President Theodore Roosevelt, Just 5 Days After the United States Takes Possession of the Panama Canal Zone, Introduces the First Governor of the Canal Zone to the President of Panama

You may “discuss with him with absolute frankness and freedom all matters the adjustment of which may be necessary in order that there may be full and harmonious agreement for bringing to a successful conclusion the great work in which our two nations has so deep an interest.”

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In the 19th century, the United States was a two-ocean nation, but the only way to get from one American coast to the other by sea was to go all the way around the bottom of South America. The Spanish-American War highlighted this problem, as when the USS Maine was sunk, the battleship...

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President Theodore Roosevelt, Just 5 Days After the United States Takes Possession of the Panama Canal Zone, Introduces the First Governor of the Canal Zone to the President of Panama

You may “discuss with him with absolute frankness and freedom all matters the adjustment of which may be necessary in order that there may be full and harmonious agreement for bringing to a successful conclusion the great work in which our two nations has so deep an interest.”

In the 19th century, the United States was a two-ocean nation, but the only way to get from one American coast to the other by sea was to go all the way around the bottom of South America. The Spanish-American War highlighted this problem, as when the USS Maine was sunk, the battleship USS Oregon, stationed in San Francisco, was ordered to proceed at once to the Atlantic, a 12,000-mile course around the Horn. It took 67 days to arrive, far too long to satisfy U.S. military interests. At war’s end the U.S. found itself with new possessions in both oceans, such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and no ready way to quickly move naval assets from one to the other. This clearly showed the military significance of an Isthmian canal.

Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of the theory that U.S. naval officer and scholar Thayer Mahan propounded in his 1890 book, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” in which he maintained that supremacy at sea was the key ingredient in military and commercial success. For Roosevelt, who had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy before leaving to lead the Rough Riders in 1898, the lessons of the war made it clear that U.S. control over inter-ocean access was an absolute necessity. However, since 1882 the French had been trying to build an Isthmian canal, and they had the rights and the personnel and equipment on the ground. Their success would have meant potential European control of the key gateway in the Americas, in direct contravention to U.S. national security. However, their efforts had thus far been fruitless and costly.

When TR became president in 1901, building an American-owned and operated canal through Panama became one of his chief priorities. He reversed a previous decision by a Congressional commission in favor of a Nicaragua canal, obtained an offer from the troubled French effort to sell out for $40 million, and then pushed the acquisition through Congress. Panama was then part of Colombia, so Roosevelt opened negotiations with the Colombians to obtain the necessary rights. In early 1903, in the Hay-Herran Treaty, he thought he had obtained those rights, but the Colombian dictator got his Senate to refuse to ratify the treaty. Roosevelt felt he had been dealt with dishonestly and was being blackmailed for more money, so he dropped the negotiations. Instead, he directly supported Panama’s independence movement by dispatching warships to both sides of the Isthmus, effectively blocking Colombia’s sea approaches to that area. TR also sent American troops to both protect the Isthmian railroad, and block Colombian access to the interior. A land approach by a Colombian force of 2,000 was defeated in the Darien jungle and forced to turn back. Panama declared independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was negotiated by the U.S. with the new republic, and it was fully ratified on February 23, 1904. Roosevelt’s audacious move succeeded for the United States, but it was not without political repercussions, as some in both Latin America and the U.S. maintained that the Americans had strong-armed the Colombians and then forced the treaty on the Panamanians. However, without the U.S. military presence it is doubtful that the Panama independence movement would have succeeded. So TR felt politically justified, and the end result, he strongly believed, increased the national security and promoted the commercial interests of the United States. Roosevelt would later boast that “…I took the isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” Creation of the Panama Canal was one of Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishments as president, and his name will always be intimately associated with it.

The victorious Panamanians gave the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904, for $10 million in accordance with the Treaty. The United States took control of the French property connected to the canal on May 4, 1904. Roosevelt needed a man on the ground to govern the canal zone. George Whitefield Davis was an engineer and Major General in the United States Army. He also served as a military Governor of Puerto Rico.

Typed letter signed, Washington, White House stationery, May 9, 1904, to President Amador of Panama, introducing him to the first governor of the Panama Canal Zone. “My dear President Amador, Permit me to introduce to you General George W. Davis, United States Army, retired, a member of the Isthmian Canal Commission, whom I have designated as Governor of the Canal Zone. General Davis is one of the most distinguished officers of our army, a veteran of the great Civil War, who has acted as Governor of Puerto Rico and has been for several years in command of all the forces in the Philippines. He is my personal representative, and I solicit for him at your hands any courtesy which you may be disposed to show, and beg that you will discuss with him with absolute frankness and freedom all matters the adjustment of which may be necessary in order that there may be full and harmonious agreement for bringing to a successful conclusion the great work in which our two nations has so deep an interest.”

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