Sold – TR Defends One of His Administration’s Principle Accomplishments – the Panama Canal

To promote national security, he says “We would not permit it to be built by a foreign government.” The only such major manuscript defense by an American president that we recall seeing .

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In the 19th century, the United States was a two-ocean nation, and 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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Sold – TR Defends One of His Administration’s Principle Accomplishments – the Panama Canal

To promote national security, he says “We would not permit it to be built by a foreign government.” The only such major manuscript defense by an American president that we recall seeing .

In the 19th century, the United States was a two-ocean nation, and 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 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 Columbia’s sea approaches to that area. TR also sent American troops to both protect the Isthmian railroad, and block Columbian access to the interior.  A land approach by a Colombian force of 2,000 was defeated by 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 Panama Canal construction began soon after, and by the time William H. Taft became president was half completed. It was virtually done by Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration on March 4, 1913, with the canal being finished on October 10, 1913, when Wilson set off the final detonation telegraphically from Washington. The first ship went through in January 1914.

Wilson came into office as the champion of liberal humanitarian international ideals. He believed that the United States had been created to serve mankind, and he repudiated the use of violence to protect American material interests abroad, as well as any actions that might constitute American interference in the domestic affairs of another nation. The latter issue was particularly sensitive in Latin America, which Wilson wanted ardently to draw into closer economic and diplomatic relationships. As a first step, they negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government to repair the moral and diplomatic damage he felt was done by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, when TR supported the Panamanian revolution that deprived Colombia of the Canal Zone. The Treaty of Bogotá, signed on April 6, 1914, not only awarded Colombia an indemnity of $25 million for the loss of Panama, but also expressed the “sincere regret” of the United States that anything should have happened to impair good relations between the two countries. The sight of the United States apologizing to Colombia evoked approval in Latin America, but many Americans were horrified that an apology should be issued for helping Panamanians obtain independence and protecting American strategic interests at the same time.

Theodore Roosevelt decided to speak out forcefully in defense of his policy as president, laying out his reasoning, describing his actions, and criticizing his opponents such as President Wilson. Autograph Manuscript Speech delivered at Oyster Bay, 10 pages in Roosevelt’s hand, July 2, 1914, shortly after returning from Europe, on Hamburg-America Line stationery with the German Flag printed in blue and gold at the top left-hand corner, in which he relates a description of the details of the U.S. acquisition of the Canal Zone, the reasons he ceased negotiations with Colombia, and the fact that he was motivated by the need to get the job done, and done by the U.S. rather than a European power. Here is a small selection from the text.

“I wish to call attention to exactly what was done when under my administration, and because of the action of that administration, the people of the United States acquired what they in no other manner would have acquired, the right to build the Panama Canal…For 400 years there had been conversation about the need of a Panama Canal. The time for further conversation had passed. The time to translate words into deeds had come. If I had followed Mr. Wilson’s policy of “watchful waiting” we would have ensured half a century of additional conversation and the canal would still be in the dim future. I did not follow that policy; and it is only because I acted precisely as I did act that we now have the Canal. The interests of the civilized peoples of the world demanded the construction of the Canal…We would not permit it to be built by a foreign government. Therefore we were in honor bound to build it ourselves, and were in honor bound not to permit a great enterprise so central to our own well-being and fraught with such usefulness to all the nations of mankind to be arrested by the corrupt greed of the [Colombian] government…Until the present proposed treaty was negotiated by Messrs. Wilson and Bryan I had not supposed that any American administration would thus betray the honor and interest of the American people by submitting to blackmail; but at any rate the Colombian government was in error when it indulged in such a supposition about my administration. I have no quarrel with the Colombian people, and do not question their fine private qualities. But unfortunately in international affairs a nation must be judged by the government that speaks for it…The then Colombian government was embodied in the person of a single man, a dictator, with absolute executive and legislative power…He was as ardent an inherent of the letter of the [Colombian] Constitution as is any great corporation lawyer of our own land when endeavoring to secure his client against the need for obeying a public service or Workmen’s Compensation law, and it was his right to assume all the executive powers of the government… But when we had thus committed ourselves and the Colombian dictator – that is the Colombian government – thought it was too late for us to change, he decided to try to get more money from us…In addition, I would call to Mr. Wilson’s attention the fact that the sum of $40 million represents the exact amount which Colombia lost when the United States government of that day refused to submit to blackmail… Of course France would not have submitted to the proposed robbery. I made up my mind that if I waited we would have seen on the Isthmus a great and old world power, which would have had a right to be there, because we had lost our rights to our own supine folly, and in such case, in other words if I had acted on the Wilson/Bryan theory, all hope or chance of our building the Canal ourselves would have vanished into thin air. Panama regarded itself as having suffered, and in very fact had suffered, an intolerable wrong. The building of the Canal was vital to her well-being. Colombia had been an unsympathetic and incompetent master, powerless even to keep order. In the preceding 50 years there had been 53 revolutions on the Isthmus, and on a score of occasions we had been obliged to send our troops to protect our treaty rights and the lives of Americans and other foreigners. Panama declared her independence, her citizens acting with absolute unanimity. She then concluded with us a treaty substantially like that we had negotiated with Colombia, for the same sum of money. We did not in the smallest degree instigate the revolution. All the people of Panama wish the revolution. We acknowlegded her independence, entered into the Treaty, and began, and have now completed the construction of the Canal. We never fired a shot at a Colombian. The only act of ours which could in any manner be construed as hostile to Colombia was our landing sailors and marines to protect the lives of American women and children, and in this matter we merely did what had been done by us at least 20 times in the previous 53 revolutions. As soon as the revolution was an accomplished fact, and when it was of course too late, Colombia endeavored to undo her actions…As president, I declined to allow Uncle Sam to be blackmailed. Mr. Wilson now desires for blackmail to be paid…The conduct of the United States government throughout the entire proceedings which resulted in our acquiring the Canal Zone and beginning to work on the Canal was absolutely open and straightforward, absolutely in accordance with the principles of the highest of international morality. Only by acting precisely as we did could we have secured the right to build the Panama Canal. It is hypocrisy to claim credit for the Canal and at the same time to attempt to discredit the course which alone rendered the Canal possible. It will be a grave wrong to the Republic, a reflection upon the honor of this nation in the past and a menace to his interest in the future, if this Treaty for its belated payment of blackmail is ratified in Washington.” This is the only major manuscript defense by a president of one of his administration’s main acomplishments we can recall seeing. In its issue of July 3, 1914, this speech was reported in the New York Times. A copy of that article, and indeed a complete transcription of the speech, is included.

The speech and TR’s opposition to the proposed Colombia Treaty was effective, and the U.S. Senate refused ratification. In 1921, the Harding administration negotiated a new treaty, which was ratified; it awarded Colombia the $25 million but omitted the apology.

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