CHAPTER VII

THE ROOSEVELT IMPETUS

Theodore Roosevelt, upon assuming the office of President, promised to carry out the policies of President McKinley, and, so far as the canal policy is concerned, he succeeded so eminently that a deliberate judgment, formed from a perspective view of the whole undertaking, warrants the assertion that his energy, decision, and sound judgment made an interoceanic canal possible in this generation.

The moment his dynamic personality got behind the idea it received an impetus, and he bucked the line of obstacles that arose in the path of the project until he retired in 1909, when the enterprise was advanced beyond the possibility of failure.

It was to President Roosevelt that the Walker Commission reported in November, 1901.  His first message to Congress urged immediate action and, after a good deal of wrangling over the Hepburn act in favor of Nicaragua, the Spooner act was passed on June 28, 1902.  The Nicaraguan route never has deserved the attention it received, for the natural drift of commerce and travel had gone unerringly for four centuries to Panama, like a flow seeking the course of least resistance.  But the advocates of the Nicaraguan route created such opposition as to call forth from the President the exertion of the strongest pressure to compel the selection of the Panama route.

The Spooner act, written by Senator John C. Spooner, of Wisconsin provided for an Isthmian Canal Commission of seven members, and authorized the Panama route, if the French property could be bought for $40,000,000, and a right of way could be obtained from Colombia.  In the event such conditions could not be met, it authorized the Nicaraguan route, and seemed to lean toward a lock-type canal.  An immediate appropriation of $10,000,000 was made available for preliminary expenses.

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President Roosevelt now had the authority he desired for going ahead with the project.  Secretary of State John Hay and the Minister from Colombia, Jose V. Concha, immediately began corresponding over the granting of a strip of territory in Panama for the prosecution of the enterprise, with William Nelson Cromwell in the forefront of all the negotiations.  The sale of the French property hinged upon securing the consent of Colombia.

A study of Mr. Cromwell and the important part he played throughout the whole career of the canal project leads to the conclusion that he did nothing more blameworthy than President Roosevelt did, while justice requires the admission that he gratuitously aided the government in a number of important particulars.

Minister Concha, with Mr. Cromwell's aid, drew up a treaty which was presented as a memorandum to Secretary Hay on April 18, 1902.  This treaty as well as the Herran treaty that succeeded it, had a number of impossible provisions, viewed in the light of our canal experience.  It authorized the French company to sell its property to the United States States and authorized the United States to build, operate, and protect the canal, the concession to run for one hundred years, and be renewable at the discretion of the United States.  A commission, jointly appointed by the United States and Colombia, was to govern the Canal Zone and supervise its sanitation, Colombia, however, remaining sovereign over the territory.  One article bound the United States to a declaration that it had no ideas of territorial expansion in Central America; the United States was to build waterworks and sewers and pave streets in Panama and Colon; the United States guaranteed the sovereignty of Colombia and all its territory against all the world; Colombia retained the function of policing the Canal Zone, but in the event of its failure to do so, the United States could intervene until peace was restored, then withdraw.  The canal was to be finished fourteen years after adoption of the treaty with a possible extension of twelve years, everything to revert Colombia if the canal was not begun within five years and completed within twenty-five years.  Colombia renounced the $250,000 annually paid by the Panama Railroad, but was to receive $7,000,000 in cash.  There were provisions granting the right to use any rivers and lands necessary for the canal, and admitting canal supplies free of duty, giving free passage to Colombian warships, and insuring the neutrality of the canal.

Colombia sent a new Minister, Thomas Herran, in 1903, who negotiated a treaty along the same lines, except that Colombia was to receive $10,000,000 instead of $7,000,000 for the Canal Zone.  Had the treaty been adopted, it is a safe conclusion to draw that interminable and exasperating friction would have developed between the two countries, for even under our one-sided with the Republic of Panama, in 1904, there was a quarrel over sovereignty and other questions.  The provision giving Colombia the police affairs was impossible.  Only an extended visit to the Isthmus can give an adequate idea of how essential it has been to the United States to have absolutely a free hand in the Canal Zone.

President Jose M. Marroquin of Colombia, in this year, 1902, asked the United States to maintain uninterrupted passage over the Panama Railroad, during a serious revolution in the province, and promised in return to give the United States a treaty for the Canal Zone.  As a result of American intervention and good offices, peace was patched up between the insurgents and Colombia on November 21, 1902.  We had performed our part of the agreement, and now looked to Colombia to perform its part.

President Marroquin was in good faith, but factional fighting in the Congress of Colombia, with is enemies in the ascendance, sowed the chances of a treaty to be dubious.  The American Minister delivered a warning to the government of Colombia, on June 13, that it would be expected to live up to its solemn promise of 1902.  The influences behind the opposition to the treaty in the Colombian Senate have not been definitely classified, but it is more than a supposition that certain American financial interests, which opposed any canal, took a hand to the extent of intimating that a country so "rotten rich" as the United States could pay more than $10,000,000 for a Canal Zone.

But there is another actor that is more illuminating.  The concession of the French company would expire in 1910* and by waiting seven years Colombia could get the $40,000,000 the United States was willing to pay for its property.  There was one bar to this in the concession of the Panama Railroad which had many years to run, and which gave the railroad the right to decide whether a canal could be built across the isthmus.  Still, indisputably, the position of Colombia would have been strengthened immeasurably by the lapsing of the French canal concession, and the people of the United States have only to ask themselves what they would do if they had a property which in seven years would be worth $40,000,000 more than it was today.  There is not a doubt that popular sentiment would say, as one faction said in Colombia, wait for the enhancement before selling.

On August 12, 1903, the Senate of Colombia killed the treaty after house had passed it.  President Marroquin had exerted himself to the utmost to save the treaty, doubtless sensing the quality of the man in the White House, but to no avail, and another way out of the canal project was already taking form.

*Acknowledgment for this and other facts is made to the Canal Zone Pilot, edited by W.C. Haskins.