Panama Canal Controversy

The book by Paul B. Ryan is a very thorough and very detailed look at how the Panama Canal deal was made — and built — by the United States. As the book explains, it was not an easy task for the U.S. To broker a deal to build the canal, and on top of that, many controversies were to emerge in the coming years. This paper reviews the book and provides analysis as well.

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The Backdrop in an Historical Context

It is interesting to read in this book that American interest in Panama was initially stirred because of the California gold rush in 1849. Miners anxious to find their fortunes needed to get from the east coast to the west coast of the U.S. without having to cross the continent by land or sail around South America, and so a rail line was built (in lieu of a canal). Meanwhile the French tried their hand at building a canal in 1881 (the same company that built the Suez Canal) but though their efforts failed, they did lead the way for Americans later to use the locks system.

There was the enormous problem of workers’ health to deal with — mosquitoes carried yellow fever and malaria — but once those issues were dealt with, and after President McKinley was assassinated (and Teddy Roosevelt became president), the negotiations went forward. This chapter deals in great detail all the political wrangling. In time there were complications with employment for the thousands of workers (including wage issues) and local workers experienced discrimination. But the canal building continued.

Chapter #2 — Political Complexities

Was the U.S. just an empire-building and was the canal just a way of taking over land and water in a power grab? That was the view of many in Panama, and politicians embraced serious nationalism to get votes because the population was becoming more and more anti-American. In fact Article III of the 1903 treaty between the U.S. And Panama did in fact authorized the U.S. To have “…all the rights, power, and authority” in the Canal Zone (24). Ryan does a good job providing all the intricate political and strategic details. On page 27 the U.S. And Panama agreed that America (“without advanced consultation”) could take military action to defend the canal. The Germans (WWII) were gobbling up Europe and forging serious influence in South America so the U.S. beefed up security at the canal lest Germans bomb the locks.

Chapter #3 — Hardline Diplomacy

This chapter deals with compromises that the U.S. made regarding some military sites they apparently could have taken charge of but backed off because of the politics in Panama. A new treaty in 1955 (authorized by Congress in 1958) gave Panama more annual money ($1.93 million, up from $430,000) and authorized managers to hire all eligible Panamanians (a change from the previous hiring police which was biased against local people). Disturbances erupted in Panama over the desire for Panama to take over the canal; Panamanians wanted their flag to be flown over the canal to show their “titular sovereignty” and President Eisenhower (contrary to the wishes of Congress) authorized that the Panamanian flag indeed be flown (42).

Chapter #4 — JFK and LBJ and Diplomacy

Even though President John Kennedy lavished aid money on Panama (and other Latin American countries) as part of his helping hand, the tensions did not decrease vis-a-vis the canal and the nationalistic demands for the U.S. To hand the canal over to Panama. The Cuban Missile Crisis showed how important strategically the canal was to American interests; dozens of Navy ships passed through the canal on their way to the shores around Cuba (49). President Johnson (55-56) tried to conclude a new treaty (to give the canal authority back to Panama) but negotiations stalled and a coup in Panama put an end to those talks (59). Throughout this book Ryan makes the narrative lively and interesting by using colorful phrases such as: “…Lyndon Johnson’s chickens had come home to roost” (62); the completion of the canal (in 1914) generated “…the same wonderment as the Apollo moon landing of 1969” (20); if colonels in Panama were “…convinced that venal, reckless politicians are steering the ship of state onto the rocks,” then they proceed with a coup (“golpe”) to “restore normalcy” (64).

Chapter #5 — the Torrijos Takeover

Coups are part of the reality of Latin American politics, so it was not big news when Colonel Torrijos took over in 1969. This chapter reviews the life of Torrijos and how he came to power. The chapter serves as a history lesson on Latin American coups, politics, and the need for the U.S. To interact with dictators who were also reformers (68-69). One of the problems facing American leaders was based on the frequent coups in Panama; that is, could Torrijos be counted on to stay the course and complete negotiations notwithstanding his anti-American rhetoric and loud bluster that kept him popular with his people?

Chapter #6 — the Cuban Connection

Ryan asserts (71-73) that Torrijos initially modeled his leadership style after Fidel Castro; but there were major differences between the two as Castro tried to revolutionize Latin America (trying first to stir up revolution in Panama, which failed) and Torrijos just wanted to rule well in Panama, and get the canal back into Panama’s hands. Torrijos’ visit to Cuba (in 1975) was reported by the media that accompanied Torrijos as a major diplomatic achievement. In addition to relating Castro and Torrijos’ linkage, this chapter covers Castro’s attempt to spread Cuban communism in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere.

Chapter #7 — Canal Economics and World Trade

What wasn’t well-known in the world was that the U.S. didn’t actually profit financially from the canal. In fact Teddy Roosevelt was pleased that the U.S. could facilitate the passage of many nations’ vessels from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the “common good” was important to Roosevelt (79). But that was not the way many regions viewed the U.S. presence in the Canal Zone. Misinformation led to accusations of U.S. greed that weren’t really true at all.

Chapter #8 — Diplomacy in the 1970s

Henry Kissinger and Ellsworth Bunker led the negotiations in Richard Nixon’s administration that led to an agreement that the U.S. would give the canal back to Panama but the U.S. would retain the rights to defend the waterway (in coordination with Panama). But getting this agreement (the “Eight-Point Pact”) through the U.S. Congress was another matter (98). The American public did not understand the deal at all; many thought the U.S. would be foolish to give the canal to a government that didn’t have a history of dependable diplomacy. Congress was opposed to the deal (100-101) and the debate got ugly at times and divided those who sought fairness by returning the canal to Panama, and those who detested the idea of any compromise, saying it would show weakness on the part of Uncle Sam.

Chapter #9 — Drumming Up International Support

The Panamanian response to the debate in Congress and among Americans was to use the United Nations as a place to express their grievances and to solicit international support. The rhetoric was ramped up as Torrijos spoke to a group of 15 representatives to the United Nations and asserted that the U.S. was “…maintaining a colony in the heart of Panama”; he said the canal was a “natural resource” similar to oil in Peru, sugar in Cuba, copper in Chile, and that America had basically stolen from “men of poor countries” (112). He even went so far as to blast the U.S. For blockading Cuba (not mentioning of course that the Soviets were digging silos for nuclear weapons that would be aimed at the U.S.); he called the people of Cuba “our brothers” (112). The UN Security Council passed a resolution supporting Panama’s desire to take over the canal. In further verbal attacks, Panama ambassador Nander Pitty accused the U.S. Of engaging in the policies of “…strangulation, colonialism, imperialism, (and) oppression” (113). The rest of this chapter reviews the position taken by other Latin American countries about the canal, some supporting Panama and others cautiously remaining vague so as not to offend the U.S.

Chapter #10 — Political Developments, 1975-1977.

All the hot air and vicious rhetoric against the United States notwithstanding, the fact was that the 1903 treaty granted the U.S. “…rights of sovereignty…in perpetuity” (124). This last chapter reviews the presidential campaign between President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan; Reagan took a hard line against any giving up of authority in the Canal Zone while Ford (and later Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in the national election) believed it was time for America to back away from total control. Carter oversaw the negotiations that would lead to an end of the long and bitter controversy.

Chapter #11- Diplomacy and U.S. Interests

Would America’s security be threatened by turning the canal back to Panama? That was one of the salient questions asked during the debates as Carter tried to revive diplomacy and make the decisions necessary to return control to Panama. There were arguments that the U.S. had vital interests in maintaining control over the canal due to the need to move warships and submarines through the locks during world crises. Others cited the Soviet nuclear threat and wondered if giving the canal back to Panama would open the door for Soviet influence in the region. And there was the “psychological penalty of a pull-out” (147); giving the canal back could make America seem weak. In the end, however, after years of conflicting ideas and assertions, a deal was signed in 1977 and the canal went back to Panama in 2000.

In conclusion, this book was a wonderfully well-written and detailed account of everything about the Panama Canal from the beginning through 1977. Perhaps the book would have been more aptly titled “The Panama Canal’s Many Controversies,” since over the many years (about 100 years) there seemed to be one controversy after another. In the end, President Carter should be given credit for making the deal and informing the American people as to what it really entailed, in order to garner the public support.

Works Cited’

Ryan, Paul B. The Panama Canal Controversy: U.S. Diplomacy and Defense Interests. Stanford,

CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1977.