The first potential stumbling block was dealt with quickly. The U.S. attorney general sailed to Paris and exhaustively went through the available books and contracts before pronouncing that the deal with the New Company was legitimate. But on the second issue, of coming to a deal with Colombia, it was not to be so simple.
Since October 1899, Colombia had been in the throes of its longest and most devastating civil war since independence eighty years before. The “War of a Thousand Days,” fought between Conservative and Liberal factions, would claim the lives of between 150,000 and 250,000 Colombians.
With Liberal armies threatening Bogotá itself, the administration, led by the elderly Conservative José Manuel Marroquín, was showing signs of confusion, and was having great difficulty staying in contact with its representatives in Washington. Marroquín tried to delay the signing of any deal with the United States until his position was more secure, but amid calls from the Nicaragua party that the “reasonable time,” as stipulated by the Spooner Act, had run out, a treaty was signed with the Colombian legation's secretary, Tomás Herrán, on January 22, 1903 (the previous envoy had resigned in disgust at what he saw as the bullying tactics of the U.S. administration). Herrán himself had been concerned that further delays would lead Roosevelt, whom he described as “impetuous [with a] violent disposition,” simply to seize the Isthmus.
The terms of the treaty were that in return for an annuity of $250,000, with a $10 million gold onetime payment, the United States would receive a six-mile-wide Canal Zone on a hundred-year lease renewable at the sole option of the United States. Although Colombian sovereignty was specifically recognized, this was something of a fig leaf: the United States was to be allowed to establish its own courts within the proposed Zone and, in an emergency, to land its forces without Colombia's consent to protect the canal.
Morgan did his very best to wreck the treaty in the Senate, proposing a number of amendments, including anti-Catholic measures, which he knew would make the deal unacceptable to Colombia. Along the way, he described the treaty as a compact with “a crowd of French jail-birds, cleverly advised by a New York railroad wrecker… and a depraved, priest-ridden people.” The Alabama senator successfully filibustered into March, but overplayed his hand. Roosevelt pushed, Morgan broke down, and the treaty was ratified without amendments on March 17. Now the ball was firmly in Colombia's court.
n mid-March 1903, with the civil war at last over, and as the new Colombian Congress was being elected, the Panama Star and Herald commented, “Few of the members who will assemble in Bogotá, competent observers say, have ever seen the ocean… They are comparatively indifferent to the advantages of the project, while feeling great pride in their soil and sovereignty, and a corresponding fear of the gradual absorption of their territory by the United States. These things count against ratification.”
Soon after, Claude Mallet returned to the Isthmus, having served for two years in Bogotá. It was not good to be back. There was “a great deal of illness” in Panama, and yellow fever in Colón. “I have heard of four cases (two deaths) since I arrived on Thursday,” he wrote to his Panamanian wife, who had remained in England for the health of their children. More than anything, Mallet reported, there was great depression about the chances of the canal treaty going through. “Religion here has taken an extraordinary hold upon the people,” he wrote on June 1. “A few years ago such a scene [a procession of girls carrying an effigy of the virgin] would not have been permitted. The Jesuits are getting in their work and unless the canal is made we shall lapse back to what the place was fifty years ago.”
Panama's senator José Agustín Arango, who also worked as a lawyer for the Panama Railroad, believed that the result of the forthcoming debate in Bogotá was a foregone conclusion and refused to attend the opening of the Senate at the beginning of June 1903. Instead, he believed that the best hope for a canal to bring much-needed prosperity back to his homeland was through secession. By May a small revolutionary group was active, centered on Arango's sons and sons-in-law, all young men educated in the United States. Soon after, Federico Boyd, the son of the founding editor of the Star and Herald, and Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, the railroad's seventy-year-old, frail-looking head physician, were brought on board. The group met secretly at Amador's house, or at the Panama electric light plant.
Petitions were sent from Panama to Bogotá both for and against the treaty. Liberals were opposed to the “selling” of Panama to the United States. Cromwell helped organize pressure in favor. An open letter from Panama's senior Conservatives to the Colombian president Marroquín warned that rejection of the treaty would “give rise to unpatriotic feelings.”
In fact, Marroquín was in a near-impossible situation. In the United States he was seen and portrayed as an all-powerful dictator, but this was far from the case. His power was extremely fluid, varying from issue to issue, and he had made enemies across the political spectrum. It was imperative to his political survival that he did not alienate any of his fragile support.
Indeed, the canal question carried political high explosive. In Colombia, sovereignty was of prime importance, the chief symbol of national permanence and unity in a land of disordered change. In fact, the constitution specifically forbade the transfer to another power of the sovereignty of any part of the country. It was one thing to give a concession to a private company, quite another to hand one to the voracious power to the north, which had already demonstrated its aggression in Cuba and the Philippines. “Not an atom of our sovereignty nor a stone of our territory,” wrote the newspaper El Correo Naçional, should be given up, even if it meant “renounc[ing] the honour of a canal across Panama.”
Anti-Marroquín newspapers, of which there were many, attacked the treaty as a way of damaging the president. Herrán had sold out, it was stated; the deal was an example of Yankee imperialism; there was still hope of a European country, Britain or Germany, riding to the rescue to build the canal; Morgan's comments in the U.S. Senate debate about “depraved, priest-ridden people” were printed, causing widespread resentment.
Under the aggressive leadership of Roosevelt, the United States had been throwing its weight around in the region. At Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, ideally situated to guard the Windward Passage into the Caribbean and thence to the Isthmus, a U.S. naval base had been established in February 1903. At a speech in Chicago in April, Roosevelt declared that “our nation has insisted that because of its primacy in strength among the nations of the Western hemisphere it has certain duties and responsibilities which oblige it to take a leading part thereon.” What would become known as the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine emerged as a policy soon after Roosevelt entered the White House. Not only was the United States committed to excluding European powers from the hemisphere, but it was also taking on the role of “international police power” intervening in cases of “chronic wrongdoing” or “incompetence.”
To Colombians, this posture was both frightening and insulting. It is “a warning to our countries,” wrote the Bogotá paper El Porvenir. “It is the conviction of his irresistible superiority and vigor that makes the Yankee, from Mr. Roosevelt to the rag-picker, treat the turbulent republics of Latin America with haughtiness and contempt.” The authority to intervene, said the paper, was “derived from nobody knows where … as though the great nation had received from some universal power the mission to put in order those who live in disorder!”
Against this background of distrust and fear, public sentiment on the Hay-Herrán Treaty quickly changed, the U.S. ambassador in Bogotá reported back on April 15, “from approbation to suspicion and from suspicion to decided opposition.” The minister, Arthur Beupré, still believed that Marroquín had the power to force the measure through Congress, but that an open vote would see it rejected.
But this would not be put to the test. Marroquín had no intention of acting so vigorously on the canal question. He saw himself in an unwinnable position. “History will say of me,” he had written the previous year, “that I ruined the Isthmus and all Colombia, by not permitting the opening of the Panama Canal, or that I permitted it to be done, scandalously injuring the rights of my country.” The way out, as he saw it, was to hand over the responsibility for the decision to Congress, a step the constitution demanded anyway.
But the Colombian president was also personally ambivalent about the canal, which, if built, would open up his country as never before. Like U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, he was a novelist. In his 1897 book Entre Primos, he used a cultural confrontation between an effete Englishman and an idealized, hardworking Colombian to show the frippery of the outside world and the superiority of the insular Colombian character. During the civil war he had risked ruining his country in order to protect it from the demands of the Liberals— railroads, foreign influence, and capital. In many ways the canal represented the greatest threat of all to everything he held dear—the sheltered, Catholic, genteel age of nineteenth-century Bogotá, untrammeled by technology, modernism, or Protestant capitalism.
Discussions of the treaty continued through the spring. In April, the Colombians again indicated that, even if they gave in on the sovereignty question, an even greater sticking point was the issue of Colombia's right to a proportion of the money to be paid to the New Company. On this issue, though, Cromwell had engineered his great coup. “We pointed out,” the lawyer later wrote, “that Colombia had already pledged herself morally to consent, and that her consent should be imposed on her as being demanded by international good faith.” Even Hay asked Cromwell whether, perhaps, some $ 5 million or so could not be paid over from the $40 million, but Cromwell succeeded in persuading him that this would be tantamount to giving in to blackmail. Cromwell's influence, on behalf of his client, right at the center of the U.S. government, is astonishing.
Then the Colombians hinted at another possible way out of the impasse. If the 1900 extension to the concession, organized by Hutin in the midst of the Colombian civil war, were declared illegal, then they could simply let the original term of the deal with the New Company expire in October 1904, and then sell the lot to the Americans for $25 million. But Cromwell need not have worried. Roosevelt and Hay were appalled by this threat, which confirmed their opinion of the Colombians as shifty and grasping. Hay had strong views on property rights, calling the Colombians “greedy little anthropoids.”
The Americans decided that a firm hand was needed. On June 9, eleven days before the debate in the Colombian Senate was due to start, a serious threat was issued from Hay's office: “If Colombia should now reject the treaty or unduly delay its ratification, the friendly understanding between the two countries would be so seriously compromised that action might be taken by the Congress next winter which every friend of Colombia would regret.” All efforts by Marroquín to reduce the humiliation of the deal were now met by a firm rejoinder: any amendments or other delays would be “tantamount to a rejection of the treaty.”
Behind this browbeating tone was the determination of the president, Theodore Roosevelt. With elections looming in 1904, he was talking up the grandeur and national pride that the construction of the canal would bring to his country. It was, he told an audience in Chicago, the “greatest material feat of the twentieth century— greater than any similar feat in any preceding century.” Of course, it “should be done by no foreign nation, but by ourselves.”
The Panama lobby was also keeping up the pressure. On June 13, Bunau-Varilla, at huge expense, cabled Marroquín. “The only party that can now build the Panama Canal is the United States,” he wrote. “Neither European governments nor private financiers would dare to fight either against the Monroe Doctrine or the American Treasury for building Panama Canal.” Failure to ratify, he warned, would lead to either the “construction of a Nicaragua Canal and absolute loss to Colombia of the incalculable advantages resulting from construction on her territory the great artery of universal commerce, or the construction of the Panama Canal after secession and declaration of independence of the Isthmus of Panama under protection of the United States as has happened with Cuba.”
Cromwell was busy, too. On June 12 he had paid a public visit to the White House, and the next day a story appeared in a New York newspaper, which turned out to have come from Roger Farnham, Cromwell's press agent. “President Roosevelt is determined to have the Panama Canal Route,” the piece read, saying that a combination of “the greed of the Colombian government” and the “frenzy over the alleged relinquishment of sovereignty” made defeat of the measure “probable” in the Colombian Senate. But, the article continued, “the State of Panama will secede if the Colombian congress fails to ratify the canal treaty.” Supposedly, Farnham even told the paper's editors the date of the “revolution”—November 3, when U.S. newspapers would be full of returns from the midterm elections.
Indeed, the treaty never stood a chance in the Colombian Senate. The debate started on June 20, and was dominated by attacks on Mar-roquín that had little to do with the canal. Two weeks later General Rafael Reyes, back in Bogotá after a period of exile and a firm supporter of the treaty, asked Beupré for an additional $5 million up front from the United States and $10 million out of the $40 million for the New Company to break the deadlock.
Hay replied that the U.S. Senate would not approve it. “Any amendment whatever or unnecessary delay in the ratification of the treaty would greatly imperil its consummation,” he told Beupré. A few days later Roosevelt wrote to Hay backing up this firm stand. “Make it as strong as you can… Those contemptible little creatures in Bogota ought to understand how much they are jeopardizing things and imperiling their own future.” In fact, Hay, apart from his improperly close relationship with Cromwell, had his hands tied. The close result of the vote in the Senate on the Hanna minority report meant that any deviation from the strict terms of the Spooner Act could see the treaty fail to make it through the Senate. Thus the intransigence of Morgan and the Nicaragua party doomed the treaty as much as any opposition in Colombia.
The rejection from Bogotá, when it came on August 12, was overwhelming, with 24 voting against, with 3 abstentions. Even Marro-quín's son voted against the measure. In the United States, the vote was seen as an attempt to extort more money out of the United States or the French Company. Patience with Bogotá, never extensive, was now at an end. It was time for a new plan.
oosevelt and Hay now weighed the options open to them. The first was to persevere with Colombia and hope that the treaty might be ratified the following year. The second was to push ahead with the Nicaragua option, as the Spooner Act directed. Or the whole question could be handed over to Congress to decide. The fourth option was somehow to proceed with the Panama route without recourse to Bogotá.
The first option was quickly written off. The president wanted a decision before the 1904 elections and was not inclined to continue negotiations with what he now called “the foolish and homicidal corruptionists in Bogota.” But to turn to Nicaragua (or see this option chosen by Congress) would for Roosevelt not only represent a personal defeat, but also be “against the advice of the great majority of competent engineers,” as the president declared. Furthermore, there was a growing consensus that the great new warships under construction in U.S. yards as part of Roosevelt's naval expansion would struggle with Nicaragua's narrow and winding rivers. Roosevelt was set on Panama. In September the French minister in Washington, Jules Jusserand, sent a dispatch to his government reporting of the president that, “I know, for having heard him say so, how intensely he wants it [the canal at Panama]; he will neglect nothing that may enable his country to perfect this work and be the master thereof.”
So nothing was to be ruled out, including seizing the Isthmus by force. In March 1903, U.S. spies had been sent to Panama to obtain information to assist military operations there. Days after Colombia's rejection of the treaty, a paper had been forwarded to Roosevelt by Hay's deputy, Francis B. Loomis, which seemed to offer a fig leaf of respectability for such a move. Written by an expert in international law, Professor John Bassett Moore, the paper argued that under the justification of “universal public utility” Colombia had no right to stand in the way of an improvement that would benefit the entire world.
Such a move carried great political risks, both domestically and internationally. But there was another option. Only two days after the rejection of the treaty (but before the news reached the United States), Senator Shelby Cullom gave a press conference on the canal question. Cullom was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and had just been conferring with Roosevelt at the president's summer residence at Oyster Bay. Roosevelt was prepared for bad news, said Cullom, but was still determined on a Panama canal. When asked how this would be possible if the treaty failed to be ratified in Bogotá, Cullom replied, “We might make another treaty, not with Colombia, but with Panama.” A month later Hay wrote to Roosevelt dismissing the possibility of making a “satisfactory treaty with Colombia,” but going on, “It is altogether likely there will be an insurrection on the Isthmus against that government of folly and graft that now rules in Bogota… Something we shall be forced to do in case of a serious insurrectionary movement in Panama, [is] to keep the transit clear. Our intervention should not be haphazard, nor, this time, should it be to the profit… as heretofore, of Bogota.”
n Panama the independence plot had gathered momentum and important friends. Following Arango and Amador, more Panama Railroad employees had been brought on board, including Herbert Prescott, assistant superintendent of the Panama Railroad (whose brother, another plotter, was married to Amador's niece), and James R. Beers, freight agent and port captain for the Pacific terminus of the PRR. Both were United States citizens, and the U.S. consul Arthur Grudger also joined the group. In July 1903 Cromwell, de facto head of the railroad, had summoned Beers to New York, at about the time of his planted story in the New York World about Panama's secession. Beers's meeting with Cromwell went well. The lawyer gave Beers a cable code and warned him to keep secret the involvement of the PRR, as it could forfeit its concession from Colombia. Cromwell also suggested a date for the revolution, November 3.
On August 26 Amador was sent by the plotters to New York. They were aware that without U.S. help any move by Panama toward independence could easily be crushed by Colombian forces. Amador sailed on board the Seguranca, a Panama Railroad and Steamship Company steamer. He had few funds for his trip, but managed to win a goodly sum playing poker during the voyage. Also on board, on unrelated business, was José Gabriel Duque, the Cuban-American owner of the Panama Star and Herald and the lottery, head of the fire brigade, and reputedly now the richest man on the Isthmus. Duque, an American citizen, knew about the plot, but was not part of the revolutionary junta. He later claimed that much of the money won by Amador was from him.
The boat arrived in New York on September 1, and Amador saw Cromwell the next day, receiving “a thousand offers in the direction of assisting the revolution.” But it was José Gabriel Duque who was met off the boat by Roger Farnham and taken straight to the office of Cromwell and Sullivan at 41 Wall Street. For Cromwell, Duque had two distinct advantages over Amador: he was rich, and he had no awkward connection with the Railroad. The lawyer assured Duque that there was no chance of Colombia coming to a deal, and that if Duque lent the revolution $100,000 on Cromwell's security, the lawyer would arrange for him to become the first president of an independent Panama. Of course, Cromwell went on, Duque should go to see Hay, and, picking up a phone on his desk, he organized the meeting there and then. The following evening Duque was on an overnight train to Washington (to avoid having to register in a hotel), and met Hay at ten o'clock the next day. The secretary of state all but told him that the United States would support the revolution: “The United States would build the Panama Canal and did not propose to permit Colombia's standing in the way,” Hay pronounced. If the revolutionaries took Panama City and Colón, he went on, American warships would prevent Colombian troops from landing under the justification that they were keeping fighting away from the all-precious transit.
No sooner had he left Hay's office than Duque was on his way to see his old friend Tomás Herrán at the Colombian legation. Perhaps because of some slight from the junta in Panama, from the influence of his wife, a fiercely patriotic Colombian, or because he still hoped to shock Bogotá into ratifying the treaty, Duque told Herrán everything. The next day, September 3, the Colombian minister cabled home: “Revolutionary agents of Panama [are] here. Yesterday the editor of La Estrella de Panama had a long conference with the Secretary of State … There is the probability of revolution with American help.” Herrán also set detectives on Amador's trail and fired off a warning to Cromwell that the Compagnie Nouvelle and the Railroad would lose their concessions—everything they were hoping to sell for $40 million—if they supported revolutionary activity.
This had Cromwell running scared. The next time Amador went to his office, he was “out.” Amador said he would wait, but still the lawyer refused to appear. Eventually Cromwell burst out of his office and physically removed the Panamanian doctor from his premises. Soon after, Cromwell made arrangements to leave the country on business. He knew his card was marked and that someone else would have to take up the challenge of engineering the revolution.
Amador was confused and downhearted, cabling a single-word message—“Desanimado” (“Discouraged”)—to his coconspirators in Panama and prepared to sail on the next ship. But then Amador heard that, should he remain in New York a little longer, he would receive help “from another quarter.”
Philippe Bunau-Varilla later claimed that his voyage to the United States at the beginning of September 1903 was motivated by the illness of his thirteen-year-old son, who was staying with John Bigelow. In fact, the Frenchman was up to his neck in Cromwell's plot. At the beginning of the month he had written an article for Le Matin, predicting revolution on the Isthmus and naming that same date—November 3. He arrived in New York on September 22—exactly the time it would have taken if Cromwell had summoned him straight after Herrán's warning.
Bunau-Varilla met Amador two days later and found the doctor in a state of fear and indignation. “All is lost,” said Amador. “At any moment the conspiracy may be discovered and my friends judged, sentenced to death, and their property confiscated.”
The Frenchman reassured him that he, Bunau-Varilla, would handle everything. Just over a week later, Bunau-Varilla, through Hay's deputy Francis Loomis, one of the many Americans he had cultivated as they passed through Paris, secured a meeting with Roosevelt, ostensibly to discuss Le Matin's role in the Dreyfus affair. Of course, the conversation turned to Panama. Bunau-Varilla announced that there was a revolution coming. The president was naturally unable to give overt support, but the Frenchman picked up what was left unsaid. Roosevelt later wrote to John Bigelow of the meeting: “I have no doubt that he was able to make a very accurate guess, and to advise his people accordingly. In fact, he would have been a very dull man had he been unable to make such a guess.”
A week later Bunau-Varilla met Hay who agreed that an insurrection was imminent and let him know that U.S. naval units were already standing by to dash to the Isthmus “to keep the transit open.” When Bunau-Varilla got together with Amador again shortly before the doctor's return to Panama, he assured him that U.S. help would be forthcoming for the revolution, as long as it happened on November 3. The money—$100,000—needed to bribe the Colombian garrison would come from the Frenchman's own resources, on the condition that Amador agreed to make Bunau-Varilla minister plenipotentiary in Washington for the new republic.
Bunau-Varilla now took total charge. As he wrote, “I held all the threads of a revolution on the Isthmus.” The weekend before Amador's departure he spent at the Bigelows’ house at Highland Falls writing a declaration of independence, military plans, and a new cipher code—Amador was “Smith,” Bunau-Varilla, “Jones”—while his wife and Grace Bigelow sewed together a new flag made out of silk purchased by Bunau-Varilla at Macy's. The whole “revolution kit” was wrapped in the flag and presented to Amador when he left on October 20.
Back in Panama, Amador found his coconspirators unhappy about Bunau-Varilla's demand to be made minister plenipotentiary, the flag (it was much too similar to the Stars and Stripes), the small amount of money promised, and the lack of firm proof of U.S. military assistance. Where was the signed agreement from Hay or Roosevelt? Who exactly was this Bunau-Varilla, and what authority did he have to offer promises of help? The plotters, for the most part wealthy landowners or professionals, had much to lose. The “revolution” experienced its first serious wobble.
Worse was to come. While Amador had been away in the United States, the junta had been working to bring into the conspiracy key players on the Isthmus. The mayor of Panama City, who happened to be the brother of Amador's young wife, María de la Ossa, was successfully recruited, as was the deputy head of the police force. General Esteban Huertas, the young commander of the local garrison, who was married to a Panamanian, seemed sympathetic although so far uncommitted, but his second in command, when approached, indignantly threatened to reveal the plot. To get rid of him, the state governor José de Obaldía, who lived with Amador and was unofficially in on the conspiracy, had invented an invasion in the north of Panama by Nicaraguan troops and dispatched a force under the man's command to investigate. But Obaldía, to cover his back, also cabled Bogotá on October 25 about the invasion scare. Three days later, Obaldía heard that the Colombian authorities, acting with uncharacteristic haste, had readied a force at Cartagena under the supreme commander of the army, General Tovar, to proceed to Colón to assist in repelling the supposed invasion.
The news caused a renewed panic among the conspirators, who demanded that Amador should rapidly provide proof of American support and the veracity of Bunau-Varilla's promises or the whole project would be abandoned. The next day, October 29, Amador sent the following cable to New York: “Fate News Bad Powerful Tiger Smith,” which translated as “For Bunau-Varilla. More than two hundred Colombian troops arriving on the Atlantic side within five days.” “Urge vapor colon,” Amador went on, abandoning the code. Obviously he hoped that Bunau-Varilla, on his own authority, could order a U.S. Navy steamer to the Caribbean side of the Isthmus.
Of course, Bunau-Varilla had no such power, but he did have friends in the right places. The same day he rushed to Washington. “It was a test to which I was being submitted,” he later wrote. “If I succeeded in this task the Canal was saved. If I failed it was lost.” His aim was to make the U.S. government understand that “its duty was to send immediately a cruiser in anticipation of probable events, rather than to wait for their explosion” as it had done in 1885 during the Prestan uprising. In Washington, Bunau-Varilla saw his friend Loomis, who was standing in for the secretary of state while Hay was away on holiday. Loomis agreed that the situation was “really fraught with peril for the city of Colón” and gave the Frenchman to believe that a steamer would be dispatched straightaway.
Bunau-Varilla had been watching the reports of U.S. Navy ships in the newspapers. He knew that the Nashville was at Kingston, and, according to his account, guessed that this would be the vessel sent to Panama. Calculating the speed of the craft and the distance to be covered, he estimated when the gunboat would arrive at Colón. The next day he cabled “Smith” in Panama saying a U.S. warship would be with them in two and a half days.
Bunau-Varilla's confident tone gave the conspirators new heart. In a frenzy of activity, the flag was redesigned, a new declaration of independence was penned, and Duque and his fire brigade of some three hundred young men were recruited and armed. Herbert Prescott brought his boss, Colonel James Shaler, into the plot and, realizing the importance of the railway—the only way across the Isthmus—they arranged for all the line's rolling stock to be moved to the Panama side. Shaler, a tall, white-haired seventy-seven-year-old, was a popular figure in Panama, and would later be made a “Hero of the Republic.”
As Bunau-Varilla had predicted, the Nashville appeared in Colón Harbor late on the afternoon of November 2. The ship's captain, Commander John Hubbard, however, was not yet suspecting anything out of the ordinary. His orders were simply to consult with the U.S. consul and report back on goings-on on the Isthmus. Nor were Colombian loyalists suspicious of the arrival of the two-stacked gunboat—the Nashville had been at Colón just two weeks earlier. But to the conspirators here was irrefutable proof that Bunau-Varilla and the Americans were going to deliver on their promises.
At around midnight on the same day, a Colombian gunboat, the Cartagena, also arrived in the harbor. On board were three generals and about five hundred tiradores, or expert marksmen. The next morning Hubbard went on board to be informed by General Tovar that he was landing his men. Hubbard was determined to play it by the book. He had as yet received no orders to prevent the disembarkation, and there was so far no disturbance onshore to merit his intervention. Thus, shortly after first light on November 3 Generals Tovar, Amaya, and Castro, followed by Colonel Eliseo Torres, the next most senior officer, resplendent in uniforms of yellow, blue, and gold, glittering with medals and braid, stepped ashore onto the wooden wharf at Colón, closely followed by the rest of their men.
It was a bitter blow for the conspirators. Not only was the Colombian force formidable, but the Americans had singularly failed to prevent their landing, as had been promised. Fresh panic swept the group, and even Amador considered calling the whole thing off. However, Señora Amador was made of sterner stuff, rallying the plotters and quickly devising a trap to neutralize the Colombians.
The generals were met by local dignitaries and reassured that all was well to the north and that they should re-embark straightaway. But something made Tovar suspicious, and he demanded to be taken to Panama City. Enter Shaler, to play his part to perfection.
Unfortunately, said the Panama Railroad's superintendent, there were at the moment insufficient cars to transport the troops. However, there was a special luxury carriage available which could ferry the generals and their aides across to Panama. The Colombians protested, but were reassured that their men would be on the very next train.
Once on board the car, Amaya suddenly became jumpy and announced that he was going to stay with the men, but at that moment Shaler pulled the signal cord, jumped off the train, and waved cheerfully at the generals as they steamed out of the station. Soon after, Hubbard received orders from Washington, sent the day before but delayed, instructing him to prevent the landing of any armed force, or its use of the railroad. He therefore ordered Shaler not to transport the Colombian troops at Colón, thus giving the superintendent another excuse to buy time for the plotters at Panama City.
As soon as Amador heard from Prescott that the generals were on the way, he appealed once more to Huertas. “If you will aid us,” he said, “we shall reach immortality in the history of the new republic.” If he didn't, the elderly doctor warned, Huertas would surely be relieved and sent to some violent interior province of Colombia, far from his friends and family in Panama. At last Huertas agreed to be part of the uprising, his decision helped by the offer of $50 for each of his men, and $65,000 for himself.
The generals’ luxury train arrived at Panama at 11:30, to be met by General Huertas, a military band playing patriotic songs, and crowds of children waving Colombian flags. As Tovar later said in his defense, “There was nothing that did not show the greatest cordiality and give me the most complete assurance that peace reigned throughout the department.” After a procession through the city, the Colombian generals were taken to a hotel to have a siesta.
Meanwhile Amador and Duque prepared for a mass meeting to take place in the city at 5 :00 p.m., with the fire brigade poised to arrest those who might resist the uprising and ready to distribute rifles. But rumors were everywhere, and at 1:30 p.m., the generals were awakened to be told that a demonstration was going to take place. Then a note arrived from a local Panamanian loyal to Colombia warning Tovar to trust no one.
The general roused himself and demanded to know why his men had still not arrived. While Shaler continued to invent excuses as to why the men could not be transported, Huertas took the generals to lunch. All the time, their suspicion was mounting. After lunch, having again ordered the governor, Obaldía, to organize the immediate dispatch of their men, the generals proceeded to the barracks to carry out an inspection. By 5:00 p.m., Tovar had heard reports of a mob gathering and making its way toward them. Huertas suggested that a patrol be sent out and Tovar agreed. But as the men detailed for the patrol proceeded out of the barracks, as if to pass in front of the generals seated on a bench near the seawall, they split into two columns, one marching in front of the seated men and one behind. On a command the men wheeled round and stopped, their fixed bayonets pointing toward the astonished Colombian top brass, who were told that they were now under arrest.
Tovar charged at one of the soldiers but was immediately hemmed in by bayonets. Castro also made a run for it, but was quickly recaptured, having been found hiding in a toilet stall. The prisoners were led away to the jailhouse to cries from the growing crowd of “Viva el Istmo libre!” “Viva Huertas!” “Viva el Presidente Amador!”
In order to maintain the fiction of his noninvolvement, Obaldía was arrested. Then U.S. vice-consul Felix Ehrman sent a message to Washington detailing the successful uprising, and at around 6:00 p.m., the leaders of the revolutionary junta proceeded to Cathedral Plaza to be acclaimed by an enthusiastic crowd. Now only the small matter of the five hundred heavily armed soldiers at Colón stood between Panama and independence.
olonel Eliseo Torres, the commander of the Colombian force at Colón, had heard nothing of the goings-on in Panama City, but was becoming increasingly aggressive about Shaler's constant refusal to transport his men. Then, early on November 4, he received a letter from Hubbard informing him that the railroad was closed to all troops. At lunchtime the same day, Torres was approached by Porfirio Meléndez, the junta's man in Colón, and told, over a drink at the Astor Hotel on Front Street, about the arrest of the generals and the uprising in Panama City. Meléndez then offered the colonel a bribe if he would remove his men. At first Torres refused to believe the news, but then he flew into a rage at the treachery of the Panamanians and their American friends, threatening to burn Colón to the ground and kill all American citizens in the town if the generals were not released.
Hubbard immediately readied his tiny force on the Nashville and started evacuating American and British women and children onto boats in the harbor, while their menfolk were herded into one of the stone buildings belonging to the Panama Railroad. Some forty U.S. sailors and marines were landed to defend the building, which was soon surrounded by Torres's greatly superior force. At this, Hubbard moved the Nashville close to the wharf, causing the Cartagena quickly to slip away, leaving her troops stranded. The American gunboat then trained her armament on the Colombians, and a tense standoff ensued.
But twenty-four hours later, when told that a U.S. force of five thousand men was on the way to the Isthmus, and satisfied with his brief defiance, Torres agreed to leave for the payment of $8,000. The money for the bribe had to be borrowed from the safe of the U.S.-owned Panama Railroad. There was not enough, however, also to pay for the passage on a steamer, so more money had to be obtained from a local bank. This loan was guaranteed by Hubbard and Shaler, both American citizens. With the departure of the Colombians, the revolution was complete. The following day, to express their gratitude to the United States, an American Army officer, Major William Murray Black, was asked to raise the new Panama flag over the prefecture of Colón. Soon after, an official cable arrived from Hay at the State Department. As the people of Panama had “resumed their independence,” it read, the U.S. consuls should “enter into relations with it as the responsible government of the territory.” “Viva La Republica de Panama!” exclaimed the Star and Herald.
he revolution had succeeded with American connivance, but it still relied on the United States to make it irreversible. The news of the uprising caused a sensation in Colombia, where the initial fury was aimed at Marroquín. His residence was pelted with stones, the police were called in, leading to the wounding of several protestors, and martial law was declared. But soon, as detailed accounts of the events became known, the anger was redirected toward the United States. A heavy guard was thrown around the American embassy and Beupré was told he should leave the country for his own safety. As Ambassador Herrán delivered a formal protest to Secretary of State Hay, thousands of Colombians volunteered to take part in an expedition to recapture Panama. Reyes threatened that unless recognition was withdrawn from the breakaway republic, the United States would have “a second Boer War” on its hands.
But only hours after the declaration of independence American troops had been landed and there were half a dozen U.S. gunboats on either side of the Isthmus. Roosevelt was wielding his “big stick”— naval power—for the first time. The Colombians were forbidden to land soldiers anywhere in Panama. On November 19 Reyes arrived off Colón as head of a commission charged with offering Panama anything short of independence. But he was not even allowed to go ashore, and proceeded to Washington to try his luck there.
Meanwhile, the Colombians equipped a force to try to make it overland to Colón through the Darién jungle. The men started off the following month, exhorted by their general that “it is preferable to see the Colombian race exterminated than to submit to the United States.” But Darién proved impenetrable and, ravaged by disease, the troops soon turned back.
Claude Mallet's take on the extraordinary events of earlier in the month is pretty much spot-on: “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote on November 20, “that the scheme for a Republic was planned here, supported financially by persons interested in canal affairs in Paris, and encouraged by the Washington officials.” Nor was he unaware of the implications: “The Americans, by their action here, have cast international customs to the winds, and henceforth, a new example has been set how to acquire the territory of your neighbour or friend.”
As Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla had anticipated, the U.S. newspapers on the day after the “revolution” were dominated by domestic election news. On November 5, however, Panama was on every front page, and many papers would concur with Mallet's reading of the events. It was, said one, “revolution of the canal, by the canal, for the canal.” “It is another step in the imperial policy,” said the Pittsburgh Post. “‘Might makes right’—steal from the weak.” There were many echoes of five years before, when the war with Spain had led to the formation of a widely supported Anti-Imperialism League. For the Baltimore News, the “Panama Affair” had, like the U.S. actions in the Philippines and Hawaii, brought the United States down to the sordid level of the land-grabbing European powers. To blame, said another paper, was the “hot-headed and immature” Theodore Roosevelt. “It begins to look as if nobody can touch that Panama ditch without being defiled,” concluded the Salt Lake Herald.
The criticisms of American aggression, connivance in the revolution, and overhasty recognition of the new republic would be led by the New York Times, then a fiercely partisan Democratic paper. To the Times, the canal was “stolen property,” and it soon focused its guns on the shady role of Cromwell. One of his partners, Edward B. Hill, when approached replied in classic style, “You can quote me to the extent of saying that I have nothing to say.”
Others took a more pragmatic line. Even if the policy was wrong, said the Houston Post, “The thing is done, there is no way of undoing it, and the least said about it the better.” For the San Francisco Chronicle, it was a sign of the times, but not therefore a cause for regret: “The world must move on,” it wrote. “It is an age of power. The weak will be protected, but they will not be permitted to obstruct, whether upon the continent of America, the isthmus of Panama, the isles of the Pacific, the plains of Manchuria, or the valleys of the Ganges and the Indus. It is manifest destiny.”
In all, about two-thirds of the United States’ newspapers supported Roosevelt's actions, buying into his theory of “eminent domain” and his portrayal of the Colombians as blackmailers and extortionists. Those opposed tended to be Southern and Democratic-leaning. Certainly, public opinion never quite reached the level of opposition to the action in the Philippines. “The disheartening fact is that the connivance of our administration in the dismemberment of a sister republic is accepted so phlegmatically,” wrote a correspondent to the New England Anti-Imperialist League. “The country ought to be ringing with the protests of citizens in mass-meetings assembled.” But the man in the street's verdict, as reported by a Yale professor of law, was that “it served Colombia right.” With the general acceptance of the U.S. action over Panama, one of the founding principles of the United States passed away forever, and the stage was set for U.S. aggression and expansion throughout the region and, indeed, the world.
eading the country away from its historical anticolonialism was, of course, Theodore Roosevelt. While many hoped that there had not been direct involvement in the revolution, they also admired the president's “virile” and “strenuous” response to events. One congressman was quoted as saying to Roosevelt, “Mr. President, I am glad you did not start the rabbit to running, but as long as the rabbit was going to run anyhow, it's a good thing we did not have a bow-legged man in the White House who couldn't catch it.”
Roosevelt, of course, defended his actions and denied any role in the uprising. “I did not lift a finger to incite the revolutionists,” he declared. “I simply ceased to stamp out the different revolutionary fuses that were already burning.” His first task after the fait accompli was to bring his cabinet on board, and he gave a long, detailed statement of his position. When he had finished he turned to his secretary of war, Elihu Root. “Well,” he asked, “have I answered the charges? Have I defended myself?”
“You certainly have, Mr. President,” replied Root in a jokey tone. “You have shown that you were accused of seduction and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”
But in the changed political climate, it did not matter. On November 10 Roosevelt and his wife went to the opera to see Barbette at the National Theater. One of the lines was “What, a diplomat steal? A diplomat never steals. He only annexes!” The entire audience turned toward the president's box, and Roosevelt laughed as heartily as anyone and waved his hand in glee at the admiring crowd.
The next day the French ambassador Jules Jusserand had lunch with the president. When the talk inevitably turned to Panama, Roosevelt declared, “It is reported that we have made the revolution; it is not so, but for months such an occurrence was probable and I was ready for it. It is all for the best… Everything goes on there as we would wish; I am about to receive Mr. Bunau-Varilla.”
n November 4, when Colonel Torres was still in Colón, Bunau-Varilla had received a cable from Amador asking for the immediate transfer of the promised $100,000 to pay for the bribery of the Colombian troops. No mention, however, had been made of the agreed appointment of the Frenchman as Panama's minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinaire. Bunau-Varilla reluctantly released $25,000, which was transferred to a Panama bank for the use of the junta. The next day another cable arrived, again pressing for more money and for Bunau-Varilla to expedite the recognition by the United States of the new republic. But, to Bunau-Varilla's growing suspicion, there was still no mention of the diplomatic appointment. In fact, the junta was preparing to send its own commission to Washington to negotiate a new canal treaty, just as Bunau-Varilla feared. The Frenchman was determined that only he should have the honor of seeing his name on the canal treaty, and was not about to let anyone else “mess up” the negotiations.
Bunau-Varilla knew very well that the United States could not recognize Panama until the Colombian troops had left Colón, but his reply implied that both the advance of the rest of the money and the recognition from the United States, so crucial to Panama in its first days, depended on his appointment as Panama's minister in Washington. When de facto recognition arrived just after midday on November 6, the Panamanians were under the impression that this had been arranged by Bunau-Varilla and later that day, wanting to keep him on side and secure formal recognition from the United States (which required a reception by the president), the junta at last gave him the appointment he wanted.
But three days later, just as Amador and Federico Boyd were preparing to sail for the United States, Bunau-Varilla was cabled detailed instructions about the sort of treaty Panama wanted. The terms included joint tribunals in the Zone, the reversion to Panama of land leased to the New Company, and powers of raising duties at the terminal ports. The clear implication was that Bunau-Varilla was to start negotiations, but to discuss all matters with Amador and Boyd when they reached Washington.
It is not known whether this cable was ever seen by Bunau-Varilla. By November 9 he was already in Washington, “to begin there,” as he puts it, “the last and supreme battle.” The same day he lunched with Hay, having informed the secretary of state of his appointment as “envoy extraordinaire” as soon as he had received it. At the meeting Bunau-Varilla urged Hay to organize quickly his official reception by the president. Hay agreed to this, but then asked the Frenchman about reports that a commission was setting off from Panama to come to negotiate a canal treaty. Bunau-Varilla had seen the same newspaper story that morning and had his answer ready: “Mr. Secretary of State, the situation harbors the same fatal germs— perhaps even more virulent ones—as those which caused at Bogota the rejection of the Hay-Herran Treaty.” The same “intrigues” of “politicians” were active in Panama, as in Colombia. The situation could only be saved, Bunau-Varilla exclaimed, by “firmness of decision, and lightning rapidity of action. It is necessary to leave the enemy no time to perfect his plans.”
The “enemy”—the “fatal germs”—were, it should be stressed, the Panamanians themselves, the leaders of the country he was supposed to be representing. But to Bunau-Varilla, the Commission was a “manoeuvre,” an “intrigue … Amador was a party to it. I knew his childish desire to sign the Treaty.” Bunau-Varilla was determined that such “childish” politicians should not stand in the way of “the last and supreme battle” being fought, and won “for the triumph of the Panama Canal” by Bunau-Varilla himself.
Hay did not miss the urgency, producing for circulation a draft treaty the very next day. He also took on board the Frenchman's tone, and realized that as long as he was dealing with Bunau-Varilla rather than the incoming commission of Amador and Boyd, Panamanian interests could be largely discounted. Both men were also aware that the treaty faced its sternest test at home in Washington, in a Senate that had only narrowly approved the choice of Panama. In addition, the rumors of improper U.S. involvement in the “revolution” had provided ammunition to enemies of the administration and/or the canal, what Bunau-Varilla called “the passions of parties and of contradictory elements.” But with Panama prostrate—through its dependence on the U.S. military for its survival, as well as because of its extraordinaire representation in Washington—a deal could be rushed through whose terms would be irresistible to the Senate.
This is reflected in the articles of Hay's first draft treaty, produced on November 10. Its basis was the Hay-Herrán Treaty, including the onetime $10 million payment and the annuity, but substantially modified in favor of the United States. Nowhere was Panamanian sovereignty acknowledged, and the proposed Canal Zone was increased in area by 60 percent and included the “terminal” cities of Colón and Panama City. Within this Zone, now to be American “in perpetuity,” the United States would have total military and civic control. Every possible objection that the Senate could raise was dealt with head-on. In fact many of the measures echo those amendments proposed to the Hay-Herrán Treaty by Morgan with the explicit purpose of making the deal unacceptable to Colombia.
On the same day that Hay composed this draft, the commission of Amador and Boyd set sail from Panama. They were due to arrive in New York seven days later. With them they carried orders for Bunau-Varilla that he should “adjust” a treaty, but that “all clauses of this Treaty will be discussed previously with the delegates of the Junta, M. Amador and Boyd.” That Bunau-Varilla had not been explicitly told this by cable shows how, overestimating his importance, the junta feared antagonizing its “friend” in Washington; and also that they never suspected that he would move with, as he put it, such “lightning rapidity of action.”
On Friday, November 13, in a hastily assembled uniform of the official representative of Panama, Bunau-Varilla was presented to Roosevelt. To witness the history in the making, and the de jure recognition of the new republic, the Frenchman's son went along too. After formal statements, Roosevelt took Bunau-Varilla's arm and asked him, “What do you think, Mr. Minister, of those people who print that we have made the Revolution of Panama together?” Bunau-Varilla replied with a rush of satisfactory rhetoric about “calumny” and “the mist of mendacity.”
As he left the reception, Bunau-Varilla, aware that Amador was now only four days away, gave Hay another nudge. “For two years you have had difficulties in negotiating with the Colombians,” he said. “Remember that ten days ago the Panamanians were still Colombians … You have now before you a Frenchman. If you wish to take advantage of a period of clearness in Panaman diplomacy, do it now! When I leave the spirit of Bogota will return.”
In fact, Hay was operating at breakneck speed. A week later he would write to his daughter, “As for your poor old dad, they are working him nights and Sundays. I have never, I think, been so constantly and actively employed as during the last fortnight.” He rushed his treaty round the departments and had a revised draft with Bunau-Varilla by late on November 15.
Bunau-Varilla was at one with Hay on the need to placate the Morgan party in the Senate—he even vainly tried to “convert” the Alabama senator—but he had to object to the inclusion of the terminal cities in the proposed U.S. zone. Panama City was, after all, the seat of government of the new republic. But he offered instead the right to expropriate property in Panama City or Colón on public health grounds and to enforce sanitary arrangements therein. And to see off any possible objection about the lack of U.S. control, he went even further than Hay had dared, adding this amendment: “The Republic of Panama grants to the United States all the rights, power and authority within the zone mentioned … which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory … to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority.” The “inflammatory, unnecessary and offensive” clause goes to show how little Bunau-Varilla weighed Panamanian dignity against pleasing the U.S. Senate.
Within twenty-fours hours, helped by his hired lawyer Frank Pavey, Bunau-Varilla had completed his new draft and was on his way round to Hay's house. But finding it in darkness he returned early the next morning and delivered the treaty. That same morning, November 17, he learned that Amador and Boyd had landed at New York.
Then, yet another happy accident: Boyd and Amador were met off the boat by Cromwell's agent Roger Farnham. Cromwell himself was due back from Paris later that day. Could they wait, as he wanted to speak to them? Aware of the lawyer's power and influence, the Panamanians delayed going straight to Washington, and met Cromwell later that day, and were persuaded to appoint him Panama's financial agent.
By coincidence or not, it gave Bunau-Varilla a precious further twenty-four hours to close the deal. But there was no word from Hay as the Frenchman waited nervously in his hotel suite for the entire day. At last, at 10:00 p.m., Bunau-Varilla sent a note to the secretary of state's house. He would tell the Panamanians to stay in New York, he wrote, but had to sign the treaty the next day. Hay replied immediately, inviting Bunau-Varilla to come that night.
When they met, Bunau-Varilla again urged speed. Hay was happy with Bunau-Varilla's draft, but knew that what looked like a great deal for his country might not look so good to an actual Panamanian. As he would write to Senator Spooner, the new treaty was “very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the United States, and, we must confess, with what face we can muster, not so advantageous to Panama… You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object.” If the Hay-Herrán deal had been unfair on Colombia, the new treaty was many times worse for Panama, as Hay later admitted.
At lunchtime the next day, Hay consulted with the attorney general and the secretary of war, Elihu Root, and in a frantic afternoon the final drafts were drawn up in the State Department. At 4:30, the two Panamanians, blissfully unaware of what was going on, boarded a train for Washington, but at six o'clock Bunau-Varilla arrived at Hay's office to sign the treaty. To the Frenchman's delight, waiting reporters addressed him as “Your Excellency.” At 6:40 p.m., the treaty was signed, with a pen owned by Cromwell and ink from Abraham Lincoln's inkwell. “We separated not without emotion,” Bunau-Varilla later wrote, “having fixed the destiny, so long in the balance, of the great French conception.”
At 11:00 p.m., Bunau-Varilla was at Union Station in Washington to meet Amador and Boyd. As he later recounted, “I greeted the travellers with the happy news! ‘The Republic of Panama is henceforth under the protection of the United States. I have just signed the Canal Treaty.’”
The Panamanians were stunned. According to Bunau-Varilla, “Amador was positively overcome by the ordeal” and nearly fainted. Neither did Boyd respond as he should have done to “a happy event which ought to have filled their hearts with joy.” In fact, having been at first disbelieving, the Panamanians were soon furious, all the more so when they learned the terms of the treaty. Reportedly Bunau-Varilla was spat at by Boyd. They realized they had been betrayed. “Cherish no illusion, Mr. Boyd,” Bunau-Varilla said when the Panamanian suggested that fresh talks could be had on various points. “The negotiations are closed.”
Amador and Boyd did try to reopen talks two days later, but without success. In the meantime, Bunau-Varilla attempted to bully them into ratifying the treaty there and then, without further recourse to Panama, at one point pressing a pen into the hand of Amador, who reacted by angrily hurling it across the room. Bunau-Varilla then cabled Panama offering immediate credits of up to $100,000 from the bank of the House of JP Morgan if they ordered Amador and Boyd to ratify. Everyone knew that General Rafael Reyes would soon be in Washington and would offer pretty much anything to get Panama and the canal back for Colombia. Although Reyes's mission would prove fruitless, in spite of the high-profile support of ex-president Cleveland, it provided Bunau-Varilla the leverage to force super-quick ratification of his treaty by Panama. In fact, the junta agreed to sign on November 26, before they had even seen the treaty, which was on its way by boat, wrapped in a Panama flag and sealed with the family crest of John Bigelow.
At 11:30 on the morning of December 2, less than twenty-four hours after being brought to Panama City, the treaty was ratified. There cannot have been time to make a Spanish translation of the English text or to make copies for distribution to the nine men due to confirm the agreement. The likelihood is that the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was not even read by the signatories of the ratification decree, though the treaty would reduce their new country to little more than vassalage.
At first, the signing was welcomed in Panama. Then, as the rush and adrenaline of the last month subsided, a new view emerged. “What do you think of the canal treaty?” Mallet wrote to his wife soon afterward. “Here the people are disgusted, and one of the prime movers in the independence movement, was heard to say ‘nos han vendido’ [We've been sold out’]. Well, the Yankees have got them at last, and they have been foolish enough here to think those hardened and practical people were governed more by sentiment than by their interests.” Soon a view solidified that national rights had been signed away by a foreigner, and that perhaps Panamanians had merely changed an impotent overlord for a powerful and determined one. The brief honeymoon period was over, even before the first spade load of the American canal had been dug.
n spite of all the efforts made to contrive a treaty to the liking of the U.S. Senate, the debate and division there were fierce, ironically in part as an embarrassed reaction to the meanness of the deal. The treaty, one senator pointed out, gave the “United States more than anybody in this Chamber ever dreamed of having… we have never had a concession so extraordinary in character as this. In fact, it sounds very much like we wrote it ourselves.” Most of the opposition, however, was directed at the way Roosevelt had behaved toward Colombia. Some argued that the president had effectively declared war, something only Congress was authorized to do. Democratic senator Thomas Patterson of Colorado declared that the Canal Zone was “stolen in the most bare-faced manner from Colombia.” “The president has denied with some heat that he had any complicity in this business,” said Senator Edward Carmack. “He does not conceal the fact that he desired this insurrection. He does not conceal the fact that he intended to aid it if it occurred, and he can not conceal the fact that he did aid it.” There had been a lot of talk, Carmack continued, about the people of the Isthmus “rising as one man,” “but the one man was in the White House.”
On the Senate floor Carmack went on to warn that the action against Colombia was “but the beginning of systematic policy of aggression toward the Central and South American states.” “I fear,” declared another senator, “that we have got too large to be just.” An amendment ordering a payment of compensation to Colombia was narrowly defeated.
The Democrats were undecided how to vote on the treaty. They had 33 of the 90 Senate seats, and if united, could have blocked the measure and given Roosevelt a severe setback less than twelve months before the presidential elections. But many were in favor of a canal, which was also popular in the country. One Texas senator explained the dilemma by telling the story of a dog catching a rabbit in violation of its previous teaching: “You might whip the dog, but would you throw away the rabbit?”
In the event, less than half the Democrats voted against the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which passed by 66 votes to 14 on February 23. Two days later the treaties were officially exchanged.
It was one of the most important deals in the history of American foreign relations, as it gave the United States absolute control over the future Panama Canal, and thus over the strategic and economic crossroads of the Americas. A contemporary historian, Wolf von Schierbrand, stated that the treaty's importance “to our future political, commercial, and naval expansion, in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean Sea, can scarcely be overestimated. It will be the main pillar of our future strength in those all-important regions.” “From the point of view of world politics,” said another distinguished commentator, “the construction and operation of the canal as a government undertaking means the extension of the political control of the United States over the Spanish-American nations.”
On May 2, 1904, the assets of the Compagnie Nouvelle were signed over to the United States for $40 million. The sale was handled by JP Morgan (thanks to an intervention by Cromwell). Together with the $10 million paid to Panama, the sum dwarfed the purchases of Louisiana ($15 million), Alaska ($7.2 million), and the Philippines ($20 million). The actual physical handover on the Isthmus occurred early on May 4, when a U.S. Army engineer, Second Lieutenant Mark Brooke, met with a representative of the New Company at the old Grand Hotel. After a few perfunctory words, the Stars and Stripes was hoisted. After all the ceremony of the French years, the amazing razzle-dazzle of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the presentation of the momentous occasion was something of a disappointment to the Panamanians.
The $40 million converted to 206 million francs, of which 128 million went to the credit of the Old Company and 77.4 million to the New Company. None of the shareholders of the Old Company got anything. The 226,296 who put in a claim as bondholders got on average 650 francs, or $156, approximately ten cents on the dollar for their investment. The New Company shareholders received 129.78 francs per 100-franc share, which worked out at an interest rate of less than 3 percent per annum, but must have been much more than they expected. Thus not only had Bunau-Varilla got his name on the treaty, but he also got back the money he had forcibly invested more than ten years before.
The Frenchman had resigned as Panama's minister on March 2, 1904, his job, “The Resurrection of the Panama Canal,” complete. Cabling the decision to Panama City, he asked for his remuneration (which at $1,000 per month was in total less than $5,000) to be put toward the cost of erecting a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, “the great Frenchman, whose genius has consecrated the Isthmus to the progress of the world.” As he crossed the hotel lobby to take the message to the telegraph office, he reports, “somebody unexpectedly seized my hands to express to me his congratulations. It was the lawyer Cromwell.”
oosevelt, never one for self-doubt, conceded in a private letter that there was “great uneasiness caused among my friends by my action,” but in reality he had few qualms about the path taken. “The one thing for which I deserved most credit in my entire administration,” he would write, “was my action in seizing the psychological moment to get complete control of Panama.” “It was a good thing for Egypt and the Sudan, and for the world, when England took Egypt and the Sudan,” he wrote to his old friend Cecil Spring Rice at the British Foreign Office. “It is a good thing for India that England should control it. And so it is a good thing, a very good thing, for Cuba and for Panama and for the world that the United States has acted as it has actually done during the last six years. The people of the United States and the people of the Isthmus and the rest of mankind will all be the better because we dig the Panama canal and keep order in its neighborhood. And the politicians and revolutionists at Bogota are entitled to precisely the amount of sympathy we extend to other inefficient bandits.”
In the November 1904 election Roosevelt saw the canal as a benefit, rather than a hindrance to his campaign, even though Henry Davis, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, criticized Roosevelt's actions over Panama as belonging “more to an empire than a Republic.” “Tell our speakers to dwell more on the Panama Canal,” Roosevelt told an aide during the campaign. “We have not a stronger card.” It had become a symbol for his active, vigorous leadership.
On November 8, 1904, Roosevelt got 7.5 million votes to his opponent's 5 million. The victory was attributed to Roosevelt's personal appeal, but also to the popularity of his activist Panama policies. A dismayed member of the New England Anti-Imperialist League commented, “We stand today, apparently in the shadow of a great defeat. Theodore Roosevelt represents today the temper and point of view of the American people, as to armies, navies, world power, Panama republics and American police duty on the Western Hemisphere.”
But in spite of this victory, some of the Panama mud stuck. More dirt would be dug up in the years to come, leading to continued press and congressional investigations. Most important, the events leading up to the start of the U.S. construction effort would put the canal on the defensive in terms of domestic politics. After all the intrigue and politicking, huge pressure would now be bearing down on the canal effort to “make the dirt fly,” with disastrous consequences.
Internationally, the secession and subsequent treaty locked the United States into a cycle of expansion in the region, and its long-range cost in bad feeling and ill will was immense. Had more attention been paid to the legitimacy of many of the Colombian concerns and to the reality of the political situation in Bogotá, rather than to the interests of a private, foreign-owned corporation, a deal could have been hammered out. Once this failed, it was poor diplomacy by Hay to sign a treaty with the new Republic of Panama so patently unfair that it was bound to store up trouble for the future. But as Roosevelt would later point out, while the arguments went on, at least now the canal was being built.