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The Great Divide
How the Panama Canal was carved out of a continent -- and what it meant.

Reviewed by H.W. Brands
Sunday, May 25, 2008

PANAMA FEVER

The Epic Story of One of the Greatest

Human Achievements of All Time --

The Building of the Panama Canal

By Matthew Parker

Doubleday. 530 pp. $29.95

DRAWING THE LINE AT THE BIG DITCH

The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right

By Adam Clymer

Univ. Press of Kansas. 286 pp. $29.95

The Panama Canal was controversial from its birth. Theodore Roosevelt considered his role in the affair the great work of his presidency. "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me," he boasted. The congressional debate continued long past the time Roosevelt left office, eventually producing an apology to Colombia for the president's high-handedness and a conscience payment critics dubbed "canalimony."

This hardly ended the controversy. Panamanians railed at the severing of their country by the American zone and periodically protested, sometimes violently. Riots during the 1960s prompted Lyndon Johnson to reopen discussions regarding the canal. When these discussions culminated in the 1970s with Jimmy Carter's proposal to transfer the canal to Panama, Republicans and other conservatives castigated it as a giveaway. "We built it! We paid for it!" Ronald Reagan thundered during his campaign for the 1976 Republican nomination for president. "And we should keep it!"

The two books here neatly bracket the controversy. Matthew Parker, a London-based author who was born in Central America and spent part of his boyhood in the West Indies, commences Panama Fever with the explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco Núñez de Balboa and traces the tortuous -- and often torturous -- efforts by various parties to pierce Panama and connect the Atlantic and the Pacific. The California Gold Rush made Panama an issue for the United States; with large populations now on both coasts, the U.S. government naturally sought a way to connect them.

But the French got there first. The conquest of Suez, where the greatest previous canal in history opened in 1869, inspired Ferdinand de Lesseps and his sponsors to think they could repeat their triumph in Panama. The jungles and mountains of Central America, however, made de Lesseps long for the level sands of Suez. For more than a decade, the French battled heat, humidity, rain, mud, insects, snakes, disease, political upheaval and corruption before finally admitting defeat.

Panama Fever is the first major account of the canal's history since David McCullough's 1977 The Path Between the Seas. Parker's version compares quite favorably with McCullough's as a narrative, and it is more international in outlook and pays closer attention to the travails of the thousands of workers who toiled on the project. Parker is halfway through his book before Theodore Roosevelt gallops onto the scene along with a cast of intriguers, lobbyists and others whose interests bore a merely incidental relation to those of the United States.

Two routes across Central America appeared feasible: one in Panama, at that time part of Colombia; the other in Nicaragua. Promoters of the rival paths battled furiously for the favor of Washington. Roosevelt chose the Panama route and offered to lease the canal zone from Colombia. But the Colombian government rejected the offer, and Roosevelt looked for more cooperative partners.

He didn't have to look far. Panama had never rested comfortably under Colombian control; during the previous half-century, inhabitants of the isthmus had made several attempts at secession. Roosevelt signaled to a likely cabal that he would support another breakaway effort. The revolt commenced in November 1903; within 24 hours an American warship landed marines and guaranteed the success of the rebellion. Roosevelt extended diplomatic recognition to the new Panamanian government, which returned the favor by delivering the canal zone Roosevelt coveted.

Adam Clymer's subject in Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch is only partly Panama. Clymer previously covered Washington for the New York Times, and he's still trying to explain the rise of the Republican right. He contends that the idea of transferring the canal to Panamanian control provided conservatives a made-to-order stick with which to beat their opponents. Reagan employed it against Gerald Ford in 1976 and scored a surprise victory in the North Carolina primary. He didn't unseat Ford that year, but he made himself the Republican favorite for 1980, when he did oust another incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

Clymer's causal chain stretches far and sometimes thin. "If he had lost North Carolina, Reagan would never have come close to Ford," Clymer says. "If he had soldiered on anyhow, he would have been widely seen as a nagging irrelevancy. Then, if Reagan had emerged from 1976 as a badly defeated candidate, I do not think he would have tried again in 1980." Clymer concedes that there was more to the conservative movement than Reagan. "But it would have had to wait more than four years to triumph."

Perhaps. Yet other developments of the late 1970s -- the stagflation of the economy, the seizure of American hostages in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- made Carter all but un-reelectable, Panama or no Panama. Clymer is on firmer ground, and provides fascinating detail, in explaining how several conservative candidates for Congress successfully leveraged the canal against their more liberal opponents.

As for the canal itself, time vindicated Carter and the other advocates of transfer. The gradual transition to Panamanian operation of the canal proceeded without incident. Conservatives in America found other causes. The final step in the transfer of authority, in December 1999, was overshadowed by the end-of-millennium excitement, leaving many Americans to wonder what all the Panama fuss had been about. ·

H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "The Age of Gold" and "TR," among other books.

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