THE CRITIQUE OF THE PANAMA CANAL: The Crisis in Historical Perspective
In 1825, a group of American businesspeople announced the formation of a canal building company, with interests in
constructing a canal system across the Isthmus. This project was to take place in an area now called Panama. The
endeavor was filled with controversy. Though the canal itself was not built until the early 1900's every step toward the
building and ownership, was saturated with difficulty. Walter LaFeber illustrates the dilemmas in a historical analysis. In
his work he states five questions that address the significance of the Panama Canal to United States. This paper will
discuss the historical perspective of the book's author, address pertinent three questions and give a critique of LaFeber's
work, The Panama Canal.
For proper historical analysis one must understand the importance of the Canal. The Panama Canal and the Canal Zone
(the immediate area surrounding the Canal) are important areas used for trade. Even before the canal was built there were
to large ports on both sides of the Isthmus. Large amounts of cargo passed through the Isthmus by a railroad that
connected the two ports. The most important cargo was the gold mined in California before the transcontinental railroad
was completed in the United States. It has strategic significance because of its location, acting as a gateway connecting
the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This allows for rapid naval deployment between fleets in either ocean. These two facets
make the Panama Canal very important in the region.
LaFeber notes that Panamanian nationalism played a large role in the creation of the canal and, consequently, the cause
for the area's constant instability. The first expression occurred in the late 1800's with Panamanian struggle for
independence from Columbia. The United States eager to build the canal, and control its operation, used and backed
Panamanian nationalist. During the Roosevelt administration, not only did the United States manipulate factors isolating
Panama from other world powers through the Monroe Doctrine; but it committed troops aiding the revolutionaries against
another sovereign state. The reason this is a surprise is because the Roosevelt administration normally held a position
favoring stability. The United States had no legal right to use force against Columbia.
Nationalism came back to haunt the United States. With the treaty signed and a 99-year lease given to the United States,
the Canal was built. Since then, the United States has varied on its stance of ownership and the principles of sovereignty
concerning the Canal. The ever persistent debate of who owns the Canal and who should have sovereign control over it,
has not been solved. The United States has occasionally attempted to "claim" the Canal zone through various methods
such as military occupation, exclusion of Panamanians for important jobs in Canal operations and even through the
customary aspect of international law. However, each time the Panamanians have managed to maintain claim to the Canal
despite the United State's imperialistic posturing to get it.
The most recent and notorious of the United States' attempts to annex the Canal Zone was during the Reagan
administration. President Reagan said that the Canal Zone could be equated as a sovereign territory equal to that of
Alaska. The question here is, was he correct? LaFeber points out that, "the United States does not own the Zone or
enjoy all sovereign rights in it." He uses the treaty of 1936 in Article III that states, "The Canal Zone is the territory of the
Republic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the United States." The entire topic was summed up neatly by Ellsworth
Bunker, a negotiator in the region, when he said, "We bought Louisiana; we bought Alaska. In Panama we bought not
territory, but rights."
A second important question, is the Canal a vital interest to the United States? LaFeber gives three points suggesting that
it is not. First, the importance of the Canal decreased after 1974, because of the end of the Vietnam War and all related
military traffic ceased. Second, is the age of the antique machinery dating back to 1914. Inevitably the machinery will
need to be replaced. Lastly, the size of the new tankers and cargo ships. The capacity of the canal is too small to handle
such a large amount of tonnage. These are viable factors; however, the first argument is concerning whether a war is
taking place. It is circumstantial in providing a solid reason for increased traffic through the Zone. This can easily change
through and emergence of a new conflict or trading habits of other countries.
Thirdly, why have the Panamanians insisted on assuming total control of the Canal. The Panamanians are making millions
of dollars annually and the United States run the Canal efficiently. LaFeber points in the direction of economics as the
principal factor and nationalism as secondary. The Panamanians fear the amount of reliance they have on U.S.
investments. The fear is enhanced by the large dependence of their national economy on MNC's, American banks and
mining companies. LaFeber continues saying that Panamanians find it difficult to cross the Zone because of check points
and resent their country being split in half. Continuing he asserts that perhaps if the Panamanians were to have complete
control the Zone the amount of revenue would increase. Panamanians could also develop spinoff industries such as
drydocks and ship building creating an increase in profits.
Walter LaFeber develops a persuasive argument for the interpretation of historical events surrounding the creation of the
Panama Canal. As is consistent with other LaFeber's works, his research and fact finding technique in The Panama Canal
is complete if not exhaustive. He presents an objective outlook on issues surrounding the Canal. He uses a historical
approach in presenting his contribution to a subject that is lacking in information and scholarly examination.
In conclusion, this paper has addressed the historical perspective that the author of the book used. A discussion also
included three important questions concerning the Canal, its importance and the relationship between the United States
and Panama. Furthermore, this paper examines the effectiveness and usefulness of LaFeber's, The Panama
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