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The Panama Canal and the United States

Summary and Keywords

The United States’ construction and operation of the Panama Canal began as an idea and developed into a reality after prolonged diplomatic machinations to acquire the rights to build the waterway. Once the canal was excavated, a century-long struggle ensued to hold it in the face of Panamanian nationalism. Washington used considerable negotiation and finally gunboat diplomacy to achieve its acquisition of the Canal. The construction of the channel proved a titanic effort with large regional, global, and cultural ramifications. The importance of the Canal as a geostrategic and economic asset was magnified during the two world wars. But rising Panamanian frustration over the U.S. creation of a state-within-a-state via the Canal Zone, one with a discriminatory racial structure, fomented a local movement to wrest control of the Canal from the Americans. The explosion of the 1964 anti-American uprising drove this process forward toward the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties that established a blueprint for eventual U.S. retreat and transfer of the channel to Panama at the century’s end. But before that historic handover, the Noriega crisis and the 1989 U.S. invasion nearly upended the projected transition of U.S. retreat from the management and control of the Canal.

Early historians emphasized high politics, economics, and military considerations in the U.S. acquisition of the Canal. They concentrated on high-status actors, economic indices, and major political contingencies in establishing the U.S. colonial order on the isthmus. Panamanian scholars brought a legalistic and nationalist critique, stressing that Washington did not create Panama and that local voices in the historical debate have largely been ignored in the grand narrative of the Canal as a great act of progressive civilization. More recent U.S. scholarship has focused on American imperialism in Panama, on the role of race, culture, labor, and gender as major factors that shaped the U.S. presence, the structure of the Canal Zone, as well as Panamanian resistance to its occupation. The role of historical memory, of globalization, representation, and how the Canal fits into notions of U.S. empire have also figured more prominently in recent scholarly examination of this relationship. Contemporary research on the Panama Canal has been supported by numerous archives in the United States and Panama, as well as a variety of newspapers, magazines, novels, and films.

Keywords: Panama Canal, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Omar Torrijos, Manuel Antonio Noriega, Torrijos-Carter Treaties

Origins of the Canal

The United States first expressed interest in building a transoceanic canal across Central America in the late 1700s when Thomas Jefferson ruminated on the utility of such a channel for U.S. and global trade. When the government of the recently formed United Provinces of Central America asked Washington in 1826 to support its desire to build a canal through Nicaragua, Secretary of State Henry Clay demurred, stating that no single country should have a monopoly on such a project. This guarded response was aimed primarily at containing Britain’s ambitions in the region at a time when Washington lacked the power to begin or defend a canal there. In that same year, the Panama Congress convened in Panama City where the great hero of the recent Latin American revolutions, Simón Bolívar, spoke of his desire for a new United States of Latin America to construct a canal across the isthmus. But the failure of the conference to achieve unity and Bolivar’s ouster from office a few years later ended further speculation south of the Rio Grande.

The next major step toward an isthmian canal occurred twenty years later in 1846 with the signing of the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty between the United States and New Granada (later called Colombia). This accord granted transit rights to Washington across the Isthmus of Panama, then a province of New Granada. U.S. minister Benjamin Bidlack viewed this step as necessary to secure a shorter route for Oregon settlers following the 1846 U.S. acquisition of that territory. But the 1848 discovery of large gold deposits in California, following the U.S.-Mexican War, provided the main impetus for building a railroad across the isthmus as a precursor for an eventual canal. Of equal diplomatic importance was the negotiation of the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the United States and Great Britain. This agreement bound both nations not to “obtain or maintain” unilateral control over any future canal on the isthmus. The treaty also called for the neutralization of any Anglo-American canal. Since Great Britain dominated the Caribbean in the mid-19th century, such an accord proved vital before the United States could build any transport system there. American William H. Aspinwall, an operator of Pacific mail steamships, put together a consortium of U.S. investors called the Panama Railroad Company that began construction on the rails in 1850. The building of this 42-mile transcontinental railway proved difficult and costly in lives due to constant rain, mountainous terrain, and tropical diseases. Despite its steep cost and the five years it took to complete, the railroad proved highly profitable for U.S. investors who charged premium rates for those determined to get to the gold fields quickly. The railroad, and the strong American presence around it, helped form the so-called “Yankee Strip” across Panama, a precursor to the later Canal Zone.

The French Challenge and U.S. Frustrations

The next major event regarding U.S. interest in a Panamanian canal arrived as a shock in 1879, when Ferdinand De Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, announced his intention to excavate a waterway across Panama. The Colombian government granted De Lesseps’s company a concession, and work began in 1880. Americans expressed outrage at what they regarded as a violation of both the Monroe Doctrine and the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty. But after nine years of work costly in lives and money plagued by mudslides, torrential rains, an epidemic of yellow fever, and huge cost overruns, the French project collapsed amidst a financial scandal that ruined thousands of investors and imprisoned members of the De Lesseps family. A central error committed by De Lesseps was his attempt to construct a sea-level canal and not a multi-leveled lock canal, a mistake that Americans would later heed when building the waterway themselves.

Americans celebrated the French failure, which seemed to open the way for the U.S. completion and control of the canal. The New Panama Canal Company emerged from the ruins of De Lesseps’s project. Headed by the old company’s chief engineer, Frenchman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the consortium began lobbying to sell its concession, completed work, and equipment to the United States. As the company’s rights only lasted until the fall of 1904, time was of the essence. The 66-day voyage of the U.S.S. Oregon from its California base to Cuba via Cape Horn during the 1898 Spanish-American War reinforced the military necessity of a U.S.-interoceanic canal to various American leaders. (With a canal, the trip would have taken one-third of the time.) But the competing option of a Nicaraguan canal still obsessed numerous U.S. legislators, as did the complications of British rights to build a canal jointly established in the Clayton-Bulwer accord. A diplomatic agreement between Secretary of State John Hay and the British ambassador to the United States produced the 1900–1901 Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in which Britain renounced its claims to build a canal jointly, leaving the field open for unilateral American action. British concerns over the German naval threat to England led to a reprioritizing of British interests especially in light of the quick U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War that established Washington’s hegemony in the Caribbean Basin. In the subsequent 1902 Spooner Act, Congress also set aside $40 million to purchase the rights of Bunau-Varilla’s canal syndicate.

An American Canal

The machinations of Bunau-Varilla and his Wall Street lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, both of whom had strong links to J. P. Morgan and other investors, helped eliminate Nicaragua as a competitor to the Panama route. These subterfuges included the mailing a stamp that depicted the Momotombo Volcano erupting in Nicaragua, which presumably threatened any canal there, to every U.S. congressman. But Panama and its suzerain Colombia engaged in a highly destructive civil war (1899–1902) that also created doubts as to the site’s viability for a canal. Coming out on the losing Liberal side of the War of a Thousand Days, Panamanians’ rancor with Conservative-ruled Colombia magnified. Negotiations with Colombia for U.S. rights to build a canal culminated in the January 1903 Hay-Herrán Treaty. But the Colombian Senate rejected the accord that summer calling for more financial and political concessions from Washington.

This act of betrayal in President Theodore Roosevelt’s eyes precipitated his decision to engineer a secessionist revolution in Panama and negotiate with the more pliable new republic for a U.S. canal. The conspiracy included diverse elements: ardent Panamanian nationalists such as Manuel Amador Guerrero, Federico Boyd, and José Agustín Arango; powerful Americans on the scene such as James Shaler, superintendent of the Panama Railroad; and coordination provided by Cromwell, Bunau-Varilla, and the White House. On November 3, 1903, select Panamanians proclaimed their revolution for independence. U.S. railroad officials separated the Colombian garrison from its officers and later bribed the latter not to fight with Cromwell’s money. Meanwhile U.S. warships arrived to prevent further Colombian intervention and landed a battalion of marines. Two days later, Washington recognized Panamanian independence in an act of gunboat diplomacy that outraged Colombia and other Latin American nations. “I took Panama while Congress debated,” Roosevelt would later famously brag. Bunau-Varilla, acting as special envoy to Panama, quickly negotiated a treaty with Secretary Hay that granted Washington rights “as if sovereign” in perpetuity over a fifty-mile-long, ten-mile-wide canal zone across Panama for an annuity of $250,000 and lump sum payment at the canal’s completion of $10 million. In contrast, Bunau-Varilla’s canal company received $40 million for its rights and completed work. And years later, Colombia would receive $25 million in “guilt money” as recompense for its loss of Panama. The lopsided 1903 treaty infuriated Panamanian nationalists, but faced with no alternatives other than reincorporation into Colombia and execution for treason, they swallowed this bitter pill.

The U.S. Construction Effort

In 1904 U.S. construction on the waterway began. The same disease problems that had plagued the French effort resurfaced, but chief engineer John Stevens wisely acceded to the demands of his top medical official, Dr. William Gorgas, to implement a comprehensive sanitary program. Stagnant bodies of water were sprayed or drained, screens and mosquito netting protected all worker dwellings; waste drainage and sanitary measures took top priority. This “war on mosquitos” (the French, unlike the Americans, never knew that these insects spread malaria and yellow fever) temporarily delayed the excavation. But the effort proved the turning point in achieving U.S. success. Stevens also accepted the need for a lock canal and the creation of two artificial lakes, Miraflores and Gatun, that would gather Panama’s prodigious rainfall and in tandem with the locks lift ships over the mountainous central sector of the isthmus so that a viable transit could be achieved. Still disease, accidents, and mudslides cost the lives of several hundred Americans and some four thousand West Indian laborers (the real figures for the latter may have been three times higher). Taming the River Chagres and excavating the infamous Culebra Cut at the center of the waterway proved particularly challenging, though more modern dirt-moving equipment and explosives finally managed their conquest.

In the construction of the Canal and later operation of the Canal Zone, the Americans imposed a controversial racial pay system that would stain the U.S. presence in Panama for generations. White U.S. officials and workers who came to labor there brought with them the same Social Darwinist attitudes and belief in white supremacy that prevailed throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Following the old pay practices of the Panama Railroad, American officials paid U.S. workers higher wages in gold and West Indian, Panamanians, and other foreign workers lower wages in silver. This “gold roll–silver roll” unequal pay system based itself originally on nationality—not race, as imported Spanish, Greek, and Italian canal workers found themselves relegated to the silver roll. But since the overwhelming number of non-U.S. imported laborers (some 85%) were the forty thousand black West Indian workers and their tens of thousands of dependents, the system quickly morphed into a racial one. Furthermore, Americans segregated these imported populations in all facilities using this same gold–silver differentiation. Thus separate “gold” and “silver” water fountains, bathrooms, housing, commissaries, clubhouses, movie theaters, and whole towns mushroomed throughout the Canal Zone, replicating the “white only” and “colored” signs of the Jim Crow South. This strict racial division in inferior facilities created an atmosphere of resentment and anti-Americanism among Panamanians and West Indians deemed second-class citizens under a labor regime that plagued the U.S. presence for three-quarters of a century.

Chief engineer John Stevens, who had gathered the initial international labor force and completed much of the vital early work on the channel, resigned unexpectedly in 1907. An infuriated Theodore Roosevelt, who had visited the work site himself in 1906, replaced Stevens with army engineer George W. Goethals, who also served as Canal Zone governor. The Isthmian Canal Commission established by Roosevelt already operated under the War Department. But Goethals’s ascension to governor completed the military character of the project. The new governor pushed the workforce hard, outlawed strikes, fired Spanish and Italian anarchist workers, and brought a sharper discipline and organization to the excavation, typically at the expense of non-U.S. workers. The epic construction effort cost nearly $400 million dollars in 1914 currency and included the digging out of a million cubic yards of rock and soil, the redirecting of rivers, and the pouring of giant 110-foot-wide, 41-foot-deep, 1,000-foot-long concrete locks fitted with colossal steel gateways. Construction finally reached fruition after a ten-year struggle of man versus tropical nature on August 15, 1914, with the first transit of the completed canal.

While the outbreak of World War I relegated the news to page two in many newspapers, the Canal’s opening marked a seminal event in U.S., Panamanian, Latin American, and global history. It confirmed the ascension of the United States to the first rank of world powers. Americans swelled with pride over their historical achievement, which to them proved their moral and technological superiority over all who had failed in their earlier attempts at forging the channel. More important, the Canal allowed Washington to transfer its relatively small fleet rapidly from one ocean to another to oppose any national security threat. The Canal boosted Latin American trade between the eastern and western halves of South America long divided by the Andes and the long sea route to the south. But locally, the new nation of Panama as a direct result of construction confronted a supreme nemesis: the domination of its society by the rising hegemon in the Zone. And this mammoth U.S. influence now held sway over the entire Caribbean Basin. In global terms, the completion of this waterway made the world a much smaller place, saving vessels thousands of miles of travel and millions in costs with its shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific, ending the necessity of rounding Cape Horn. As such, the Canal facilitated the process of interconnecting the entire world in networks of trade and culture, what we now call globalization. The inputs of labor, technology, and capital from all over the globe to build the channel intensified this outcome on the isthmus itself. Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the waterway made a huge impact on imaginations and economies thousands of miles from its freshly dug works.

The Panama Canal and the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Gatun Locks, 1936, photographed by E. O. Goldbeck

(Library of Congress, 2007663244).

Panama’s Resentments over the Structure of the Canal Zone

But problems with the host nation of Panama erupted from the earliest days of construction. Washington created a state-within-a-state in Panama through its expansion of the Canal Zone’s functions, many beyond the scope of the treaty and what Panamanians deemed reasonable. U.S. officials ran a government, police force, fire department, post office, court system, law code, prison, schools, commissaries, and clubhouses that made the enclave nearly self-sufficient and separate from Panama. This proved a key source of tension as Panamanian businessmen assumed they would share in the economic largesse of the Canal. But the U.S. administration barred Panamanian businesses from the enclave and imported most victuals and consumer products from the United States, selling them at subsidized prices in commissaries to the canal work force. Cafeteria-style clubhouses in the Zone eliminated the need for canal laborers to eat at Panamanian restaurants or purchase meals from local vendors. The U.S. administration recruited most of its workers from the West Indies, North America, Latin America, and Europe, initially employing a mere 357 Panamanian employees. All of the best jobs, housing, schools, and facilities were reserved on a segregated basis for American officials, workers, and their families, the so-called “Zonians.” Non-U.S. workers, especially the majority West Indians, lived in inferior housing with spartan rations, lower pay, and inferior health care.

The U.S. importation of some seventy thousand West Indian workers and dependents to the isthmus also provoked Panamanian resentment. Washington and Canal officials favored West Indian labor over Panamanian workers because they were English-speaking and regarded as less militant and more disease-immune: ideal tropical workers with lots of experience building railroads and harvesting bananas in Central America. But the American decision also revealed the “third nation” labor strategy of the Zone bureaucracy. This “divide-and-conquer” technique resulted in deflecting much resentment against Americans onto West Indians, who Panamanians viewed as cultural interlopers stealing their jobs. The fact that West Indians were of African descent, practiced Protestantism, and spoke English further alienated them from the majority Latin Panamanian population of mestizo and mulato origin who practiced Roman Catholicism and spoke Spanish. The U.S.-dominated Zone where English was spoken negated the need for West Indians to assimilate to Panamanian culture as most immigrants to the isthmus had for centuries. In addition, West Indian laborers, while paid a third of what their American counterparts made, still earned three times more than Panamanian toilers received for similar work in the republic. Castigated as “tio toms” (uncle toms) and too submissive to their U.S. bosses by nationalist Panamanians, West Indians faced considerable hostility and discrimination in the new republic for generations.

The U.S. military in the Canal Zone presented another affront to Panama’s already constricted sovereignty. Soldados norteamericanos intervened nine times between 1904 and 1925 to quell rebellions, strikes, disputed elections, and various “disorders” using their rights under the 1903 treaty and the infamous Article 136 of the Panamanian Constitution, forced on the local legislators as the Platt Amendment had been on their counterparts in Cuba. This article granted the U.S. carte blanche for marching its troops into Panama to protect U.S. interests and preserve order. Indeed, all manner of military interventions would now be countenanced by Washington in the larger circum-Caribbean region under the justification of “protecting the Panama Canal” and its sea approaches.

From the fourteen military bases of the Canal Zone, U.S. troops constantly intervened “on the other side of the line,” typically when requested by Panamanian elites who feared lower-class agitation or opposition political movements. In October 1904 U.S. troops forestalled a military coup by General Estéban Huertas at the request of President Amador Guerrero. In 1908 U.S. troops entered Panama to supervise the presidential election in response to Conservative claims of a Liberal conspiracy. In 1916, the U.S. military removed rifles from the Panamanian police after a number of anti-American disturbances in the Coco Grove red light district led to several U.S. and Panamanian deaths. From 1918 to 1921 Canal Zone troops policed the interior province of Veraguas after threats to American lives and property there. And they maintained order along the Panama–Costa Rican border during the 1921 Coto War between the two nations. In 1925 American soldiers intervened in the Panama City rent riots at the behest of the Chiari government. That same year U.S. military officers from the Zone on board a cruiser helped negotiate an end to the Kuna Indian secessionist bid in Darién, the so-called Republic of Tule. In addition to these local operations, Canal Zone–based troops reinforced numerous American interventions in Nicaragua (1909–1933), in the Dominican Republic (1916–1924), in Honduras (1926–1927), and in Haiti (1915–1934). The 1936 Alfaro-Hull treaty ended the U.S. right to unilateral intervention in Panama, but it did not affect the dispatch of Canal Zone troops to other trouble spots in the Caribbean Basin or the buildup and training of U.S. and foreign forces in the Zone.

The U.S. judicial system in the Canal Zone imposed extraterritoriality on the isthmus subjecting all foreign nationals, including Panamanians who came within its jurisdiction, to U.S. law and punishment. For minor crimes or trespassing, the U.S. District Courts of Balboa and Cristobal deported Panamanians from the Canal Zone, which was technically a part of their own country. These same courts imprisoned more serious felons in the federal penitentiary at Gamboa, the only such facility outside U.S. soil. The Zone also proved a locus for Americanization in Panama as U.S. influence, culture, and technology emanated from the Zone into the small republic, challenging traditional practices and ways of life. A presidentially appointed U.S. governor ruled the Zone without reference to any legislature, input from Panama, or votes from the Zonians. After the First World War, he was always a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers general, adding to the military ambience of the enclave.

Construction and the First World War brought an economic boom to Panama, but local political leaders and merchants remained frustrated with the high-handed manner in which Zonians and their military treated the republic as a mere annex to the U.S.-run canal. When General Pershing, the hero commander of the U.S. expeditionary force in World War I, visited Panama in 1920, locals pelted him with rotten fruit, forcing his motorcade to retreat to the Zone. Panamanians scorned the U.S. exercise of eminent domain during the war when doughboys seized nearby territories and Panamanian islands for what Washington considered vital defense sites. A wildcat strike that same year by West Indian canal workers trying to establish a union provoked the mass firings and blacklisting of hundreds of West Indians by Canal Zone governor Chester Harding. West Indian social bandit John Peter Williams conducted a spree of burglaries and stickups in the enclave during the early 1920s that unnerved the normally dominant Canal Zone Police.

Revising the Treaty

In 1926 the Panamanian government started a process that would obtain throughout most of the century of trying to chip away at the supreme position granted the United States in the 1903 treaty. But a hastily constructed accord died stillborn that year when Panamanian nationalists opposed its modest demands and American leaders refused to countenance even small changes to the original agreement. The economic hard times of the Great Depression and the concomitant decline of global trade devastated business around the Canal. In 1931, a political revolution exploded partly in response to the economic downturn when the Acción Comunal nationalist movement overthrew the Liberal government of President Florencio H. Arosemena.

This new party of middle-class professionals, students, and activists led by the rural-born Arias brothers, Harmodio and Arnulfo, soon elected the former to the presidency in 1932. Harmodio began negotiating with the new Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to revise the 1903 treaty. Aware of the threatening war clouds from the Pacific and Europe, FDR knew that the Canal would be vital in defending American interests from either threat. The last thing he desired was a hostile regime astride the vital waterway in wartime. Therefore, in accordance with his Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, the president moved to accept compromises on Washington’s prerogatives in the Zone. The resulting 1936 Hull-Alfaro Treaty abolished the U.S. right of intervention and eminent domain in Panama, limited purchases of commissary goods to employees of the Panama Canal and Railroad, and raised the annuity for the Canal from $250,000 to $430,000 (though Panamanians complained that FDR’s removal of the dollar from the gold standard rendered this “increase” lower than the original annuity). The accord also called for equal treatment of all canal employees, though it enforced no specifics. Still, the treaty marked an important event in ending the U.S. protectorate and allowing Panama to embark on its own state-formation project over subsequent decades.

The Canal and World War II

Harmodio Arias’s more radical younger brother Arnulfo won election to the republic’s presidency in 1940. He took a more anti-American stance than his brother despite FDR’s spirit of compromise. Arnulfo personified his Panameňismo movement (“Panama for the Panamanians”) that decried Americanization and Panamanian passivity regarding the Zone. Arnulfo also displayed some fascist sympathies in laudatory comments on Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, where he had served as ambassador and met both dictators. Such sentiments, not uncommon among conservative Latin American leaders, alarmed the Canal’s U.S. military authorities. In his domestic policies, Arnulfo stripped West Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Jews of their Panamanian citizenship and barred further immigration in his infamous 1941 Constitution. Such actions unsettled the Canal’s silver workforce that was overwhelmingly West Indian.

U.S. fears over Arnulfo’s potential threat as an unreliable ally, combined with the Panamanian oligarchy’s concerns over his populist appeal (he expanded the franchise to women, the illiterate, and those born out of wedlock), coalesced in an October 1941 coup that ousted him from power. In his place, the more pliable Adolfo de la Guardia occupied the presidential palace. The U.S. operation of the Panama Canal proved absolutely vital for the prosecution of a two-ocean, two-theater war in Europe and the Pacific that began two months later. The transit of troops, supplies, and war vessels from one ocean to the other allowed the Pentagon to project power quickly where most needed. In retrospect, the Japanese naval command committed a huge error in not diverting at least one aircraft carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack to strike at the Canal.

The importance of the channel, however, never escaped U.S. assessments. From 1939 to 1942 the United States began excavation on a Third Locks project that would add a set of bigger locks designed to a width of 140 feet. These would supposedly handle the larger warships, merchant ships, and aircraft carriers that shipyards hurriedly built for the Second World War. But the emergency of World War II and its consequent labor shortages forced the cancellation of the project though workers had completed considerable digging. During the war, the Zone garrison of 13,000 troops grew to 67,000 GIs stationed along the Canal and in the furthest reaches of the interior at various runways, radar, and sonar stations to deter any Axis assault on the waterway. A further 88,000 U.S. personnel guarded the approaches to the Canal from various Caribbean islands. The May 1942 U.S.-Panamanian Defense treaty sanctioned this expansion, though frustrated Panamanians called the 134 new U.S. bases “little Canal Zones.” As with the larger enclave, all featured nearby bars and brothels for U.S. service personnel that provoked complaints and garnered profits. Indeed, in Panama City and Colón, the two great transit cities of the Canal, social disorder often broke out when GIs on furlough went wild, drinking, carousing, and gambling in bawdy houses and raucous nightclubs. A total nighttime blackout from December 1941 until January 1943 added to the allure for licentious GIs. From 1939 to 1945, Panama’s GDP nearly tripled due to a bonanza of road-building, construction, and wartime spending, but the number of brothels, casinos, and roadhouses also skyrocketed to service the transiting troops who often spent several months’ pay in a few days of bacchanalian vice. Such behavior brought in large profits and black market commerce but also denigrated the republic as a kind of giant whorehouse for GIs. The 1942 defense accord called for Washington to give up all its bases outside the Canal Zone one year after the cessation of hostilities—on September 2, 1946, the first anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender. But the Pentagon delayed the base shutdowns and in 1947 demanded a dozen permanent bases outside the Zone for the emerging Cold War.

Postwar Blues

Widespread anti-American riots in December 1947 forced Washington to renounce such plans and close the last of its wartime bases outside the Canal Zone. Panamanians had cheered the U.S. grant of independence to the Philippines in 1946. They also viewed the independence of India and Indonesia from Britain and Holland in 1947 and 1949, respectively, with expectations of a brave, new, decolonized world. Indeed, President Harry S. Truman made some positive gestures in this direction when he authorized the 1947 McSherry Report that criticized labor and race discrimination in the Canal Zone and called for reforms. But it soon became apparent that the United States had no intention of transferring the Canal and the Canal Zone to Panama, especially with the Cold War intensifying. Although compelled to retreat to the Zone, the Pentagon increased its profile on the isthmus by adding or reinforcing some important new institutions.

In 1946 the Pentagon established the U.S. Army Caribbean School at Fort Amador in the enclave. This facility trained Latin American militaries and police forces to thwart leftist subversion in the hemisphere through enhanced interrogations, crowd control, counterinsurgency, and psychological warfare. In 1949 the expanded installation moved to Fort Gulick in the Zone, where it was renamed the School of the Americas in 1963—or the “School of Assassins” to its critics. Nationalist Panamanians viewed this institution as a clear violation of the 1903 treaty, which stated that Washington could deploy troops to the Canal Zone only for the purpose of defending the Canal, not to project power overseas or wage an ideological crusade throughout the hemisphere. An expanding Jungle Warfare Training Center at Fort Sherman in the Zone and a new Inter-American Police Academy at nearby Fort Davis increased the militarization of the Canal Zone during the Cold War era.

During that struggle, the Canal Zone served as a training site for Castillo Armas’s 1954 “liberation army” that overthrew President Jacobo Árbenz’s elected government in Guatemala. Many Cuban exiles who participated in the 1961 CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion trained at the Zone’s Fort Sherman Jungle Center and School of the Americas, as did the Bolivian rangers who tracked down and killed Ernesto “Ché” Guevara in the Andes in 1967. In 1962 military officials in the Zone suspended all commercial traffic through the Canal for the only time in its history to speed the transit of U.S. war vessels through the waterway for the blockade of Cuba during the Missile Crisis. U.S. forces from the Zone also took part in the 1965 American invasion of the Dominican Republic, Green Beret operations in Guatemala in the late 1960s, and in the U.S.-directed El Salvador counterinsurgency and Nicaraguan “contra” wars of the 1980s. While the actual Canal declined in importance in an age of supercarriers and supertankers that could no longer transit its too-narrow locks, the importance of the Zone’s base structure for U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere actually mounted.

Within Panama, the key pro-U.S. leader who emerged from the byzantine politics of the early Cold War was Colonel José Antonio Remón, commander of the Panamanian National Guard (1947–1952) and later president of the republic (1952–1955). Remón rose through the ranks of another vital U.S.-created institution charged with maintaining order on the isthmus. While he persecuted anti-American students, communists, and agitators, Remón found himself compelled to demand changes in the U.S.-run canal structure once he became president and not just kingmaker. The Canal’s importance to the U.S. military rose exponentially during the Korean War, when sealift of troops and supplies from the American east coast to Korea and Japan increased markedly. Remón saw this period as an opportune time to fashion a new deal. As he famously stated before his 1953 visit to President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Neither alms nor millions, we want justice!”

The deal Remón received in 1955 contained elements of all three but not enough to satisfy a majority of Panamanians. The Canal had undergone a major fiscal and bureaucratic reorganization, authorized by Congress four years earlier in 1951. This restructuring made the Canal self-supporting for the first time in its history, relying on tolls only to pay for its operating costs. U.S. employee “featherbedding” and subsidies from the federal budget ended. Only by cutting expenditures especially among the “silver,” or, as they were now called, “local-rate” workforce could such efficiencies be achieved. Thus after 1951, the Canal hired fewer Panamanians, who in turn spent less money in Panama, hurting the already struggling economy. After a long negotiation over these and other issues, both sides signed the Eisenhower-Remón treaty in January 1955. The accord increased the annuity paid to Panama for the Canal from $430,000 to $1.93 million dollars, limited commissary purchases only to employees of the Panama Canal Company and Railroad who lived in the Canal Zone, and made all West Indian and Panamanian canal workers subject to Panamanian income tax for the first time.

The treaty also granted some small territorial transfers to Panama such as railway properties in Panama City and Colón, the airport at Punta Patilla, the Washington Hotel in Colón, and parts of the town of Cristobal. Washington further agreed to build a $20 million suspension bridge across the Pacific entrance to the Canal, facilitating traffic to and from the interior, which the Zone had formerly hindered. The treaty finally put some teeth into the old platitudes about working toward greater employee equality by initiating an apprentice program to train more Panamanian employees for the higher-paid “gold,” or, as they were now called, “U.S. rate” jobs. The Zone agreed to shut down its bakery and dairy and purchase products produced in Panama. In the wake of the treaty, Washington also granted more control over the enclave’s West Indian workforce to Panama by instituting a new Panamanian curriculum in Spanish versus the older U.S. trade–orientated curriculum in English for all students at the Zone’s “colored” or “local-rate” schools. Panamanians complained that it took the Zone government several years to put these reforms into action, but the treaty did mark progress toward Panama gaining a greater share of benefits from the Canal.

The ink was barely dry on this accord when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt shook the world with his 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal. This act 7,000 miles from the isthmus electrified Panamanian nationalists, students, and activists who dreamed of a similar takeover of the Panama Canal. In 1958 groups of students dashed into the Zone and planted scores of small Panamanian flags during “Operation Sovereignty,” upsetting U.S. authorities and revealing the porous nature of the Zone–Panama border. In November 1959 during the celebration of the republic’s independence, a group of Panamanian nationalists entered the Zone with their flag and proclaimed that it would eventually fly over all of the enclave. The emotion of the event captivated Panamanians who lived close to the border. They erupted in riots during which American authorities deployed U.S. troops to stop a local invasion. One Panamanian died and hundreds were injured on both sides. In reaction to this first flag riot, Zone authorities added some additional fencing on their side of the Fourth of July Avenue border to the sections that already existed to deter burglars. This move virtually walled off the enclave from Panama on the Pacific side. This move revealed the tone-deafness of Canal Zone leaders to Panama’s rising nationalism. The fence, which barred locals from entering onto what was technically their own soil, quickly became known as the “Berlin Wall.” The contrast between the impoverished barrios of El Chorrillo, Caledonia, and Colón beside the pristine and modern Zone accentuated local resentments toward the enclave’s privileged U.S. inhabitants, many of whom rarely entered Panama or even spoke Spanish.

Nationalist Explosion and Aftermath

In a goodwill gesture to calm this mounting nationalism that was inspired in part by Fidel Castro’s recent victory over U.S. neocolonialism in Cuba, President Eisenhower in 1960 authorized the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Shaler Triangle inside the enclave. Gerald Doyle, an angry Zonian representing many of his fellow jingoes, sued the Zone government for doing so in federal court, a suit he eventually lost, claiming a foreign flag had no right to fly “on U.S. soil.” Panamanian protests and agitation continued into the early 1960s. In an effort to tamp down this militancy, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 signed an accord with President Roberto Chiari of Panama that allowed the republic’s flag to fly alongside the U.S. flag at fifteen sites in the Zone. In order to arrive at a limited and agreed-upon list, some sites where the U.S. flag had been flying had to stop the practice. One such locale was Balboa High School, a touchstone of historical pride and memory for generations of Zonians. During Christmas break in early January 1964, U.S. students from the school raised the Stars and Stripes on their flagless pole in violation of the Kennedy-Chiari accords. Hearing of this, angry students from the highly nationalistic Instituto Nacional in neighboring Panama marched into the Zone to fly their colors on the same pole. A confrontation ensued between both groups of students in which the Panamanian youths claimed that U.S. students tore their flag.

News of this outrage soon touched off a major cross-border uprising. Tens of thousands of impoverished Panamanians from the capital and Colón joined in tearing down border fencing, burning U.S. cars, and hurling rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. They torched U.S. and Panamanian businesses and fired upon Canal Zone police, especially after a Panamanian student, Ascanio Arosemena, was shot dead by them on the first day. U.S. Southern Command took over the enclave, deployed its 14,000 troops, and began targeting Panamanian snipers. Tellingly, the Panamanian National Guard, normally a reliable ally of the Americans, refused to intervene against its own people to quell the rebellion. When the violence wound down four days later, twenty-one Panamanians had died along with four U.S. soldiers. Hundreds of wounded languished in local hospitals. The border between the two polities was a pockmarked, charred ruin, and the Panamanian government broke relations with the United States for the first time in its history over what it called “U.S. aggression” and “overuse of force.”

This horrific event provoked a long negotiating process of thirteen years that finally resulted in the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties. In the immediate wake of the bloody riots, both sides recognized the need for substantial change in their relationship and in the eventual disposition of the Canal. In the short run, diplomacy produced the so-called “orphan treaties” of 1968 that neither legislature ratified. But these accords fashioned by the Johnson administration and Panama served as a blueprint for the later successful 1977 treaties. In that same year of 1968, a military coup ousted Arnulfo Arias and the Panamanian oligarchy and put the National Guard, led by General Omar Torrijos, in power. After consolidating his leadership during his first years in command, Torrijos turned to negotiating an end to the U.S. presence and the final transfer of the Canal to Panama. The 1973 United Nations General Assembly Meeting, which the general arranged to be held in Panama City, served as a platform for airing Panama’s grievances to a global audience. Torrijos wisely linked Panama’s struggle with the decolonization movement in the Third World to gain greater leverage in his contest with Washington, a struggle, after all, that pitted 2 million Panamanians against 220 million Americans who inhabited the mightiest power on earth. In 1974 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came to an agreement on a set of principles for reaching a final resolution with Panama’s foreign minister, the Kissinger-Tack Principles, which called for greater cooperation in the defense and operation of the Canal leading to its eventual transfer to the republic.

Two years later, newly elected President Jimmy Carter placed the disposition of the Canal at the top of his foreign policy agenda. Carter felt that better relations with Latin America and projecting a positive image of U.S. fair play toward all nations was more important than the perks and privileges of a few thousand American canal workers. He was helped by the fact that the Canal had by this time lost much of its strategic importance. Forrestal class carriers could not transit its too-narrow locks, and the United States had long possessed a large two-ocean navy. The Pentagon relied more on rapid airlift than sealift. Fears over Torrijos’s threats of massive demonstrations and even sabotage against the Canal pushed the United States toward a diplomatic resolution.

The Carter-Torrijos Treaties

Despite numerous obstructions from conservatives in the United States and from the Zonians, by September 1977 the negotiating teams of both nations had hammered out a set of accords. They were divided into two separate treaties. The first, called the Panama Canal Treaty, concerned the operation, management, and defense of the Canal, extending from ratification through December 31, 1999, when Panama would assume full control. The second accord, known as the neutrality treaty, guaranteed the permanent neutrality of the Canal from any outside or internal intervention. Under the terms of the treaties, approximately two years after their signing on October 1, 1979, the old Canal Zone with its separate U.S. government, commissaries, and schools would cease to exist. A new jointly run administration called the Panama Canal Commission would replace the old Panama Canal Company. Nine commissioners (five U.S. citizens and four Panamanians) would manage the organization with one of the U.S. commissioners as chairman until January 1, 1990, when a Panamanian would serve as chairman for the last ten years of the treaty. Also on October 1, 1979, nearly 60% of the former U.S.-run Canal Zone’s territory was transferred immediately to Panama. The remaining 40%, called the Panama Canal Area, would house U.S. military bases and facilities deemed necessary for the operation of the Canal. In 1982 Washington decommissioned the U.S.-run Canal Zone Police and handed over the last vestiges of civil security and legal jurisdiction to Panama. Payments from canal tolls to Panama rose dramatically under the new accords from a $2.3 million annuity on the eve of the treaties to $40–50 million a year during the twenty-year transition period, when more and more Panamanians were trained to run the waterway.

The Senate ratification of the treaties proved an epic battle with massive lobbying against the accords from groups such as the Liberty Lobby, the Conservative Caucus, and the John Birch Society. During this process Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan claimed the Canal Zone was as much U.S. territory “as Louisiana or Alaska.” Numerous congressional opponents of the treaties such as Daniel Flood, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Paul Laxalt fought hard against ratification. The key to success for Carter was a domestic education campaign on the Canal and bringing Republican moderates on board. Senate minority leader Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, played a key role. The ratification vote faced a major roadblock when Republican Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona insisted on attaching a clause granting the United States the right to intervene militarily in Panama if any force closed the Canal. General Torrijos threatened to rip up the treaty if the DeConcini amendment passed. But persuaded by Carter, Torrijos relented, and on April 18, 1978, the treaties passed 68–32, one vote more than the required two-thirds majority.

The Noriega Crisis and U.S. Invasion

General Torrijos did not live long to savor his triumph. In 1981 he died in a still controversial plane crash. Torrijos’s intelligence chief and top enforcer, General Manuel Noriega (a key suspect in his boss’s plane crash), rose quickly to commandant of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). As the new Maximum Leader, Noriega tightened his grip on weapons and drug smuggling, money laundering, and domestic politics. This included growing repression, arrests, and assassinations of political opponents, notably the 1985 murder and decapitation of dissenter Hugo Spadafora. As a paid CIA agent of many years, Noriega operated with virtual impunity throughout most of the 1980s due to his support for the Nicaraguan Contras, whom the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations backed in their secret war against the Sandinista government, and Noriega’s cooperation against the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.

Noriega developed into more of a liability than an asset for the United States when the full extent of his crimes became public due to local and international investigations. After efforts to persuade Noriega to step aside failed, the U.S. Senate in 1987 passed a resolution demanding that Panama establish civilian rule or face a cutoff of U.S. aid. In February 1988, federal grand juries in Tampa and Miami indicted Noriega for cocaine trafficking and money laundering in connection with the Medellín Cartel. The following month the Reagan administration announced major economic sanctions against Panama. Trying to put a good face on his regime, Noriega permitted elections in May 1989, but he quickly overturned the results that overwhelmingly elected his enemy Guillermo Endara over his hand-picked candidate, Carlos Duque. Noriega turned loose his thugs, the so-called “dignity battalions,” on demonstrators protesting the rigged election. They murdered several protestors and beat others, including Vice President Guillermo Ford, to a bloody pulp in front of U.S. news cameras.

This proved the final straw for the Bush administration, which ratcheted up the sanctions and reinforced the Canal Zone garrison. In October 1989 Noriega barely survived a military coup by Major Moíses Giroldi that Washington clearly yet ham-handedly supported. By December 1989 tensions mounted daily as violent incidents between the U.S. military in Panama and the PDF increased during maneuvers that both sides undertook to rattle their opponents. On December 15, 1989, the rubber stamp National Assembly declared Noriega the leader of Panama. He immediately announced while famously waving a machete that “a state of war existed between Panama and the United States.” A major U.S. concern was the imminent January 1990 replacement of the chief U.S. commissioner of the Canal by a Panamanian in accordance with the Carter-Torrijos treaties. This development would presumably give Noriega greater operational control over the strategic waterway.

On the evening of December 20, 1989, President Bush announced the invasion of Panama by a force of 27,000 U.S. troops—half of them from the Canal Zone, the other half reinforcements from the United States. Bush gave four reasons for the intervention: safeguarding the lives of 40,000 U.S. citizens living in Panama; defending democracy and human rights on the isthmus; interdicting the drug trade; and protecting the integrity of the Carter-Torrijos treaties, including the orderly transfer of the Canal to Panama. U.S. commanders unleashed their forces ruthlessly and overwhelmed the outgunned and outnumbered PDF. The main assaults focused on the central headquarters or comandancia of the PDF in the heavily populated El Chorrillo slum of the capital, the airports at Punta Patilla, Tocumen, and Rio Hato, and PDF bases near Colón. Panamanian resistance collapsed rapidly, but the U.S. Southern Command was frustrated by its failure to capture Noriega, who fled into hiding. Several hundred Panamanian civilians caught in the crossfire tragically lost their lives. An estimated 215 PDF personnel were also killed along with 24 U.S. soldiers. Hundreds of Panamanians civilians and military suffered serious wounds.

Noriega eluded his captors and sought refuge in the Papal Nunciature in the capital. But U.S. forces surrounded the building, and after nine days the general surrendered and was flown to the United States to face drug charges for which he received a 25-year-sentence. This remarkable abduction of a head of state and his parading before a U.S. court set a controversial precedent in international law that is still debated today. With Noriega’s capture, combat operations ceased. But Panama suffered enormous physical destruction from the invasion. Though popular in unscathed upper- and middle-class districts, the invasion left a scar among the poorer regions of the capital. The Organization of American States and the United Nations both condemned the invasion as a clear violation of the non-intervention principle. A vital achievement from the U.S. viewpoint was the destruction of the PDF and its replacement with a police force that could never threaten an armed takeover of the Canal. More troubling, the 1989 invasion suggested that the United States would maintain its dominance in Latin America by force if necessary despite the end of the Cold War.

The Final Canal Transfer and Continuing Relations

Although the 1978 Carter-Torrijos treaties ended the Canal Zone, U.S. military activities continued via the new Panama Canal Area, where U.S. bases operated until December 1999. Panama bases and the School of the Americas supported U.S. intervention in Central America during the 1980s, including the clandestine training of the Nicaraguan Contras, operations in El Salvador, and the 1989 invasion of Panama itself. But the 1984 redeployment of the School of the Americas to Fort Benning, Georgia, marked a drawdown in U.S. training of foreign troops on Panamanian soil after decades of complaints. Gradually during the 1990s, the rest of the U.S. base structure surrounding the Canal receded. An attempt in the mid-1990s by President Ernesto Pérez Balladares’s government to forge an agreement that would keep some U.S. bases in Panama after the 1999 canal transfer faced rejection by the National Assembly. The final transfer of all remaining U.S. properties and control occurred as scheduled on December 31, 1999, with a ceremony held two weeks earlier to avoid anti-American protests. Panamanians complained that neither President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, nor Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attended the final ceremonies. Ex-president Jimmy Carter was the only major U.S. statesman at the handover. But among large sectors of the American people, the transfer was still viewed as a U.S. “sell-out,” “retreat,” or “giveaway.” Indeed, U.S. voters threw out of office several senators who had voted for the 1978 treaty, so strong was the psychological hold of the Canal as a symbol of American power. On the ground in Panama, local activists complained that the Pentagon never cleaned up all its live munitions or environmental damage on abandoned U.S. bases and firing ranges.

The Panamanian economy experienced a slump immediately after the 1999 transfer caused by the global recession and the loss of nearly $300 million in U.S. military spending on the isthmus. But Panama soon recovered, and business in the waterway flourished. Due to the long transfer process that enabled considerable training, Panamanian workers, pilots, and officials of the new Panama Canal Authority never lost a step and continued making improvements on the canal, increasing transits with a lower accident rate than under the Panama Canal Commission (1979–1999). Panama has especially emphasized ship repairs, technological improvements, container rail shipping, tourism, and other ancillary industries to boost revenues from the waterway. In a 2006 referendum, the Panamanian people voted overwhelmingly to build a new, larger set of locks to expand the capacity of the Canal. New designs led to the construction of two new lock complexes at the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the canal measuring 180 feet wide, 1,400 feet long, and 60 feet deep. These would allow the Canal to accommodate many of the larger ships, tankers, and ore carriers that could not transit the older waterway. The new lock chambers would operate in addition to the existing lock system. Delays on the construction of this project, which may in total cost $7 billion, postponed the scheduled opening until late June 2016. Panama has financed the bulk of this project with no input from the U.S. government, investors, or companies. As such, the new enterprise is truly “Panama’s Canal,” though international banks have supplied the bulk of the loans.

A 2011 free trade agreement between Washington and the republic highlighted the still important business and political connections between the two states. The United States remains the top customer of the Canal, and, the waterway still operates under an informal U.S. security umbrella (no U.S. government would countenance a armed takeover of the Canal by any outside power, the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions from their bases in the American South would deploy to Panama in six hours to prevent such a possibility) a noteworthy factor in the age of post-9/11 terrorism. Yet new challenges have arisen for Panama and the United States, including a proposed Chinese-financed canal in neighboring Nicaragua, once an early competitor at the dawn of the last century. The possibility of this project that threatens Panama’s canal monopoly in Central America has also unnerved Americans with the potential of a new global hegemon challenging the United States in its “own backyard.” The continued melting of the northern polar ice cap has opened up another alternative interoceanic transit to mariners—the Northwest Passage above Canada, whose environs face Russian claims to islands and sea lanes.

The strong cultural and ideological influence of the United States in Panama, a country where commerce remains an obsession and “Spanglish” operates as the lingua franca, continues to form a lasting imperial legacy whose outcomes are yet to be determined in a postcolonial age. The relations between the two nations have long centered on the Canal and the U.S. “original sin” in obtaining and operating it. But with the successful, non-violent transfer of the waterway, a new expanded set of locks, and the passage of time, resentments have eased with a greater appreciation for the contributions made by both sides to this once troubled alliance. It is within the framework of this more positive atmosphere that a normalized relationship points toward future cooperation—and possible conflicts.

Discussion of the Literature

The earliest U.S. works on the United States and the Panama Canal were written around the period of construction by journalists, military men, and the actual participants, so many of these serve as primary sources as well. Panamanian scholars have also produced a wealth of works on the U.S. presence on the isthmus, which naturally focus on conflicts over the Canal. Some of the classic U.S. overviews are Walter LaFeber’s The Panama Canal, Michael L. Conniff’s Panama and the United States, and John Major’s Prize Possession.1 For earlier U.S. studies of the Canal, see Gerstle Mack’s The Land Divided and William McCain’s The United States and the Republic of Panama.2

For U.S. works on the vital construction period, see David McCullough’s magisterial and still compelling The Path Between the Seas.3 An earlier version of this epic narrative can be found in Miles DuVal’s And the Mountains Will Move.4 Julie Greene’s The Canal Builders examines the vital contribution of labor, especially that of West Indians, Spaniards, Italians, Latin Americans, and American women, during the construction.5 Alexander Missal’s Seaway to the Future explores the newly built Canal as both a symbol and model for competing visions of progress in the United States, Latin America, and the world.6 Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu’s The Big Ditch provides a fine economic analysis of the Canal from construction days through the late 1990s.7 Ashley Carse’s Beyond the Big Ditch explores the enormous environmental impact of the Canal on its workers, Panama, and the world.8 Peter M. Sánchez’s Panama Lost? emphasizes Panamanian domestic politics and its interplay with the U.S. control of the Canal.9 For a negative view of Panama’s role in its long relationship with Washington, see Mark Falcoff’s Panama’s Canal.10 Ovidio Diaz Espino’s How Wall Street Created a Nation provides a controversial Panamanian view.11 More measured Panamanian assessments include Patricia Pizzurno Gelós and Celistino Andrés Araúz’s Estudios sobre el Panamá republicano; Ricardo J. AIfaro, Mediosiglo de relaciones entre Panama y los Estados Unidos; and Ernesto Castillero Pimentel, Panama y los Estados Unidos.12

George W. Westerman, a leading figure in the West Indian community, wrote The West Indian Worker on the Panama Canal, recognizing his people’s key role in the construction and maintenance of the channel.13 In the 1980s, a number of scholars followed in his footsteps, notably Jamaican historian Velma Newton’s The Silver Men and Michael L. Conniff’s Black Labor on a White Canal, which examined seventy-five years of union, identity, and domestic politics in the West Indian community.14 Harry Franck’s Zone Policeman 88 examines social and cultural life in the Canal Zone and nearby Panama from a U.S. policeman’s view during construction with telling racial judgments.15 John and Mavis Biesanz’s The People of Panama captures the society of both Panama and the Canal Zone at mid-century.16 Lawrence Elay in Yanqui Politics and the Isthmian Canal also provides key cultural insights into this relationship.17 Herbert and Mary Knapp’s Red, White, and Blue Paradise is a largely pro-American study of life in the Zone and nearby republic.18 Michael E. Donoghue’s Borderland on the Isthmus emphasizes cultural conflicts in his portrayal of the Canal Zone–Panama nexus as an imperial borderland.19 John Lindsay-Poland’s Emperors in the Jungle takes a critical view of U.S. military interventions in and environmental damage to Panama throughout a century of U.S. occupation.20

The work of Alan L McPherson in Yankee No! provides a nuanced view of the 1964 uprising that led to the 1977–1978 Carter-Torrijos treaties.21 William Jorden in Panama Odyssey gives an authoritative view of the long 1964–1978 treaty-making process from the U.S. team’s point of view.22 Omar Jaen Suarez recounts the negotiations as an insider on the Panamanian team in Las negociaciones de los tratados Torrijos-Carter 1970–1979.23 William L. Furlong and Margaret E. Scranton’s The Dynamics of Foreign Policymaking and George D. Moffett’s The Limits of Victory are both fine analyses of the arduous and many conflicts addressed in the treaty process.24 Finally, for the symbolic importance of the Panama Canal in political imagination and memory, see Adam Clymer’s Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch and Alfred Charles Richard’s The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness 1870–1990.25

Primary Sources

For primary research on the United States and the Panama Canal, a large number of archives, libraries, and documentary collections are available to scholars both in the United States and in the Republic of Panama. In the United States, the U.S. National Archives at College Park, Maryland, contains a number of key record groups. The most important is RG 185: the Records of the Panama Canal. The current records in the National Archives deal mostly from 1904 to 1982 as the latest Panama Canal Commission records (1982–1999) are still being processed and catalogued. Next in importance would be RG 59: the Records of the Department of State, Decimal and Lot Files from 1903 to 1999. Earlier records regarding the diplomatic machinations that led to the U.S. acquisition of the Canal are available, including those regarding alternative routes, such as Nicaragua. (Some of this earlier documentation is also in RG 185.) All the U.S. Presidential Libraries for the occupants of the White House from 1903 (Theodore Roosevelt) until 1999 (William Jefferson Clinton) also have records on the Panama Canal in their National Security and White House office files, though many of these are duplicated at the National Archives.

The U.S. century-long military role in guarding the Canal and intervening in Panama and the surrounding Caribbean Basin from bases in the Canal Zone can be found in RG 395 Records of U.S. Army Command in Panama, 1915–1940; in RG 338: Department of the Army, Panama Canal, 1940–1947; and in RG 349: Records of Caribbean Command, 1947–1963 (from 1963 the name was changed to Southern Command). These documents trace the complex role of the U.S. military in Panama. Those for Southern Command are being processed and released for researchers gradually and through Freedom of Information (FIO) filings. Also for the U.S. geostrategic angle on the Canal, RG 273 1947–: Records of the National Security Council provide reports on the security and strategic concerns about the waterway; RG 107: the Records of the Secretary of War, 1898–1947; RG 330 the Records of the Secretary of Defense, 1947–1999, RG 334: U.S. Army Missions, 1952–1979; and RG 335: the Records of the Secretary of the Army complete these military archives. The Department of the Army’s Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, contains the papers and oral histories of Generals Matthew B. Ridgway, Willis Crittenberger, and Andrew O’Meara, three key U.S. military commanders in Panama, as well as those of the earlier, less well-known commanders of the Panama garrison.

For researchers interest in legal cases, disputes, and crime in the Panama Canal Zone as well as the controversial U.S. exercise of extraterritoriality in Panama, RG 21, The District Court Records of the United States, contain the court records of the Balboa and Cristobal Districts Courts and their earlier antecedents that functioned in the Panama Canal Zone from the early days of construction until 1982. Other archives in the United States for finding material on the Panama would include Panama Canal Museum Records of the George Smathers Library at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the Latin American Collection of the Nettie Benson Library at the University of Texas at Austin. The former contains an important online, digitalized, periodical collection that includes the Panama Canal Review, the Spillway, the Canal Record, and the Annual Report of the Governor of the Panama Canal Zone 1911–1950, The Annual Report of the Panama Canal Company/Canal Zone Government 1951–1979, and the Annual Report of the Panama Canal Commission 1980–1999. It should also be mentioned that along with these digitalized, online resources, a good starting point, especially for undergraduates and graduate students with limited funds for domestic and international travel, are the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documentary collections of the State Department, National Security Council, CIA, and Defense Department of U.S.-Panamanian relations, which focus quite often on the Canal. The Declassified Document Reference System (DDRS) and the U.S. Congressional Record are also excellent sources of primary materials on Panama that have been declassified over the years.

On the Panamanian side of the ledger, a number of key Panamanian archives are vital for researchers. First is the Archivo Nacional in Panama City, RP. Though not as well organized as other archives in the Republic, it contains a wealth of historical material. The Archivo del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores at the Palacio Bolívar in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City is also essential as it houses all the diplomatic records of Panamanian–U.S. relations with many of these relating to the Canal. The Archivo de Recuerdos de la Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP; Panama Canal Authority) are in Corozal, Panama, and have stored many records of the Panama Canal Commission (1979–1999), which was after all a joint U.S.–Panamanian agency as well as much pertinent material after the canal transfer in December 1999. The smaller Archivo Ricardo J. Alfaro in the Bella Vista section of Panama City has all of the papers and correspondents of one of the leading Panamanian diplomats and historians of the 20th century and much useful material on the Canal that Mr. Alfaro collected during his terms in office and retirement prior to his death. The Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censo or the National Institute of Statistics and Census at the Contraloría General de la Republíca de Panamá in Panama City are useful for unearthing the demographics and economic indices of the republic so heavily influenced in many regions by the U.S.-controlled Canal and its direct and indirect employment opportunities. The Biblioteca Nacional in Panama City contains many primary and secondary materials on the United States and the Canal. The Biblioteca de Autoridad de Canal de Panamá (ACP), or the Panama Canal Authority Library, in Balboa is also a wonderful source of Panama Canal primary and secondary sources. Especially of interest is the Panama Canal Collection of this library that holds many records from the old Canal Zone. Both the ACP Library and the Biblioteca Nacional contain very useful Panamanian periodicals, such as Crítica, La Hora, El Siglo, La Prensa, Estrella de Panamá/Star and Herald, Panama Américan/Panama American, La Nación, Matutino, MundoGrafíco, RevistaLotería, RevistaTareas, and the Panama Tribune. The Instituto del Canal y Estudios Internacionales at the Biblioteca Interamericana Simon Bolivar of the Universidad de Panamá also contains many useful Panamanian materials on the Canal.

All researchers visiting the isthmus should also look at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, the Museo Afroantillano, and the Museo del Canal Interoceano de Panamá, all in Panama City, which have lots of media, cultural, and historical materials on the many people who made up the Canal workforce and local populations during and after construction. The Biomuseo: Museo de Bioversidad de Panamá and the Smithsonian Institute at the entrance of the Amador Causeway in Balboa are also of interest to those researchers interested in the environmental impact of the Canal on the U.S.-run Zone and Panama.

Further Reading

Conniff, Michael L. Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.Find this resource:

    Donoghue, Michael E. Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture and the Struggle for the Canal Zone. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

      Gill, Leslie. The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

        LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

          Lindsay-Poland, John. Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

            Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903–1979. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

              McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879–1914. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.Find this resource:

                Missal, Alexander. Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                  Sánchez, Peter M. Panama Lost? U.S. Hegemony, Democracy, and the Canal. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007.Find this resource:


                    (1.) Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Michael L. Conniff, Panama and the United States: The End of the Alliance (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); and John Major, Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903–1979 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

                    (2.) Gerstle Mack, The Land Divided: A History of the Panama Canal and Other Isthmian Canal Projects (New York: Knopf, 1944); and William McCain, The United States and the Republic of Panama (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1937).

                    (3.) David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870–1914 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977).

                    (4.) Miles DuVal, And the Mountains Will Move: The Story of the Building of the Panama Canal (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1947).

                    (5.) Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin, 2009).

                    (6.) Alexander Missal, Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).

                    (7.) Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu, The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

                    (8.) Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal (Boston: MIT Press, 2014).

                    (9.) Peter M. Sánchez, Panama Lost? U.S. Hegemony, Democracy, and the Canal (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007).

                    (10.) Mark Falcoff, Panama’s Canal: What Happens When the United States Gives a Small Country What It Wants (Washington, DC: AIE Press, 1998).

                    (11.) Ovidio Diaz Espino, How Wall Street Created a Nation: J. P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Panama Canal (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001).

                    (12.) Patricia Pizzurno Gelós and Celistino Andrés Araúz, Estudios sobre el Panamá republicano, 1903–1989 (Bogota, Colombia: Manfer, S.A., 1996); Ricard J. AIfaro, Mediosiglo de relaciones entre Panama y los Estados Unidos (Panama: Imprenta Nacional, 1959); and Ernesto Castillero Pimentel, Panama y los Estados Unidos (Panama: Imprenta Nacional, 1953).

                    (13.) George W. Westerman, The West Indian Worker on the Panama Canal (Panama: Universidad de Panamá, 1951).

                    (14.) Velma Newton, The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850–1914 (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1984); and Michael L. Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904–1981 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).

                    (15.) Harry Franck, Zone Policeman 88: A Close Range Study of the Panama Canal and Its Workers (New York: The Century Company, 1913).

                    (16.) John Biesanz and Mavis Biesanz, The People of Panama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955).

                    (17.) Lawrence Elay, Yanqui Politics and the Isthmian Canal (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1971).

                    (18.) Herbert Knapp and Mary Knapp, Red, White, and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985).

                    (19.) Michael E. Donoghue, Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

                    (20.) John Lindsay-Poland, Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

                    (21.) Alan L McPherson, Yankee No!: Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

                    (22.) William Jorden, Panama Odyssey (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984).

                    (23.) Omar Jaen Suarez, Las negociaciones de los tratados Torrijos-Carter 1970–1979 (Panama: Autoridad del Canal de Panamá, 2005).

                    (24.) William L. Furlong and Margaret E. Scranton, The Dynamics of Foreign Policymaking: The President, the Congress, and the Panama Canal Treaties (Boulder, CO: Westview Press., 1984); and George D. Moffett, The Limits of Victory: The Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).

                    (25.) Adam Clymer, Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the New Right (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008); Alfred Charles Richard, The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness 1870–1990 (New York: Garland Press, 1990).