CHAPTER XXI

SETTLING OUR ACCOUNT WITH COLOMBIA

The American people, like the Israelites of old, are a peculiar people, chosen of God to fulfill a high destiny among the nations of the world.

Whether it was a good thing for Puritanism to be set down in the lap of material luxury on the North American continent is not yet disclosed, although we have abundant evidence of the struggle, already sharply drawn, between the spiritual and materialistic forces in the national character.

The Civil War was an even mightier conflict, between the Puritan and Cavalier, than Marston Moor and Naseby.  In it the Puritan triumphed even more gloriously.  In it the Puritan was clinching the principles of the great English struggle.  He was stamping out the embers of the unspiritual forces in Anglo-Saxon character.

Our unparalleled material prosperity is at work to revive the spirit of the Cavalier and to dull the keen edge of Puritanism.  Righteousness never has flourished under great material prosperity.  The cocksure feeling, that comes from the possession of much worldly goods, is beginning to appear in the external and internal actions of the American nation.  The letter of "In God We Trust" remains unimpaired on our currency, but its Puritanic spirit has weakened perceptibly.  We are depending on a big navy to see us through.

Probably no war ever was fought with more disinterested motives than the Spanish-American War.  The Americans seemed to relish the opportunity lay aside the rich pursuits of commercialism for a while to exercise the old spiritual forces of the Puritan.  The dash and vitality of that outburst caused Europe to think deeply.

But the Spanish-American War had one result that shows the American people are measurably less determined in their spiritual conceptions than the generation of '65.   We kept the Philippines, much s the warriors of Israel kept the plunder of the Philistines when they had been commanded sternly not to make their cause one of material aggrandizement.

Our treatment of the Filipinos has been as unparalleled in its humanitarianism as our conduct in the war that gave them to us.  But that is our way of assuaging our conscience for holding them, a sugar-coating process to make the act pass muster.  Down in our national heart we know we are holding the Philippines for what they ultimately will mean to us materially, not what we can do for them spiritually. If the ten million Filipinos were in the Southern States, where we could see them and feel the pulsation of democratic forces, and not seven thousand miles away, we would fight another Civil War over them, just as we did over the Negro.

All of this by way of introduction to the act that gave us the Canal Zone.   We have the admission of the President himself that he abandoned the regular diplomatic methods of securing the territory needed for building a canal in favor of the primitive method of taking it by force.  This leads straight to the admission that we set up the Republic of Panama merely to make an otherwise bald steal appear to bear some evidence of justification.  It has been shown in a previous chapter that the revolution that gave the Republic its independence was made a success by the United States.

So far, the national conscience has not stirred itself greatly over this act.  At least it has not stirred itself decisively, and that is another proof that the Puritan spirit is taking itself much less seriously than it did so short a time ago as 1898.  One reason has been that the American people only recently have begun to get the true understanding of what did happen at Panama.  President Roosevelt exerted the full capacities of his versatile mind to cloud the situation, so that the moral sense of the people would not be aroused, until it would be too late to undo his act.

He pretended that the treatment Panama had received, as a kind of stepchild of Colombia, warranted the same kind of action we took to free Cuba.  His Secretary of State advanced the strained construction of our solemn treaty with Colombia that we were under obligation to maintain the neutrality of the Panama Railroad, and so prevent the soldiers of Colombia from striking down the revolution.  The President further recognized the independence of the Republic, and insisted that it was an act as disinterested, for instance, as our recognition of the new Republic of China.  In truth, they bear no similarity of feature.

In China the masses of the people were trying to demonstrate an advance in their understanding of government to the point where authority would be recognized as inherent in them, and not an external imposition by an alien line of Emperors.  In Panama the masses of the people not only did not know about the revolution until it had passed, but no more than an ordinary mob, such as may be aroused on an hour's notice in any city, participated in it.

It was not necessary that the people of Panama should know about it.   The United States had agreed to stand between the clique of Panamanian financiers and any offensive act Colombia might undertake.  Undoubtedly there had been popular uprisings against Colombia in Panama, but the revolution of November 3, 1903, was not one of them.  This revolution had three sources of inspiration—The French Canal Company, the capitalist Junta in Panama, and Theodore Roosevelt's desire to get a canal started before his inherited administration should end.

In this review of the canal President Roosevelt's action in taking Panama has been approved.  It is approved as an international act of eminent domain.  Where criticism is directed is at our refusal to pay for what we took.  The $10,000,000 we paid Panama was a moral quibble, as may be illustrated.

Any American railroad, or any municipality, county or State, may exercise the right of eminent domain to secure property in its right of way, or necessary to their well being.  But property so taken must be paid for at a fair valuation to the rightful owner.

The rightful owner of the territory we desired for a canal was Colombia.  When we took that territory we took it from Colombia.  The way we took it was to participate in a bogus revolution, engineered by a Junta of wealthy Panamanian business and professional men.  It turned out that the part they played in making the revolution a success was farcical, while the part the United States Marines played was vital.

The Marines at first had orders not to allow either Colombian or revolutionary troops to use the railroad.  When this order was issued the revolution had not started.  Besides, there were no revolutionists after it did start on the Atlantic side to use the railroad, except a handful of the hirelings of the Junta.  The second order the Marines received was that Colombia would not be allowed to settle the revolution by force.

In two days the United States recognized the independence of a republic thus created.  Twelve days later it had signed a treaty with this republic guaranteeing that Colombia would not be allowed to recover possession.   The treaty recited that the United States was to be ceded a Canal Zone in consideration of this guarantee.

There we have the facts in the "taking" of Panama.  What we did was to help the Panama capitalist Junta to steal the Isthmus from Colombia, then, in the division of spoils, we obtained a Canal Zone.  The $10,000,000 to the new republic was part of the administration's efforts to create an appearance of regularity in the proceedings.  It was meant to ease the national conscience—not the administration's conscience.

Anyone who will spend a month in Panama will discover that the republic would not stand from supper until breakfast if it were not for the supporting arm of the United States.  It has become rather a burdensome task, too, as our interference three times with Marines to keep the government from toppling over proves.  This is not because the Panamanians are inferior to any other Central American peoples.  It is because there is not sufficient inherent vitality in so tiny a republic to hold it up alone.

If any American railroad should desire property for a right of way and, instead of condemning it by due process of law, should connive with a neighbor to falsely claim possession of the property and then buy the property from the illegal owner, the action not only would not stand in law but it would outrage public opinion.  That precisely is the course we followed at Panama.   President Roosevelt did not dare to take the property outright from Colombia, the compensation to be fixed by due process afterward, but connived with a revolutionary Junta, through his Secretary of State, to have the property claimed by a Republic to be set up specifically for that purpose, which Republic would sell the property to the United States.

The whole thing was done with the Rooseveltian dash that won frequently by sheer momentum.  Eight years later, believing it to be a closed incident, President Roosevelt confesses:  "I took Panama and left Congress to debate the matter afterwards."  There is a deal of contempt for the acumen of Congress in that remark, and looking back at the way Congress swallowed the incident, it is merited contempt.

It is a closed incident so far as the territory comprised in the Canal Zone is concerned.  The issue today only is this:   Have the American people enough of the old Puritanic righteousness left to insure that if a clear case of national wrongdoing is proved they will make reparation?

Colombia cannot compel reparation, nor can Europe.  When we consider Germany and France quarreling over the spoils of Morocco, Italy taking Tripoli, England and Russia partitioning Persia, and Japan annexing Korea, what is left of The Hague to sit in judgment upon the action of the United States in Panama?

Absolutely nothing will compel the United States to do justice—except the still, small voice of national conscience.  The action of the Minister from Colombia in declining an invitation to Secretary Knox to visit Colombia, in the spring of 1912, is the limit of Colombia's ability to protest.

But it ought to be set down as a maxim of canal management, if not of national policy, that no neighbor of the canal should be allowed to remain on bad terms with the Americans.  It is not good that a nation so near as Colombia should be in a hostile frame of mind toward the United States.  This is true, not so much for what a sense of injustice rankling in the minds of her citizens might precipitate, but because, if anything happened to the canal, Colombia, in the event blame was not promptly fixed, inevitably would have to bear the burden of our suspicion.

There is still doubt as to whether Spain set off the mine that wrecked the Maine, but that did not keep Spain from taking the consequences.  So with the canal.  If it should be disabled without a clear cause or responsibility, the jingoes in the United States would point to Colombia as one with a grudge.  Thus, the bad feeling engendered in the taking of Panama might precipitate the mighty United States, in a fit of national passion, upon an innocent nation, more sinned against than sinning.

But, ultimately, the question of reparation must rest squarely upon a moral issue.  It is not so much the rights of Colombia that should impel us to an act of reparation as a desire to live up to our own best instincts.   The American ideal is something far different from law-compelled righteousness; it rises to the grandeur of righteousness for the sake of righteousness.  Colombia suffered materially by our act, but we have suffered morally, and an enlightened judgment would be that we suffer the most.

Is it compatible with the dignity of a great nation like the United States to reverse its position by making reparation?  This question more properly should read, Is it compatible with the pride of a great nation like the United States to make reparation?  The answer is:  The United States has no dignity to uphold.  It may restore its dignity and sense of righteousness only by reversing its willful and headstrong action.  We merely play the ostrich in sticking our national head into the sand of the Panama revolution and fancy our action is hid.

There are three courses open to the United States.  The first is to consider the acquisition of the Canal Zone a closed incident and decline discussion or reparation.  The second is to pay Colombia a cash indemnity for the loss of her richest province.  The third is to make reparation by restoration.

Manifestly, the first course involves national dishonor.  This is true even if it has become an international fad for strong nations to pillage the weak ones.  The second course would involve the arbitration of Colombia's claim and a payment by the United States in some form for the adjudicated damage.  Naturally, in such an event, the excuse for the continued existence of the Republic of Panama would vanish, unless after paying for the whole territory we should make the Republic's title clear by gift.

The third course involves the restoration to Colombia of the territory comprised in the Republic of Panama, except the Canal Zone.   It also would involve some cash indemnity equal to the loss of revenues during the nine years of separation, minus the improvements made by the United States.  Article XXIV of our treaty with the Republic of Panama seems to have contemplated some such contingency as this, as we note the fine hand of Secretary Hay in the following:

"If the Republic of Panama shall hereafter enter as a constituent into any Government, or into any union or confederation of States, so as to merge her sovereignty or independence in such government, union, or confederation, the rights of the United States under this convention shall not be in any respect lessened or impaired."

In other words, if we should restore Panama to Colombia, less the Canal Zone, which ostensibly was all we wanted, the point to be arbitrated would be the value of the Canal Zone.  It would be necessary, of course, as the foregoing article provides, that all our privileges under the present treaty with Panama should be binding if the province returned to the sovereignty of Colombia.  Those privileges include the vital right to use any rivers or lands in the Republic that may be necessary to the construction, maintenance, operation, or defense of the canal.

Colombia would regain control of a province vastly improved since the separation.   The cities of Panama and Colon have been made into  modern cities by the Americans.  Of the $10,000,000 we paid to Panama, about $6,000,000 remains unexpended and invested in New York real estate.  This would revert to Colombia, as well as the improvements made with the portion expended.  Whatever loss in revenues during the separation that Colombia might claim would not be a material consideration to the United States.

Undoubtedly under such an arrangement provision would have to be made whereby the old order of things that existed prior to the revolution should not recur.  The United States could not tolerate a turbulent situation on the banks of the canal.  It still would have to retain the plenary powers in respect of sanitation and order that exist under the present treaty.  This doubtless would be the hitch that would come in attempting such a solution.

The people of Panama, remembering the old days, and keen in the enjoyment of conditions as created and maintained by the United States, probably would object to any solution that gave Colombia renewed sovereignty.  It would be far less of an exercise of arbitrary power to overrule this objection than it was to set the republic up in 1903.  In whatever solution that may be selected some authoritative actions will be necessary.

Those Americans who balk at the prospect of a large money indemnity to Colombia, for taking Panama, should ask themselves whether any mere love of lucre should stand between us and a clean conscience.  The situation in which we are involved may cost dearly to straighten out, but that is the inevitable price, in the individual or national life, of walking in the paths of unrighteousness.  The Colombian claim is a call to arms between the forces of good and evil in the American national character.  Do we stand at Armageddon, and do we battle for the Lord?