What is the Panama Canal? - History, Building & Facts

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  • 0:01 What Is the Panama Canal?
  • 1:00 Historical Background
  • 2:15 First Attempts
  • 2:45 United States Acquisition
  • 4:52 U.S. Construction & Disputes
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

The Panama Canal is a large canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is considered a major engineering feat, but also reflects the United States's aggressive foreign policy during the early 20th century.

What Is the Panama Canal?

When Americans think of the great engineering masterpieces of the United States, we generally think of something like the Sears Tower, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, or Golden Gate Bridge. But what if I told you that perhaps the biggest engineering accomplishment of Americans wasn't even in the United States, but in Panama?

The Panama Canal is a 50-mile, man-made canal cutting through the Isthmus of Panama that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It was constructed by the United States in order to find a waterway route between the two oceans.

Panama Canal Location
Panama Canal

The Panama Canal represents both the best and worst of the United States. It represents the best in showing American ingenuity and engineering in creating a sustainable system for getting between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But, at the same time, it highlights a negative period in American foreign policy, in which the United States bullied around the countries of Latin America.

Historical Background

Ever since Europeans realized that Columbus had discovered a 'new world' and not a route to Asia, explorers became fascinated with the idea of finding a direct connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Sure, Ferdinand Magellan had circumnavigated the globe, but his route required sailing south along the Atlantic Ocean, circling around the southern tip of South America, and moving up the Pacific Ocean on the western side of South America. Such a route was highly impractical. Other explorers searched for the legendary Northwest Passage, the supposed water route in North America that connected the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. We now know that such efforts were worthless, because such a route has never existed.

The truth is no water passage in North America or South America existed connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There was, however, one narrow strip of land, approximately 50 miles wide, that connected North America and South America in Southern Central America. This strip was called the Isthmus of Panama. The idea began to be floated around - what if a man-made water way could be constructed in this narrow passage to connect the two oceans? Surely, that would allow for a water connection between the two waterways.

First Attempts

Imagine working in a rainy jungle, with constant mudslides and widespread mosquitoes carrying a multitude of disease. Doesn't sound like fun, does it? For this reason, the first attempts by French entrepreneurs to build a canal were worthless. From 1881 to 1894, the French tried to build the canal. But the rainy conditions made construction nearly impossible, and the French entrepreneurs had to give up after going bankrupt and losing 22,000 workers to disease and injury.

United States Acquisition

After the French realized that they would be unsuccessful, they sought potential buyers for the project. The United States decided to purchase the canal, negotiating the terms with Colombia, the country that had sovereignty over the canal. The treaty, known as the Hay-Herran Treaty, allowed the United States to lease the territory.

Have you ever had someone give you their word, only for them to go back on their promise? Well, the United States essentially did this with Colombia by negating the Hay-Herran Treaty.

The problem was that there was also an independence movement among Panamanians to separate from Colombia. The United States President at the time, Teddy Roosevelt, realized that this was a golden opportunity to negotiate a better deal for the United States. So Roosevelt shifted gears and decided to support Panamanian independence from Colombia.

Roosevelt sent a U.S. warship to the coast of Panama, and the next day, Panamanians declared independence. The United States then signed a new treaty, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, with the new Panamanian government in which the United States was given complete control of the territory and canal project. The problem was that the person signing the treaty on Panama's behalf, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, wasn't even Panamanian. He was French! So, the United States signed a new treaty with a person who wasn't part of the country he was representing.

The way in which the United States acquired the Panama Canal has often been compared to bullying. The U.S. quietly threatened Colombia and forced Panamanians to accept the terms of the Bunau-Varilla Treaty. For this reason, U.S. foreign policy at this time has often been called gunboat diplomacy.

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