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
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 Canal. 


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