter Reed went to Cuba in 1899 to do research. He confirmed the previous discovery of Dr. Carlos Finlay, that malaria and yellow fever were carried by mosquitoes. This knowledge led to efforts of public sanitation and the development of insecticides which saved thousands of lives and made construction of a canal in Panama possible. Walter Reed Army Medical Center, founded in 1909, was named for him.
On Nov. 3, 1903, the United States helped Panama gain its independence from Colombia. Also that year, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, introducing the era of air travel.
On Feb. 23, 1904, the United States purchased the Canal Zone from Panama for $10 million, plus annual payments of $250,000.
The Panama Canal was planned by President William McKinley, with the actual construction beginning under President Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of a straight sea-level canal, Roosevelt favored a set of three locks rising from sea-level to Gatun Lake, then on the other side of the lake, to have three locks going back down to sea level.
On Dec. 17, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed Congress: “The Isthmus had been a by-word for deadly unhealthfulness. Now, after two years of our occupation the conditions as regards sickness and the death rate compare … with reasonably healthy localities in the United States. Especial care has been devoted to minimizing the risk due to the presence of those species of mosquitoes which have been found to propagate malarial and yellow fevers.”
For the construction of the canal, inventions were made, such as:
- railroad innovations
- steam shovels
- steam-powered cranes
- hydraulic rock crushers
- cement mixers
- drilling machinery
- pneumatic power drills
- massive electric motors
This technology, largely developed and built in the United States, was used to create the largest dam and Gatun Lake – the largest man-made lake in the world at that time.
On Dec. 6, 1912, President William Taft addressed Congress: “Our defense of the Panama Canal, together with our enormous world trade and our missionary outposts on the frontiers of civilization, require us to recognize our position as one of the foremost in the family of nations, and to clothe ourselves with sufficient naval power to give force to our reasonable demands, and to give weight to our influence in those directions of progress that a powerful Christian nation should advocate.”
On Oct. 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson stated in his Thanksgiving proclamation: “We have seen the practical completion of a great work at the Isthmus of Panama which not only exemplifies the nation’s abundant capacity of its public servants but also promises the beginning of a new age of co-operation and peace. ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation’ and ‘peace on earth, good will towards men’ furnish the only foundation upon which can be built the lasting achievements of the human spirit.”
The Panama Canal was opened Aug. 15, 1914, the same year World War I began. Within 10 years, more than 5,000 ships a year were passing through the Panama Canal. The largest American engineering project to that date, it had cost the United States $375,000,000 (roughly $10 billion today). The Panama Canal also cost 5,600 American lives, over 100 for every one of the 50 miles across the Isthmus.
On March 31, 1976, California Governor Ronald Reagan stated: “Well, the Canal Zone is not a colonial possession. It is not a long-term lease. It is sovereign United States Territory every bit the same as Alaska and all the states that were carved from the Louisiana Purchase. … We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it.”
After contentious public debate, Democrat President Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal in 1977. Concern arose as to what international influences would fill the vacuum once the United States transferred control.
Such concern was voiced by Admiral Thomas Moorer, commander of the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic fleets and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974, who stated in the New American, March 29, 1999: “Chinese are poised to effectively take control of the Panama Canal. … The Panama Canal is very close to home and is one of our most vital commercial and military assets. … In 1996, while China was illegally pouring millions of dollars into Clinton’s reelection effort, it was also funneling huge amounts of cash to Panamanian politicians to ensure that one of its front companies, Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong, could move in when we vacate. …”
Admiral Moorer continued: “In 1997, Panama secretly turned over the American-built port facility at Balboa, which controls shipping on the Pacific side, and at Cristobal, which controls shipping on the Atlantic side, to Hutchison. … We are scheduled to turn over Rodman Naval Station, Howard Air Force Base, and other important military facilities to Panama, which has given Hutchison an option on these bases. …”
Admiral Moorer concluded: “President Clinton may say that they are our friends and allies, but the Chinese military and Communist Party literature refer to the United States as ‘the main enemy.’ And despite what … Henry Kissinger, and the media may tell you about ‘reform’ in China, it is still run by a brutal, totalitarian, Communist regime that will do us harm if and when it thinks it can get the better of us.”
Strategic U.S. built anchor ports at either end of the Panama Canal (Balboa and Cristobal), have been operated by Huchinson Port Holding – the world’s largest seaport operator.
In 2016, the Panama Canal opened a new set of locks, doubling the waterway’s capacity, accommodating larger ships. Panama has become a popular haven for American expats who prefer to not live in the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his “Autobiography”: “By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President was related to the Panama Canal.”
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