Panama Canal Symbolizes U.S. Geopolitical, Technological Power

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Steve Inskeep talks to Harvard professor Noel Maurer about the Panama Canal which opened 100 years ago. One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Famous palindromes sums up the story of building the Panama Canal. A palindrome says the same thing when you put the letters backwards.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Mom is a palindrome. So is dad, and so is this - a man, a plan, a canal - Panama.

INSKEEP: We flushed out the story of that palindrome with Noel Maurer, co-author of "The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran And Ultimately Gave Away The Panama Canal."

NOEL MAURER: A man, a plan, a canal - Panama.

INSKEEP: OK. There we go. Who was the man?

MAURER: President Theodore Roosevelt. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Panama Canal as we know it would occur and would occur when it did.

INSKEEP: OK. So what was the plan?

MAURER: The stated plan was to build a trans-isthmian canal that ships could pass through - cutting transportation costs from the West coast to the East coast to the United States and enabling more commerce with Asia. There was also some hopes that naval vessels would be able to quickly move from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The actual plan was to make the nation of Panama independent from Columbia to ensure that the shareholders in the old French initiative there got $40 million, much of which was passed off to American politicians in the form of campaign contributions, and then to build a canal that would be isolated in a semi-sovereign zone into which Panamanians could not enter nor could Panamanian businesses compete with Americans provisioning the passing ships.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK. So this independent country was created and the other part you said was a canal zone within the newly independent country that wouldn't really be part of the newly independent country anymore.

MAURER: So the treaty that gets signed carves out the Panama Canal zone, which is a 10 mile wide zone, in which the United States had sovereign rights in perpetuity forever. The treaty is then presented in English with no Spanish translation to the Panamanians and the Secretary of State informs the Panamanians that he will withdraw the Marines who are protecting Panama if they don't sign it.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have the man, Theodore Roosevelt, we have the plan, create an independent country that's compliant enough to allow the canal to be built. We have the canal, incredible engineering marvel - amazing using locks to get over the mountains to get to the other side, one of the wonders of the world. What was the effect on the United States and its role in the world of that canal?

MAURER: The United States was about 4 percent richer by the time 1940 rolls around then it would've been without it. That's a big number. And it is almost entirely due to the movement of petroleum products from the West Coast of the United States to the East Coast of the United States which was not something anyone had in mind back in 1903.

INSKEEP: So the canal was finished by 1914. For how long was it a major economic or strategic asset for the United States?

MAURER: About two and a half decades, up until World War II. After World War II it's economic value drops like a rock and that's driven really for one simple reason - railroad dieselization drops transportation costs inside the United States by land much more than people realize. You add the construction of the interstate highway to that and the cost savings for moving goods via the Panama Canal drops. It's actually Lyndon Johnson that starts negotiating treaties to try and give it away, but it's such a politically contentious issue that he can't get it done.

INSKEEP: Why was it so contentious to give away the Canal in the end even though it was losing money? Did it have someplace close to American hearts?

MAURER: That is absolutely right. You said it perfectly. I was only 7-years-old when this is happening. And why anyone in Brooklyn in 1977 would care about the Panama Canal has got to be only an issue of national sentiment. And the Canal was that iconic for Americans.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Maurer, thanks very much. I've enjoyed this.

MAURER: Sure. Thank you for the opportunity.

INSKEEP: Noel Maurer is co-author of "The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran And Ultimately Gave Away The Panama Canal." Write down that palindrome at home, give it a try. A man, a plan, a canal - Panama. It's NPR News.

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