Friday, August 15, 2014

“The Eighth Wonder of the World”

Today is the 100th anniversary of the official opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. Today is also my birthday, and I am celebrating it in Panama.
I arrived in Panama City late Wednesday and spent an enjoyable day yesterday in this vibrant city.
Today I will see some of the Canal, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time” (David McCullough) and “a miracle of engineering and industrial technology” (Julie Greene).
It has been lauded with many other superlatives; a 1998 TV movie was titled “Panama Canal: The Eighth Wonder of the World.” (Several other things have also been called the “eighth wonder.”)

Building a waterway across Central America, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was a dream of some for hundreds of years. The first major attempt was by the French in the 1880s. But they failed miserably.
Then, President Theodore Roosevelt tackled the enormous task of achieving that goal. It was a daunting challenge. First, the rights to begin the project had to be obtained.
When negotiations with Columbia, of which Panama was a part, failed, the U.S. helped Panama gain independence in 1903. In November of that year, the Panama Canal Zone was formed as a U.S. territory.
The following year, the U.S. began digging the canal. Ten years later they completed that gigantic task—but at great cost.
The financial cost was quite low by current standards: only $375 million. (Of course, that would be around $10 billion today.) The greatest cost, however, was in human lives.
Including the tragic efforts of the French, the project cost around 500 lives a mile to build the 50-mile waterway.
Two of the best books about that costly project are The Path Between the Seas (1977) by David McCullough and The Canal Builders (2009) by Julie Greene.
Last week June and I watched the PBS “American Experience” movie “Panama Canal” (2011). That excellent film and much other related information can be found online here.
Julie Greene (b. 1956), a history professor at the University of Maryland, links the construction of the Canal to the efforts of the U.S. to extend the concept of manifest destiny beyond the national borders.
Greene also links the Canal to the extension of the USAmerican “empire” that began with the Spanish-American War in 1898. That “empire” was extended with the formation of the 10-mile wide Panama Canal Zone (PCZ) in 1903
Construction of the “Big Ditch” was another clear indication of American exceptionalism. Accordingly, there was considerable opposition by conservatives, and especially by the John Birch Society, when President Carter began talking about turning over the Canal to Panama.
Carter, however, signed the treaties in 1977 that terminated the PCZ on Oct. 1, 1979. (That is one of several reasons Carter lost the 1980 presidential election.) The Canal was fully turned over to Panama on the first day of 2000.
According to history professor Laura Kalman, “To the New Right nothing illustrated Carter’s ‘softness’ more than his willingness to ‘surrender’ the Panama Canal” (Right Star Rising, p. 265).
But the Canal continues to operate for the benefit of the U.S. and for all the major maritime nations. And now ambitious enlargement construction is going on. Its completion is scheduled for next year.
Also called the “Third Set of Locks Project,” this ambition expansion project being done entirely by the Republic of Panama is intended to double the capacity of the Canal.
How exciting to be here today on my birthday, joining in the celebration of the 100th birthday of “the eighth wonder of the world”!

Later on 8/15

This morning I enjoyed seeing ships going through the second lock on the way north from the Pacific Ocean. Here is a picture of a large ship just starting through the lock. In the top middle of the building you can see the centennial logo that I used with this article.


  1. Thank goodness Jimmy Carter signed the treaty for return of sovereignty to the Panamanians because it's difficult to conceive of any subsequent administration doing it. Can you imagine the Senate we have today ratifying the treaty today with a two thirds vote? If not for that treaty we'd be known as the last Colonial power. But for the treaty the contentiousness of the Canal Zone issue would have festered and tarnished our international reputation, and it would have probably been a magnet for terrorism.

    Here's a link to my review of "Canal Builders" by Julie Greene. I've also read McCullough's book, but it was before my book review writing era.

    1. Clif, thanks much for your thoughtful comments--and for your fine review of Greene's book.

      As you know, President Obama has been sometimes compared to Carter--usually in a negative way. But both have a much better understanding of the world situation and what needs to be done than the Right, which wrongly clings to the idea of U.S. exceptionalism and superiority.

  2. Congratulations on a splendid way to spend your birthday. I, too, saw the PBS special, and was impressed by what an engineering (and political) marvel the canal is.

    Times change, and Carter's reinvention of the relationship between Panama and the United States was an important step in the right direction. Granted, it was controversial then, and for some remains so now. I suspect that in time Carter, like Truman before him, will be seen in a much kinder light by history.

    1. Craig, I appreciate your comments also. The response I just made to Clif's comments apply to yours also.

      I agree that just as you predict that Carter will be regarded more highly in future years, I think that will certainly be true for President Obama also.

  3. Happy Birthday 76th! What a wonderful birthday celebration with Panama Canal at its 100th. i enjoy all your blogs as this one. i remember all the events on Panama and Jimmy Carter's defeat. I think the failure of hostage rescue mission was great hurt at the last minute. Well, enjoy your birthday trip and come home safely. Blessings! Ed

    1. Ed, thanks for the birthday greetings and for posting your comments.

      Certainly the hostage issue just before the election was probably the strongest reason Carter lost the 1980 election. But for the right that fit right in with the Right's perception of Carter's prior "weakness" in "losing" the Canal.

  4. Leroy, sorry I missed reading this on your birthday, but I'm so happy you spent such a special day in a historic place. NPR did a story on the canal Friday saying that a Chinese company is putting money together for a feasability study to widen the canal or make a new one that will support the largest class of container ships. The widening opening next year will not support them. Only a few of these ships exist now in Asia, but they are to become more common, so the need to accommodate them through the canal will be an issue. Have a good rest of your trip!

    1. David, thanks for reading and commenting on this blog article. I hadn't heard much about the Chinese plans, but after reading what you posted I saw the following article in "The Economist":

  5. Both the Suez and Panama canals change the world. Maybe the era is gone of dreaming big projects and taking on a big challenge despite the cost. The Chunnel and the ISS were probably the last. President Carter's Space Shuttle program was certainly a work horse as well. There are a few concepts which still need to be tackled, such as connecting North America with Asia, but times a vision and leadership have waned. Sufficient and reliable energy will probably be the project of the future.