Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)

Part III. Water and the Making of the Modern Industrial Society

Chapter 12. The Canal to America’s Century

As the 1869 Suez Canal made transparent the supremacy of the steam-and-iron age British Empire, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 signaled a reordering of the world’s power in favor of the fast-rising leader of the mass production technology era, the United States. The interoceanic canal at the Panamanian isthmus created a highway across the central Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, integrating Europe, the Americas, and the Far East into a tighter, global web of political, economic, and military relations. No nation was better placed to benefit commercially and strategically from its transformative impact than America, in whose backyard it was and which controlled access to it. Nor was any other nation as capable and so audacious to take on the gargantuan technical, organizational, and political challenges of building it. Its successful completion was a tangible declaration of America’s industrial economic superiority and its growing ambition to take its place among the world’s great powers. The fast and inexpensive water passage between the two oceans also had a major, catalytic impact upon America’s internal growth. At last, the nation became capable of fully exploiting the advantages of its extensive maritime position. By transforming the Caribbean from a dead end into a transportation shortcut across the continent it created fresh synergy from the intermingling of the Far West’s potential mineral and agricultural wealth with the prolific industry and markets of the Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes, and the eastern seaboard. Not least, too, the canal combined America’s Atlantic and Pacific fleets into a single, great power upon the high seas.

The very creation of the canal had been closely interconnected with the evolution of American naval power. As a nation surrounded by oceans on three sides, maritime power and commerce had always played a primary role in American history. Although its fledgling navy was overwhelmingly outclassed by the British fleet during the War of Independence, John Paul Jones’s heroic sea victories and marauding of England’s coast had instilled national pride and the hope that American prowess as naval warriors could augment the natural moat of the Atlantic to defend the young country’s vital interests. From 1794, a small, but effective military fleet was built to safeguard American merchant shipping and diplomatic neutrality amid boiling war tensions between France and England. When the three-year Quasi-War with France erupted in 1798, the U.S. Navy earned the respect of all great European powers by prevailing in several Caribbean engagements against top French warships. The navy won further plaudits for liberating America from the onerous tolls and prisoner ransoms charged by the Islamic states of North Africa in the little-remembered Barbary Wars of 1801–1806. By Jefferson’s presidency, some $2 million, or one-fifth of America’s annual government revenue, had been paid to Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco to allow U.S. merchant ships to sail through the Strait of Gibraltar and trade unaccosted in Mediterranean waters. When Tripoli, greedy for larger tribute and underestimating American naval power, declared war on the United States in 1801, Jefferson sent the navy. The resulting bombardments and audacious marine raids on Tripoli created new naval heroes, swelled patriotic fervor at home and steeled American resolve to pay for defense but never again for tribute or ransom.

It was in the War of 1812 that the navy finally established its permanence as America’s indispensable military branch. Despite its small size and poorly maintained state at the start of the badly prepared war, the fleet, led by the USS Constitution (aka Old Ironsides due to its many protective layers to defend against broadsides), stunned Englishmen and thrilled Americans by winning a series of sea skirmishes against overconfident British warship commanders reveling in England’s recent triumphs over French fleets at the Nile and Trafalgar. Most important, U.S. naval freshwater commanders played crucial roles in foiling the concerted British invasion of America in 1814 by winning inland battles on Lake Champlain and Lake Erie. By gaining control of the strategic northern and Great Lakes for America, these victories ultimately convinced England to give up its long-term designs on the Mississippi Valley and instead settle its remaining border disputes with the United States in order to secure the vulnerable borders of British Canada.

After the war, naval power was deployed in America’s pursuit of its Manifest Destiny to expand its continental territory to the Pacific Ocean. In 1823, growing confidence in its naval power emboldened the United States to assert its defining Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers not to intervene in the newly independent republics of Latin America because the hemisphere was America’s special sphere of influence. In the Mexican War of 1846–1848, American vessels blockaded Mexican ports and in March 1847 gave crucial landing and bombardment support to the U.S. Army’s decisive march on Mexico City from Veracruz. With the 1848 treaty transferring nearly half Mexico’s territory to the United States—including most of the Southwest, California on the eve of the Gold Rush, and Mexico dropping its claims to Texas—America’s continental expansion was nearly complete.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the U.S. Navy also began to assert itself as a Western imperialist steam power in the Pacific. Trading right concessions were extracted by threat of force from China in 1844 paralleling those won by Britain in the Opium War. In 1853 and 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay with an armed squadron of frightening, smokestack-belching “black ships” that showed its overwhelming force through occasional practice gunnery to convince Japan’s leaders to open their nation to foreign trade after two centuries of virtual closure.

America’s Civil War of 1861–1865 in which the industrialized North applied its decisive naval superiority over the agriculture-based South, provided further evidence that no major modern war, and few rebellions, had been won without the advantage of naval power. Union vessels blockaded Confederate seaports while steam gunboats took command of southern rivers. By 1862, the North controlled the vital points along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers all the way to the port of New Orleans.

Yet by the 1880s, waning investment had caused America’s navy to slip far behind the rapid technical advancements in ship speed, and artillery accuracy, distance and power of leading European powers, notably England and rising industrial power, Germany. The defensive buffer provided in the age of sail by America’s ocean moats had visibly diminished. American officials grew alarmed when fellow hemispheric nations Peru and Chile in their War of the Pacific (1879–1883) both employed vessels superior to their U.S. Navy counterparts.

America’s reaction—the application of its rising mass production industrial might to build a world-class, steel navy—was a decisive turning point that helped tip the balance of power in America’s favor and set the stage for the building of the Panama Canal. The gradual buildup of the steel navy from the mid–1880s was paralleled by a transformation in Americans’ outlook about the nation’s appropriate place in the world and the role of sea power in attaining it. Both, in turn, were spurred by the rapid growth in demand for U.S.-manufactured goods on world export markets. As American economic interests expanded outward, U.S. leaders became convinced that America should behave like a European global power and that a strong navy was a vital component of national prosperity and security.

The most influential intellectual exponent of this view was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. His widely celebrated 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, shaped the policy framework of a generation of leaders through World War I, not just in the United States but also in England and Germany, including Kaiser Wilhelm II personally. A career U.S. naval officer, historian, and president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Mahan traced the rise and decline of maritime nations, most closely those in Europe from the mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries, and concluded that supremacy at sea held the key to international commercial success, prosperity, and national greatness. To Mahan, a favorable seaborne position, properly exploited, provided a cheap, easy, and safe transport highway that advantaged seafaring states in the key commercial struggle to control traffic on the world’s sea-lanes and strategic passages. “The seaboard of a country is one of its frontiers,” Mahan wrote. “Numerous and deep harbors are a source of strength and wealth, and doubly so if they are the outlets of navigable streams, which facilitate the concentration in them of a country’s internal trade.” Conversely, Mahan argued, the failure to fully exploit favorable sea geography resources represented a potential national vulnerability. Mahan’s unabashed conclusion was that a great nation needed a strong standing navy, with bases at home and abroad, deployed in the interests of enhancing its sea commerce and worldwide influence. Regarding an interoceanic canal in Central America, Mahan held strongly that if built, “the Caribbean would be changed from a terminus…into one of the great highways of the world…The position of the United States with reference to this route will resemble that of England to the Channel, and of the Mediterranean countries to the Suez route.” He also speculated hopefully that such a canal might excite America’s “aggressive impulse” to exert its influence globally.

By focusing his historical study on the mercantilist age of sail, Mahan’s study, in hindsight, suffered intellectually from myopic conclusions about the relationship between sea power, commerce, and international standing. In particular he underestimated the enormous national prosperity and military strength that could be derived from industrialized society and free trade. Nevertheless, many of his general observations about the advantages of sea power, from ancient times to the present, were germane, in varying degrees. But the historical significance of his views stemmed from the fact that leaders of the great nations pursued policies based upon them.

Mahan’s most important American adherent was Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. The future president, who would do more than anyone to turn Mahan’s prescriptions into reality, was thirty-one when Influence appeared and wrote a glowing review of it for the Atlantic Monthly. The two men had been friendly for several years since Roosevelt had lectured at the Naval War College on the topic of one of his own books, the naval history of the War of 1812. Mahan’s recommendation helped Roosevelt win appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy when Republican William McKinley won the presidency in 1896.

As assistant secretary, Roosevelt agitated within the McKinley administration for an aggressive expansion of the U.S. naval fleet as well as for the construction of an isthmian canal. Like his mentor, Roosevelt viewed a strong navy as the “big stick” of a new, more assertive American global diplomacy and winning supremacy at sea. As Roosevelt would frame it in speeches as president, “There is a homely adage which runs: ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

Assistant Secretary Roosevelt urged immediate administration of the “big stick” on February 15, 1898, when, amid the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor from unknown causes, killing 260. In April McKinley yielded to the bellicose clamor of Roosevelt and other young Republicans inflaming public opinion to “Remember the Maine!” by declaring war on Spain and liberating Cuba. Working off a war plan previously developed by the Naval War College, Roosevelt successfully pushed for a strike on Spain’s fleet in the Philippines as well as the blockade of Havana. The U.S. Asiatic squadron promptly steamed into Manila Bay and decimated the antiquated Spanish fleet without a single American death. Roosevelt himself soon decamped with U.S. troops for Cuba and attained national war hero status by leading a charge of his personally recruited band of “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill. In less than three months of fighting, the United States had seized control of Spain’s entire remaining American and Pacific empire.

By seeming to validate Mahan’s arguments about the benefits of sea power, the Spanish-American War triggered a dramatic escalation in the U.S. buildup of the country’s steel navy. Naval investment that totaled 6.9 percent of federal government spending in 1890 soared to 19 percent of a much larger base by 1914. On the eve of World War I and the opening of the Panama Canal, America’s navy was the third mightiest on Earth, and was poised to soon overtake those of England and Germany.

The Spanish-American War also infused unstoppable momentum to build the isthmian canal, which suddenly seemed indispensable to American national security, by unifying the strength of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The public case for the canal had been dramatically illustrated during the war by the long delay encountered by the Pacific warship Oregon in reaching the Caribbean theater because it had had to steam the additional 8,000 miles around South America’s Cape Horn. Two presidential interoceanic canal commissions, one organized in 1897 and a second in 1899, recommended building the passage through Nicaragua. Secretary of State John Hay prepared the diplomatic ground by negotiating an agreement with England to supersede an outstanding 1850 treaty affirming bilateral control over any interoceanic canal: England granted the United States the right to build and operate the canal subject only to the Suez Canal neutrality rules of being equally open in war and peacetime to all vessels. The United States could police the route, but not build fortifications.

It was Roosevelt who led the outraged howls of protests when the treaty was announced in early 1900. He did so from his new platform as Governor of New York, an office to which his war hero status had catapulted him in the 1898 elections. America must not compromise the sea power advantage of an American-built canal by relinquishing the right to fortify it against enemy warships, he insisted stridently. The public was swayed. Hay was forced to renegotiate the treaty. In mid-November 1901 the new Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, omitting the fortification restriction, was signed.

By that time an unlikely set of circumstances had propelled party maverick Teddy Roosevelt himself to the presidency. Irked at Roosevelt’s zealous, progressive agenda against corrupt political machines and the big business trusts that dominated the heights of American industry, but eager to capitalize on his popularity, Republican establishment leaders had tried to isolate Roosevelt by persuading him to take the vice presidency in the 1900 elections. Their plans suddenly went awry, however, when McKinley was shot by an assassin at Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.

At forty-three, Roosevelt was America’s youngest president ever and unlike any other. Possessed of boundless energy, a determination for action, an outsized vision of what America should be, and, despite personal arrogance and impetuosity, canny political and self-promotional skills, Roosevelt undertook several actions as president that transformed the course of twentieth-century America and water history. Above all, he mobilized the federal government as a strong, proactive agent of policy, whether as a progressive force to countervail big business trusts’ distortion of market forces, to undertake large public interest projects that were beyond the resources or risk appetite of private enterprise, to save wilderness areas, and to fulfill his conviction that the march of civilization demanded the artificial remolding and control of Earth’s resources, including indispensable water, to mankind’s needs.

The isthmian canal was at the very top of Roosevelt’s agenda when he assumed the presidency. At the time nearly everyone, including Roosevelt himself, took for granted that the canal would be built at Nicaragua, which was widely viewed as the American route. Men had dreamed about building a Central American canal ever since the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had marched across modern Panama in 1513 and became the first European to set eyes on the “South Sea,” as he called the Pacific Ocean. King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Habsburg monarch, ordered the first canal survey as early as 1534. Modern interest in the canal began in earnest after 1821 with the end of Spanish rule in Latin America. Several locations were considered, including Nicaragua, Mexico, and Panama.

More than anything else, it was the 1869 completion of the world-changing Suez Canal that finally galvanized action on an isthmian canal. Although U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant had sent seven expeditions to Central America starting in 1870 to thoroughly explore various canal routes and in 1876 chose in favor of Nicaragua, it was the renowned French impresario of the Suez Canal, Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps, who stole the first march to action. In May 1879, de Lesseps unveiled his stealthily laid, private-sector plan to crown his Suez legacy with an isthmian canal at a grand congress in Paris attended by illustrious experts from around the world. The congress’s ostensible task was to select the route and technical nature of the canal. In fact, the event was entirely orchestrated, with a predetermined outcome, by de Lesseps. Although seventy-four years old at the time, he still possessed the charisma, vigor, diplomatic cunning, and grandiose self-confidence that had made him triumphant at Suez. While many engineering plans were presented, the final vote of the all-important technical committee endorsed de Lesseps’s favored proposal—a sea-level canal at Panama. In fact, de Lesseps had previously lined up an exclusive contract with Colombia through intermediaries to build the canal in its state of Panama.

By being without locks at sea level, the Panama Canal would be a reprise of the canal engineering approach used at Suez—it was, in effect, Suez II. Yet, in reality, Panama was nothing at all like Suez. Suez had been cut through flat terrain in a hot, dry environment where the main problem was the dearth of water. Panama, by contrast, was a sweltering, tropical environment inundated with too much water, swelling rivers, mudslides, and deadly, disease-carrying mosquitoes. Part of the canal had to be cut through the rocky mountains of the continental divide. Although de Lesseps was a visionary entrepreneur and no engineer, he confidently assured the public that he could assemble the engineers, technology, and finances, and that at 50 miles or just half the length of Suez, the Panama Canal would be easier to build.

Despite adoring press and a soaring share price that excited the whole French nation, the venture soon ran into formidable obstacles on the ground in Panama. Most unanticipated was the outbreak of disease epidemics. Malaria and yellow fever debilitated up to 80 percent of the workforce at any given time with shivering fevers, unquenchable thirst and, in the case of yellow fever, intense headaches, back and leg pain and finally the dark, bloody vomiting that preceded death. An estimated 20,000 workers and managers died of these mosquito-borne tropical diseases whose origins were as yet unknown. Nor was any satisfactory solution devised for containing the wild Chagres River, which could rise 30 feet after a day of torrential rain; the estimated size of the needed dam kept rising to be one of the largest on Earth. Most daunting of all were the incessant mountain mudslides and ever-expanding excavation to cut through the unstable mountain geology of the continental divide; simply disposing of so much dirt proved to be an overwhelming logistical challenge. By late 1886, French engineers realized that the existing excavation technology of the age was simply not up to the task of building a canal according to de Lesseps’s sea-level design. For too long, de Lesseps refused to consider any alternative—illustrating the fine line separating inspired vision from disastrous obduracy. By the time he relented to a modified plan, it was too late. The company’s financing was exhausted and by mid-1889 work at the isthmus terminated. Some $287 million had been spent—over three times more than the entire Suez Canal—on a glorious but failed dream that in the end proved to be too great for the private sector acting alone with the available technology of the age. With so many individuals and families having lost their life’s savings, and with French national pride wounded, government investigations into wrongdoing were launched. In the hunt for scapegoats, de Lesseps was convicted of fraud and maladministration and sentenced to prison. Ailing, broken, and partly senile, he died in 1894, at the age of eighty-nine.

Efforts to revive the French canal project during the 1890s failed. As U.S. government action to build a canal at Nicaragua grew imminent in late 1901 when Roosevelt acceded to the presidency, French shareholders became frantic to salvage something of their Panamanian investments. They replaced company management and signaled the Americans they’d sell their assets on work already done for only $40 million—a 60 percent discount on their previous $109 million asking price. Although the U.S. interoceanic canal commission had recently endorsed Nicaragua, it had decided against Panama not on technical grounds but chiefly on the exorbitant cost of buying the French company’s assets. Roosevelt, who to this point had stayed publicly aloof from the debate, summoned each commissioner to the White House individually for a consultation on his private views. He then called a secret meeting of the entire commission in his office. With characteristic boldness, he told the commissioners he wanted a supplemental report favoring Panama—and he wanted it to be unanimous. The combination of factors that caused the new president to challenge the powerful Nicaragua lobby is not definitively known. Clearly, he had become convinced that Panama was indeed the superior technical route and that all the causes of the French failure could be overcome. He may also have found it an opportune means to curry favor with the powerful domestic political interests supporting Panama. Another motivation may have been concern that Germany or another competitive foreign power might buy the French assets if the United States did not.

Roosevelt’s intervention reignited the ferocious lobbying clash over the canal route between men of influence at the apex of American society. While most senators and the general public initially supported Nicaragua, the Panamanian route was backed by powerful Wall Street bankers, railroad barons, and Republican senator Mark Hanna, McKinley’s key political benefactor and the era’s towering national power broker. Although canal commission members were grilled at Senate hearings about why they flipped to endorse Panama after talking to Roosevelt, they insisted that both routes were viable and that the economic value of the work already done by the French made the difference. Ultimately, the tight Senate vote in June 1902 to give preference to Roosevelt’s Panamanian route tipped on tremors from a visceral but not technically significant factor—seismic activity in the region. Emotional sensitivities had been heightened by a devastating volcanic eruption that had recently struck the Caribbean island of Martinique. Then just prior to the senate vote, there was a rare, minor eruption in Nicaragua itself. The Nicaraguan government tried to head off any propaganda damage by denying, falsely, that the eruption had occurred at all. But Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a former French canal company engineer and project manager under de Lesseps who had come to America to spearhead the Panamanian lobby, trumped them with a deal-clinching theatrical response: On the eve of the vote he sent each senator an irrefutable, dramatic visual reminder of Nicaragua’s seismic peril in the form of that nation’s own one centavo stamp—featuring a smoking volcano rising from the middle of Lake Nicaragua. The final vote for Panama was 42 to 34.

In January 1903, after months of stalled negotiations, Colombia’s head diplomat in Washington reluctantly yielded to Roosevelt’s imperious treaty terms when the U.S. administration threatened to abandon Panama and open negotiations with Nicaragua: the United States would receive a 100-year renewable lease for effective sovereignty over the Canal Zone in exchange for $10 million plus $250,000 in annual rent. However the Colombian Senate, bridling at the loss of sovereignty, and insulted by the fact that the French company would get four times more upfront for its Panamanian assets, rejected the treaty in the summer. Roosevelt was furious. Privately referring to the Colombians as “jackrabbits,” “bandits,” and extortionists impeding a vital highway of human civilization, Roosevelt tacitly signaled his support for a secret plan for Panama to secede from Colombia and then sign the canal treaty with the United States.

The planned Panamanian revolution was brilliantly stage-managed from New York and Washington by the Frenchman Bunau-Varilla and the U.S. Panama lobby. Panama’s secessionist leaders were all prominent professionals employed by the American-owned Panamanian railroad. Bunau-Varilla provided virtually everything they needed—a declaration of independence, a military defense plan, a constitution, a national flag, secret communication codes, a payoff of $100,000 for expenses when the job was done, and most important of all, a promise that the U.S. military would back up the revolution. He even designated November 3 as the date for their revolution. His one condition was that he himself would be appointed by the new Panamanian government as its minister plenipotentiary in Washington to negotiate U.S. recognition and the canal treaty.

Bunau-Varilla had assured himself of Roosevelt’s military backing at a personal, informal meeting with the president at the White House on October 10, 1903. Within three weeks of the meeting, three American warships were ordered to sail toward the isthmus; on November 2 the commander of the first to arrive was instructed to prevent Colombian troops from landing in the event of turmoil. Early on November 3, before anything had happened on the ground, the State Department in Washington cabled its consul in Panama of reports about an uprising on the isthmus; the consul’s office cabled back that the uprising had not yet occurred and was to take place at 6:00 p.m. It did. A fire brigade was commissioned as the new Panamanian army. Marines disembarked from an American steam gunboat and bloodlessly confronted Colombian soldiers. Seeing the superior American vessels, one Colombian gunboat fired a few shells at Panama City—killing a sleeping Chinese shopkeeper and a donkey—and fled.

Independence was declared on November 4. Two days later, the United States formally recognized the Republic of Panama. A ceremony was conducted at the White House, entirely in English, between Roosevelt and the Frenchman Bunau-Varilla acting as Panama’s plenipotentiary. Treaty drafting began promptly, interrupted only by Bunau-Varilla’s quick visit to banker J. P. Morgan at his Wall Street headquarters to secure a loan for the $100,000 remuneration he’d promised the Panamanian leaders. With a Panamanian delegation rushing to Washington to try to reclaim the extraordinary powers they’d granted to Bunau-Varilla and the press clamoring about America’s high-handed involvement in the revolution, Bunau-Varilla and Secretary of State Hay hastily signed the canal treaty on November 18, 1903. The terms were the same as those previously offered to Colombia, with the addition of several clauses—inserted at Bunau-Varilla’s initiative—enhancing America’s sovereign rights in the Canal Zone and extending its lease into perpetuity. On the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, another French-American deal had delivered the United States an extraordinary territory that would empower its expansion for much of the ensuing century. As soon as the treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate in February 1904, and the French company guaranteed the $40 million payment for its canal assets, Bunau-Varilla resigned his Panamanian post and returned to Paris.

Roosevelt’s brazen use of naval force and his tortured legalistic justifications for intervening at the isthmus and recognizing Panama’s sovereignty ignited a torrent of resentment against U.S. imperialism. “Colombia was hit by the big stick, all Latin America trembled,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The United States began aggressively policing the Caribbean as if it were an American lake, frequently intervening in basin countries’ financial and foreign affairs, and landing marines half a dozen times between 1900 and 1917. America’s growing, imperialistic tendencies were also projected by Roosevelt and his successors outside the Western Hemisphere, highlighted by Roosevelt’s swaggering display of sea power in sending a great American fleet around the world in 1907. Latin American resentment smoldered for decades. President Wilson tried to soothe Colombia’s outrage at the loss of Panama with a $25 million payment; Panamanian restiveness caused the canal treaty to be revised several times and effective control of the canal was surrendered in stages starting in 1979.

Teddy Roosevelt, however, was unapologetic for his actions in Panama. He viewed the canal as an invaluable advancement of civilization and vital to America’s defense and prosperity. While absolutely denying any role in making Panama’s revolution, retrospectively he wrote that it was “by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs,” and in a 1911 speech, declared with characteristic bravado, “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress—not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” His most famous, instinctive response to his critics was issued shortly after U.S. government engineers took charge of the Canal Zone in May 1904: “Tell them that I am going to make the dirt fly!”

Building the canal was the most monumental, complex engineering challenge of the age, and one of the landmark technological achievements of human history. To complete it required the application of all the qualities underlying America’s rise as a great power—prolific industrial production, innovative ingenuity, government financial commitment, tenacity of purpose, and cultural optimism in its ultimate ability to succeed. Although construction lasted through the terms of three presidents, there was no doubt that it was Roosevelt who infused the guiding spirit and was the embodiment of the enterprise. Nothing exemplified this more than the three-day tour through the canal construction sites Roosevelt himself made in November 1906. Like a general inspecting the troops at the front, he trudged in the driving rain through muddy work camps, strode along the ties of the Panamanian railroad, climbed a hill to get a view of the future dam site, peppered everyone with questions, and most memorable of all, spontaneously stopped his touring train during a downpour to clamber into the control seat of one of the huge, workhorse steam shovels that could excavate eight tons of dirt in a single scoop—three times more than the shovels used previously by the French—and unload its contents into a departing railroad car every eight minutes. That no sitting president had ever before traveled abroad magnified the drama of his visit and his subsequent progress report to Congress on America’s stupendous endeavor.

After a slow start and a flirtation with reviving de Lesseps’ plan to dig a deep trench at sea level across the isthmus, the Americans by 1906 settled on a workable design and methodology for building a lock canal. Dams would be erected to entrap the rain-fed swells of the Chagres River, creating an 85-foot-high artificial lake that bridged much of the isthmus. Ships would ascend the lake through a flight of giant locks at one end and descend through another at the other end. Near the Pacific side, they would pass through a narrow, nine-mile-long canyon that would be excavated through the rocky mountains and rainy forests of the continental divide. Success hinged on managing three main challenges—containing the tropical diseases that debilitated the French workforce, controlling the wildly rising and falling Chagres River, and, hardest of all, cutting through the massive, mudslide-prone mountains. When it was completed in 1914, America’s canal construction workforce, which averaged 33,000 to 40,000 annually between 1907 and 1914, had excavated over eight times more earth than their French predecessors.

The eradication of yellow fever and control of malaria attained early on in the Panama project alone merited renown as a notable achievement of the twentieth century. During the French period, the germ theory of disease had been in its infancy and the role of the mosquito in transmitting yellow fever and malaria was only beginning to be perceived. But at the start of the century, American doctors, led by Walter Reed, working in Havana, Cuba, learned how to curb both diseases by attacking the two different mosquito species that carried them. A similar, wider war was waged throughout the jungles and towns of Panama. The silvery, female mosquito transmitting the dreaded yellow fever, which would deposit her eggs only in a container of clean water, depended upon the close proximity to human society for breeding and feeding. By systematically screening all windows and doors, fumigating houses, covering water barrels, oiling cisterns and cesspools, and eliminating standing water everywhere, U.S. Army doctors virtually wiped out yellow fever from Panama by the end of 1905. To attack the more wide-ranging malaria mosquito, sanitary teams also drained hundreds of miles of swamps, installed effective drainage channels, chopped down jungle vegetation, sprayed oil on standing water, and spread mosquito-larvae-eating minnows and mosquito-feeding spiders and lizards near human habitats. While never eradicated, malaria was sufficiently contained so that it didn’t interfere with constructing the canal. The success of the disease control program at Panama informed the global wars on yellow fever and malaria that were soon launched in the 1910s and 1920s by the Rockefeller Foundation and other humanitarian organizations.

The Chagres River was controlled by the construction of an immense, wide earthen dam filled with dirt excavated from the mountains. The dam created what was then the largest man-made lake on Earth. The concrete used in the flight of huge, steel-gated locks exceeded the volume of any project until the building of the Hoover Dam in the early 1930s. Some 26 million gallons of fresh lake water—roughly one-quarter of the daily water supply used by New York City in that era—were consumed in filling the innovative flight locks every time a ship was raised or lowered the 85 feet from the lake to the sea. A novel system of towing locomotives guided the ships into and out of the locks. All the tows, valves, culverts, lock gates, and other lock-regulating mechanisms were electrically powered by some 1,500 motors, which were hydropowered by the falling water on site. As a result, the functioning of the canal was centralized and entirely self-contained, requiring no external energy source.

During canal construction, tourists came from around the world to observe what was by far the canal’s most Herculean challenge—digging the nine-mile-long, neck-shaped water passage through the mountains of the continental divide. The Culebra Cut that had broken the French was often called the canal’s “special wonder.” For seven straight years American-managed work crews labored systematically day and night, except Sundays, in the sweltering heat and rain, blasting mountains, hauling away rock and dirt, and relentlessly digging out work equipment that became buried beneath the mountainside avalanches of mud that recurred time and again during the rainy season. The amount of dirt hauled out of the Cut defied imagination. The labor would have been simply overwhelming had not the engineers applied U.S. industrial assembly line methodology and technical ingenuity to the work. The lifeline of the system was the heavy-duty railroad network that operated on precise schedules at different levels within the Cut. Where heavy wheeled vehicles would have become mired in the soft ground, railroads were able to haul in equipment and remove excavated earth at regular intervals. Every day 50 to 60 massive, steam-powered shovels filled 500 trainloads of spoil. Newly invented mechanized excavation equipment that had been unavailable to the French, such as train unloaders and dirt spreaders, accomplished in minutes work that previously had consumed thousands of manual man-hours. Finally, in May 1913, two steam shovels working from opposite directions broke through the last mounds of earth. A few months later, in October 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a signal button in Washington to blow the dike for the final filling of the canal. Ominously, a powerful earthquake had ripped through the Canal Zone some ten days earlier, cracking buildings in Panama City. But the canal passed the final test of nature totally unscathed. It had been finished on time at a total cost of $375 million to the U.S. government. The gala international celebration scheduled for the official opening on August 15, 1914, however, never came off—the start of World War I intervened. Teddy Roosevelt himself never visited the finished canal. He died in early 1919, at age sixty.

By every measure, the canal was a stupendous success. Within a decade, some 5,000 vessels were passing through it every year, as many as through Suez. By 1970, over 15,000 ships made the ten- to twelve-hour journey, paying annual tolls of over $100 million. Periodic enlargements and improvements permitted the passage of large warships and the growing fleet of oil supertankers and giant container ships that formed the backbone of the shipping revolution underpinning the rapid integration of the global economy in the late twentieth century. The canal represented the culmination of the historical transformation of the world’s oceans from restrictive boundaries into integrated superhighways that had begun with the European Voyages of Discovery four centuries earlier.

“The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished,” summed up David McCullough in his sweeping history of the canal. “Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.”

For America, the Panama Canal stood as a beacon of the nation’s arrival as a star among world civilizations. It was a national historic turning point when many of the society’s dynamic forces coalesced to open a new era. At last, America was in a position to fulfill its continental promise of marrying the maritime resources of its two ocean frontiers. U.S. exports and investment abroad soared after the canal’s opening. Overseas markets and raw materials were immediately drawn into the productive circuit of America’s prolific industrial economy. By 1929 the United States was producing nearly half the world’s total industrial output.

Likewise, the Panama Canal marked the transition between the first and second of American naval history’s three eras. It ended the long period when America’s navy was focused chiefly on defending the young country’s borders and waterways, protecting free trade and market access for its seafaring merchants while opportunistically promoting continental expansion. After Panama, naval orientation projected American power outward to arbitrate affairs within Europe and Asia, while expanding American commercial and military access throughout the world. The United States entered World War I to make the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson explained, when German submarines began sinking U.S. and other formally neutral merchant and passenger ships in its effort to break Britain’s control of the seas and blockade of its ports. Throughout the third era dating from World War II, the mighty U.S. Navy patrolled the globe’s oceans and strategic passages, peerless and rarely challenged, to uphold the international free world order of which America itself was the undisputed leader. American aircraft carriers were the state-of-the-art naval weapon of World War II. Most famously, aircraft carriers played the decisive role in the pivotal Battle of Midway (June 1942) that determined control of the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese navy that had inflicted such a terrible, surprise first strike on the Americans six months earlier at Pearl Harbor never recovered from its Midway defeat; Midway was the first sea battle in history in which the engaging fleets never saw each other and remained from 80 to 170 miles apart throughout. Control of the seas likewise enabled America to carry out the Normandy D-day landings that ultimately reclaimed continental tEurope from Nazi Germany.

America’s central position on the world’s ocean superhighways, its plethora of good, all-weather seaports, and its naval dominance remained critical advantages in its winning the Cold War against its mostly land-bound Soviet adversary. The USSR’s military fleets and supply ships constantly labored against the geographic disadvantages of long distances, bad climates, and confinement imposed by the West’s control of key naval passages, such as those in exiting the Black Sea. America’s early twenty-first-century capability to project its influence as civilization’s unchallenged military superpower continued to hinge upon its worldwide deployment of its dozen world-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier task forces. Its dominance was roughly equal to the combined power of the world’s next nine leading military nations, and unmatched in Western history since ancient Rome ruled over the Mediterranean world.

By creating an inexpensive, fast water linkage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Panama Canal also pointed the direction arrow toward America’s next economic boom region—its underdeveloped, arid Far West, whose store of potential mineral and agricultural wealth suddenly came within easier reach of the expanding industries and markets of the East. As a successful federal government-financed and -run enterprise, the canal, moreover, inspired a ready model for undertaking the large, state-run water projects that developed the Far West into America’s twentieth-century growth engine. In contrast to the more orthodox, laissez-faire market economy attitudes prevailing in latter-nineteenth-century England and France, the United States had always been governed by a distinctive “American system” that regarded government as an active agent to assist the private development of the nation’s resources. The New York State financing of the Erie Canal, the federal government’s early policy of promoting internal improvements, and its incentives to the transcontinental railroads and small farmers who homesteaded lands west of the Mississippi after 1862 exemplified how this mixed economic model had worked in the nineteenth century. With the Panama Canal, a fuller, more activist iteration of this mixed system was inaugurated to meet the gargantuan scale of the challenges and opportunities of the industrial age. Teddy Roosevelt himself was the prime mover of the government-led policies that later in the century, under the presidency of his younger distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt, came to fruition in the giant, multipurpose dams that spectacularly transformed America’s scantly populated, arid western landscape with cheap irrigation for farming and hydroelectricity for mining and industry. The publicly built dams, in turn, reinforced the general trajectory of the large, state-led governance that characterized so many leading societies of the twentieth century.