The Path Between the Seas
The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1874-1914
Simon & Schuster, 1978
David McCullough’s work occupies an inordinate amount of space on my bookshelf. Whenever I wish to be corrected in regard to something I learned as a youth, I can count on him to set me straight.
What I, and most of us, learned about the Panama Canal in sixth grade was not wrong so much as it was woefully incomplete. There is so much history that we think we know, but upon diving into it more deeply with McCullough (or Doris Kearns Goodwin, or William Manchester, et al.) we discover we hardly understood it at all, and more likely misunderstood it.
I had had the vague impression that the Panama Canal was something Teddy Roosevelt built. Wrong. Roosevelt took over from the French, who pursued what was arguably a criminally insane (not to mention financially criminal) twenty-five-year effort to build a canal. In the process they suffered a manic national delusion about what they could accomplish, bankrupted hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women who invested their life savings in the scheme, and killed tens of thousands of workers in the jungles of Panama.
The work was brutal and dangerous, but the biggest killers by far were yellow fever, malaria, dengue and similar diseases. The French failed to grasp the insect-vector theory of disease, and when the Americans took over they were similarly myopic. Men in charge generally dismissed that theory as a bunch of nonsense, despite clear evidence that it was correct. (Although this was the beginning of the Age of Progress, the was a great deal of myopia among men in power. In another of his books, The Wright Brothers, McCullough describes how the Wrights flew regularly and publicly for more than a year before almost anyone actually believed they could do what they were doing, and it was a good five years before manned powered flight was generally accepted as fact.) Americans came to the canal project with the belief that such tropical diseases as afflicted the French and their Caribbean workers were imbued with the capacity to make moral distinctions around Victorian ideals of character. Infection, they maintained, would afflict dissolute Frenchmen and largely invisible (to white people) black workers, but not good upstanding American boys. Not surprisingly to the modern reader, that belief was not a good prophylactic. The truth is the canal could not have been built without the efforts of William Gorgas, a physician who insisted on the insect vector theory and relentlessly eliminated mosquitoes from the Canal Zone. In time the sighting of a mosquito in the Zone came to be considered a noteworthy event. Because people weren’t dying of disease, the canal now could be finished.
Nor could the canal have been built without some extraordinary extra-legal measures on Roosevelt’s part. I find it salutary, in these trying political times, to read about outrageous American history and reflect upon how we have prospered in spite of it. The example in this case is Roosevelt’s blatant decision to ignore our treaty with Colombia and support a cloak-and-dagger effort to break the isthmus off as an independent country, which he did with the well-timed display of troops and gunboats, and without apology. It was a breathtaking, self-justified exercise of raw imperial power, and not something we should be proud of as Americans. (Even at the time, plenty of people thought it was wrong, and President Woodrow Wilson later paid Columbia what were essentially reparations.)
More than a century after its completion, the canal continues to stand as one of the extraordinary feats of engineering on the globe. Now the Chinese are pursuing a competing canal through Nicaragua. Personally, I hope they abandon the project, in part because I wouldn’t want a modern effort to diminish the extraordinary achievements of an earlier era. McDonough is a great storyteller, weaving together personal character, telling detail and the broader sweep of an era. He hasn’t misled me yet.