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The Panama Canal: A Land Divided, A World United

Jeffrey Syken

The plan was nearly as old as the founding of the “New World” itself; connect the two great oceans of the world through the narrow Isthmus of Panama via a sea-level canal and open a “passage to India,” first imagined by Christopher Columbus. On paper, it appeared to be a straightforward task, but the reality would prove quite different. First investigated by the Spanish crown for the purpose of transporting their prized gold via ship directly from Peru, on the Pacific-side, through an inter-oceanic canal, to the Atlantic-side, and home to Spain, the dream proved undoable for technical, political, social and even religious reasons – but the “Grand Plan” remained in the minds of men.

By the early 19th Century, with advances in science and technology, the centuries-old scheme for a sea-level canal was revived. The Isthmus had long been used as a “land bridge” – a short-cut for transit from one ocean to the other via jungle trails and the temperamental, but navigable, Rio Chagres. The United States first became interested in an Isthmian canal in the 1830s in consideration of its “Manifest Destiny” to be a bi-coastal nation and the Monroe Doctrine, which declared this side of the pond off-limits to European expansion. With the founding of gold in California in 1848, trans-Isthmian business was never better and, in 1855, the Panama Railroad – an American effort, opened for business with much acclaim and success. Surely if a railroad could be carved from ocean-to-ocean through mountains and jungles, a canal could as well. Such was the common wisdom at the time.

The year 1869 saw two significant events; the completion of the trans-continental railroad linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States and the completion of the Suez Canal, both eminently successful ventures. With his victory at Suez behind him, “La Grand Francaise” (The Great Frenchman) – Ferdinand de Lesseps’ next challenge would be in Panama. Ultimately, the French effort would fail for many reasons - not least of all was the horrific death-rate among the workforce due to tropical disease. When Theodore Roosevelt became POTUS, he realized if the U.S. was to be a great power, it first must be a great naval power A canal linking the two oceans would make this dream a practical reality and lessons learned from the Spanish-American War would reinforce his, and others, belief in the “Mahan Doctrine.” So it was that America – the New World, would succeed where the French – the Old World, had failed making the United States a player on the world stage for the first time. The Panama Canal immediately became a crossroads of world commerce, even today expanding to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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