Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

The Panama Canal and Other World Events

The greatest single achievement of President Roosevelt was the Panama Canal. One hundred or five hundred years hence when most of his other acts are forgotten, they will say of him, "He was the man who dug the Panama Canal."

Behind the opening of this great waterway from ocean to ocean lies a tangle of diplomacy and international politics such as only a Roosevelt could solve. He cut the Gordian knot.

In a speech at the University of California, in 1911, while the Canal was yet in the building, he said:

"I am interested in the Panama Canal because I started it. If I had followed traditional, conservative methods, I should have submitted a dignified state paper of probably two hundred pages to Congress, and the debate would have been going on yet. But I took the Canal Zone, and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on, the Canal does also!"

Let us see, briefly, the situation which confronted him in 1904.

Down on the Isthmus of Panama a French company had spent hundreds of millions in trying to "dig the ditch," only to abandon the task. De Lesseps, who made his reputation in opening the Suez Canal, lost it again at Panama. But the French company still held the franchise under treaty with Colombia, which then owned Panama.

Further to complicate the situation, England and America had a joint agreement to construct a canal across the Isthmus. And as if all this were not enough, another route was under active consideration across Nicaragua.

Fortunately, Roosevelt had an exceedingly able Secretary of State in John Hay, who burned much midnight oil in getting treaties straightened out. The Nicaragua route was finally given up; England waived her treaty rights in Panama; and France agreed to sell her concessions and machinery for $40,000,000. There remained only the matter of making a satisfactory treaty with Colombia. This was easier said than done, however, as that country had a notoriously unstable government, and a Dictator was even then in power.

"You could no more make an agreement with Colombia," said Roosevelt later, "than you could nail currant jelly to the wall; and the failure is not due to the nail, it is due to the jelly."

Maroquin, the Colombian Dictator, had accepted a new agreement with the United States, in place of the old one with France, but later believing he could "hold us up," he sent word to his Senate to reject the treaty. Our country then turned again to a consideration of a canal across Nicaragua.

At this juncture another of the sporadic revolutions occurred to the south. Roosevelt himself somewhat humorously lists fifty such outbreaks which occurred in and around Colombia in the same number of years. This time it was Panama throwing off the Colombian yoke.

Roosevelt saw in this revolution an opportunity to get his canal. He ordered the cruiser Nashville to proceed to Panama to safeguard our interests. Colombia sent an army of 450 men, under four generals, to quell the revolution, and during the firing which followed, one Chinaman was killed. Thanks to our moral backing, the revolution was successful, and two days later the Republic of Panama was recognized by the United States. Two weeks later a treaty was drafted with the new Republic enabling us to dig the canal.

Naturally there was a good deal of opposition, especially on the part of Roosevelt's enemies, to this procedure. They said it was high-handed and unconstitutional. But as a matter of fact, it was probably the only way in which the Canal could have been gotten under way.

"The people of Panama were a unit in desiring the Canal," said Roosevelt later, "and in wishing to overthrow the rule of Colombia. . . . When they revolted I promptly used the navy to prevent the bandits, who had tried to hold us up, from spending months of futile bloodshed in conquering the Isthmus, to the lasting damage of the Isthmus, of us, and of the world."

Years after, under another administration, a new treaty was concluded with Colombia, and $25,000,000 offered as a salve to her official dignity.

Meanwhile, although the international pot continued to boil and seethe, Roosevelt went vigorously ahead with his ditch digging. He was fortunate in getting two able men as his chief assistants—Dr. Gorgas, a sanitary engineer who changed the Canal Zone from a mosquito-infested, yellow-fever district to one of cleanliness and health; and Colonel Goethals, an eminent civil engineer in the army, who carried the construction work through to triumphant completion.

Some months after the work was started, Roosevelt himself went to Panama to see how the work was getting along. Arrived there, he refused invitations to wine and dine, and instead spent three days in the tropic rain and mud inspecting everything. He climbed up in the monster steam shovels. He tramped miles with Goethals. He had another of his "bully" times, and he came back to Washington satisfied that the work was in competent hands.

While he was still wrestling with the Panama question, another great international problem arose demanding solution.

The war between Russia and Japan had come to an inglorious close, so far as Russia was concerned. Her land forces had been no match for the Japanese; while her fleet which sailed away around the coasts of India, thousands of miles from home waters, had been sunk or scattered in the memorable battle of the Sea of Japan.

In the summer of 1905 Roosevelt tendered his offices as mediator in the war, and both parties accepted. They sent representatives to this country, who met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

From the first, however, it looked like a deadlock. The Japanese, claiming the victory, demanded an indemnity. The Russians, pointing to their vastly superior resources, said they had only begun to fight; and that the fight should go on, if a cent of indemnity were exacted.

All summer they wrangled, and everybody concerned gave it up as a bad job—that is, all except Theodore Roosevelt. He only set his jaws firmly together and kept trying. He had the commissioners meet him singly and collectively at his home at Sagamore Hill, and on the Presidential yacht, Mayflower.

At last his efforts were crowned with success. The Japanese receded from their position with regard to an indemnity, and a treaty was signed, in September.

This event added immensely not only to Roosevelt's prestige abroad, but also to that of the United States. Up to this time we had held aloof from Old World affairs, and were therefore not considered a "world power."

Roosevelt now took still another step to impress this new position upon the rest of the world. He decided, in 1907, to send a fleet of battleships around the world.

In reading this simple sentence the reader can have no idea of the furor it caused. Timid folk at home said that he would stir up war with Japan. Others said that he was exceeding his constitutional rights, as at Panama. Congress said that it would cost too much money. Abroad, naval critics scoffed at the idea, saying that half our ships would be laid up for repairs before the voyage was half completed.

Roosevelt calmly went ahead, assuming full responsibility for the cruise. He admitted that he had not even consulted his Cabinet.

"In a crisis," he contended, "the duty of a leader is to lead, and not to take refuge behind the generally timid wisdom of a multitude of councillors."

Roosevelt was, in fact, our first great apostle of preparedness. It was one of the ruling doctrines of his life. He insisted that the nation which did not show herself ready invited attack, while the one that was armed remained at peace. Regarding the cruise of the fleet, he said:

"My prime purpose was to impress the American people; and this purpose was fully achieved. The cruise did make a very deep impression abroad; boasting about what we have done does not impress foreign nations at all, except unfavorably, but positive achievement does; and the two American achievements that really impressed foreign peoples during the first dozen years of this century were the digging of the Panama Canal and the cruise of the battle fleet round the world."

The fleet set sail in November, 1907, a squadron of sixteen battleships and a flotilla of torpedo-boats. They were sent around to the Pacific by way of the Straits of Magellan (the Canal was not then finished), thence to Sand Francisco, and across to New Zealand and Australia.

From Australia the fleet proceeded to the Philippines, and thence to China and Japan. The "Jingoes" who had been trying to trouble between Japan and America were bitterly disappointed at the result of our visit there. The Japanese were courtesy itself, and our naval officers left there highly delighted.

The fleet came home by way of the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea. Here they stopped long enough to help the sufferers from the earthquake at Messina, which they did most effectively. Thence they proceeded across the Atlantic to home ports, where they were accorded a royal welcome.

"Not a ship was left in any port," says Roosevelt proudly, "and there was hardly a desertion. The fleet practiced incessantly during the voyage, both with guns and in battle tactics, and came home a much more efficient fighting instrument than when it started, sixteen months before."