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canal pic
Panama Canal
Image taken from http://copeteross.com/images/0095_panama_canal.jpg

What was the purpose of the United States’ involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal? Was it simply diplomatic intervention or an excuse for imperialism? In the following documents, we look to answer this question. The historical view that is put in place by the U.S government and political figures was that of U.S looking to extend a neighborly hand to Latin American countries such as Panama. We look at how different presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter, made use of the Panama Canal through their memos and executive orders. Presidents and the U.S. were careful to describe their place in Panama as intervention and make clear their intention of not intervening. This created an impression that the U.S had no imperialistic intention in Panama. On the other hand, there are also accounts looking at how Panama reacted to the U.S idea of intervention. These accounts look at how the U.S. idea of intervention, such as extending this neighborly hand, looked a lot like interfering to the Panamanians. The image portrayed here is that of a callous United States as the Panama Canal is being built. One in which many people died, for the building of this canal, which was for the benefit of a foreign country. These accounts look at student protestors and art portraying the United States as invaders and imperialists. There was considerable opposition to U.S. involvement in Panama because of how it negatively affected the lives of Panamanians, but U.S. Presidents continuously made claims to the positive affects of the Canal and the U.S. assuming leadership of it.

The first photo is of a mural found in Panama. This mural shows an antagonistic depiction of the American flag. The viewer is expected to feel something when they see this mural. This mural allows the viewer to think about the depiction of something as uniquely American and patriotic as the flag in a negative view with a chilling skull in the place of Lady Liberty. This will make the viewer question why the author painted this and the viewer will have to put himself or herself in the position of the artist in order to truly understand the mural and the issue of imperialism through the Panama Canal.           

The second photo is found in Life Magazine’s cover of the 24th of January of 1964, showing Panamanian students climbing a flagpole on Balboa High School to raise a Panama flag on what is known as Martyrs' Day. Two monuments were build after the event captured (and made famous) by this image. The Panama Canal Zone was established in 1903 and was restricted by the US government until 1979. It was a 553 square mile territory surrounding the Panama Canal. There was a fence constructed around the zone to divide the US territory from the rest of the Republic of Panama.

            The third photo is of Panamanian workers and can be found at this website, www.filmteamsafari.com/panamacanal.asp . This photo shows workers in harsh conditions. The viewer must think about these workers in harsh conditions; scorching sun, long hours, dangerous environments, unsafe tools, and so on. The viewer will empathize with these workers and should begin to question how the US has treated Latin America, such as the U.S. treatment of Colombia and its years of taking part in Panamanian politics. The viewer will have to decide if  the U.S. can really be this defender of the free world that it has and continues to say it is. Or is the United States this country which is a self-interested nation completely looking towards a policy of imperialism?

The first artifact is a memo from the white house. This memo explains the United States basic policies in Panama. Since the canal's location is at one of the crossroads of international trade it has generated an overabundance of other service-oriented jobs and revenue. In this memo the US makes clear their position on what they expect from the Panama Canal, and what their position is. The viewer should look at this memo to understand the policies being put in place by the political figures making the important decisions about foreign and domestic policy.

The second artifact is the first page of Senate Advice and Consent document for the Panama Canal Treaty, signed in April 18, 1978 and can be found in the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the U.S. Government. The United States government possessed and managed the canal and the adjacent region for 85 years, establishing it as an important trade route, which could also be used as a beneficial piece of national security for its armed forces. The problem is that this artifact tells the viewer how the US government initially planned to intervene and not interfere in Panama politics. 

The last artifact is a Senate bill stating that the Panama Canal treaty was ratified. It was written in 1978 by Jimmy Carter, the president at the time. It states that the U.S. will not intervene in affairs of the Canal and will try to keep the Canal neutral and open. The date of this document is important when being analyzed because the U.S. did not agree to quit interference in the Canal and in Panama until 60+ years after it was built.

The first Participant Account is Theodore Roosevelt’s proposed message to Congress in 1903. It shows Teddy Roosevelt’s view on the Canal. Viewers of the document can see that Roosevelt had an aggressive plan for the Canal, as well as a strong desire for America to possess the power over the building of the Canal and the project itself. This account is important because we can understand what the first and major proponent’s vision was for the canal and how he planned to achieve it.

The second account is a contrast to the first because it is a letter from Jimmy Carter to the Head of the Panama Government, General Torrijos, telling him that he wants each of their countries to work out a fair and equal agreement concerning the canal. In this account the attitude of Carter is much different than that of Roosevelt’s on the eve of the building of the canal. Carter wants a peaceful agreement between the U.S. and Panama and he is willing to do contrary to what the U.S. public wants in order to settle things. This account can be compared to Roosevelt’s Proposed Message to Congress to see which one students think is valid or more realistic.

The last Participant Account is from a book called Panama Gateway, written in 1913 by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, a man working on the Isthmian Canal Commission. He gives a first hand account of every aspect of the Canal, from the way it operates to the lives of the people that worked to make it operate, in his book. The account tells of the working conditions in Panama and a little of what the workers experienced day by day. The account given does not sound appealing and is important for students reading to be aware of how the Canal affected the lives of thousands of workers involved with it.

Melissa Roberson and Eliana Reynoso

created 11/10/09

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We are teacher education candidates at the University of Texas as Austin completing our Student as Historian project in order to meet course requirements for Secondary Advanced Social Studies Methods.