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Friday, May 5, 2023

May 5, 2023: Hemispheric Histories: The Panama Canal

[April 30th marks the 75th anniversary of the formal founding of the Organization of American States (OAS). So this week I’ll offer some AmericanStudies contexts for that important community and a handful of other hemispheric histories, leading up to a weekend post highlighting some of the many awesome scholars doing hemispheric studies!]

On three treaties across 130 years that together help tell the story of the famous waterway.

1)      The Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty of 1846: The United States had been involved in the possibility of a waterway cutting through the isthmus of Panama to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans since at least 1788, when Thomas Jefferson proposed the idea while serving as Minister to France. After various aborted efforts from numerous nations and entities throughout the early 19th century, the ball really got rolling when representatives of the Polk Administration negotiated the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty with the Republic of New Granada (mainly constituted out of Colombia and Panama). The result wasn’t yet a waterway, but rather the Panama Railroad, which was opened in 1855 and did allow for easier travel across the isthmus but was seen by all involved as a first step toward the eventual goal of a canal.

2)      The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903: That 1846 treaty had granted the U.S. significant transit rights (hence the railroad), but the question of who had a right to construct a waterway remained in dispute for another half-century. President Theodore Roosevelt was determined to secure that right for the U.S., and thought he had done so with the January 1903 Hay-Herrán Treaty; but the Senate of Colombia refused to ratify that one. So Roosevelt encouraged Panama to separate from Colombia and become its own nation; when it did so, he sent Secretary of State John M. Hay back and the result in November 1903 was the more lasting Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which granted the U.S. the sole right to build and indefinitely administer a Panama Canal Zone. If that all sounds fraught as hell, welcome to 20th century U.S. foreign policy!

3)      The Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977: Those fraught histories and contexts were (like so much of that 20C foreign policy) recognized but largely ignored for much of the century, but (as with a good bit of that 20C foreign policy) that changed to a degree (significantly, but not entirely) under the Jimmy Carter administration. As that hyperlinked State Department summary notes, Carter respected Panama’s claims to sovereignty and was determined to do what we could to turn the Canal over; it was a long and torturous process, but the result was a pair of treaties ratified and signed in September 1977: the Panama Canal Treaty, which ended the Canal Zone in 1979 and returned the Canal itself to Panama in 1999; and the Neutrality Treaty, which stated that the U.S. could use its military to (as the State Department puts it) “defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality, thus allowing perpetual U.S. usage of the Canal.” If that still sounds pretty fraught, welcome to the limits of any attempt to truly revise 20th century U.S. foreign policy!

Scholar tribute post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Histories, contexts, and/or scholars you’d highlight?

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