The Panama Canal

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Panama Canal

As early as the mid-1500s, people had conceived of the idea of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Such a canal would eliminate the need for westbound ships to sail all the way around South America to reach the Pacific Ocean. In the 1800s, Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps began to make this vision a reality. Lesseps had designed and over- seen the construction of the Suez Canal, which linked the Mediterranean and Red Seas across a narrow neck of Egyptian land; he was confident of success in Panama. However, the effort was a failure. Workers died of yellow fever and dysentery in such great numbers that France abandoned the project.

The United States had watched the progress of the canal project with interest, and stepped in as soon as the French gave up the attempt. In 1903, John Hay proposed a bargain to the government of Colombia, which controlled Panama at that time. Colombia would give the United States a 99-year lease on the Canal Zone, a strip of land 6 miles wide and 50 miles long, across Panama. In exchange, the United States would pay Colombia $10 million outright and $250,000 a year thereafter. The Colombians rejected the offer.

However, Colombia had reckoned without Panamanian leaders who wanted independence and believed that U.S. control of the canal would help them achieve it. In 1903, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, chief engineer of the canal project, brokered a deal between President Roosevelt and leaders of the Panamanian resistance. The United States agreed to support the Panamanian revolution in exchange for permanent sovereignty over a 10-mile-wide canal zone. The revolution ended swiftly, with victory for the Panamanians and the United States. Construction of the Panama Canal was completed in 1914. Most of the workers had been recruited from the Caribbean islands. They faced many dangers, including sudden avalanches of earth and disease; 6,000 of them died before the project was completed.

Control of the Panama Canal meant control of an important shipping lane. The United States would administer the canal and earn fees from every nation that sent ships through it. The United States could use the canal at no charge.

US History World Power the Panama Canal Map

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: The US Becomes a World Power Practice Test

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