TAKING THE CANAL ZONE
Anyone who expected Theodore Roosevelt to wait patiently and untie the Gordian knot of diplomacy that held the canal project in abeyance simply did not know the temperament of the Chief Executive.
His inherited administration was more than half gone. If he desired to make a real showing before the opening of the battle for the Presidency in 1904, decisive action was necessary. The course of Colombia indicated clearing to him, and to the people of Panama, that nothing could be expected in the immediate future in the way of a satisfactory treaty, and the enemies of the canal in that country seemed to be firmly entrenched in the Congress.
Just when the idea of a revolution as a means of obtaining what diplomacy had failed to obtain, originated, and who originated, are not matters of clear record, but, in the spring of 1903, threats freely were made in Panama that if Colombia did not grant a treaty to the United States, providing for a canal, the province of Panama would consider that its interests had not been conserved by Colombia, and might proceed to act for itself.
Panama's relations with the parent government at Bogota, from 1821, the year of independence from Spain to 1903, the year of independence from Colombia, had been characterized by intermittent revolutions which never had attained a decisive and final result.
There had been fifty-three revolutions in fifty-seven years, the most sanguinary occurring in the years 1827, 1840, 1860, 1900, and 1902. But any advantages so gained by Panama had been lost by voluntary or involuntary resumption of subordinate relations to Colombia, with the net result going to prove that Panama, unassisted, never could hope to achieve independence from the mother country.
The United States, on many occasions, had intervened in these quarrels between Panama and Colombia, frequently on the invitation of Colombia, and always to maintain the neutrality of the Panama Railroad, as well as to preserve general American property interests. An American warship was a familiar sight in Colon or Panama harbors.
These interventions were based on our treaty with Colombia, ratified in 1846. As noted before, this treaty provided for the joint sovereignty of Colombia and the Untied States over any canal that might be built in Panama, and further guaranteed the neutrality of the Panama Railroad. By this treaty, and the Clayton-Bulwer treaty with England, over any canal that might be built in Nicaragua, the United States hoped to keep foreign governments out of Central America so far as an interoceanic canal was concerned.
Colombia, in 1902, appealed to the United States under its treaty, to maintain the neutrality of the Panama Railroad, during the most important revolution that Panama ever had attempted, and the military intervention by the United States in that year largely enabled Colombia to crush the revolution.
It is important to note that, prior to 1903, the United States had maintained the attitude consistently that any action it took in Panama was in fulfillment of this treaty of 1846, and learned toward the government of Colombia as a sovereign power engaged in suppressing the fitful insurrections on the part of Panama.
By maintaining the neutrality of the railroad, through the use of Marines, the United States kept the line open, and so enabled Colombia to get is troops across the isthmus to strike down the revolutionists. Had not the United States thus assisted Colombia, it is doubtful if she could have retained sovereignty over Panama without the exertion of considerably stronger forces than were employed.
Colombia had promised, in consideration of the intervention of 1902, a treaty to the United States for a right of way for a canal in Panama. Weeks before this treaty was killed, on August 12, 1903, a few leading business and professional men in Panama saw the drift, and so did the French Panama Canal Company and the Panama Railroad Company. The Panamanians wanted the prosperity that would come from the money the United States would invest in Panama, and the two companies wanted to sell out before their concessions should expire, and at a price, $40,000,000, which the United States had agreed upon, and which was the highest offer they had any hope of receiving.
Simultaneously with the killing of the treaty by the Colombian Senate, a revolutionary Junta of wealthy Panamanians and resident Americans were in New York and Washington broaching their plan of a revolution and separation from Colombia as a way for the United States to get a Canal Zone. They authorized one of their number, Mr. J. Gabriel Duque, owner of the Panama Lottery, and a daily newspaper, to visit Secretary of State John Hay to ascertain the part the United States would play in the scheme.
The plan proposed was that Panama should proclaim its independence from Colombia on a given date, to be followed by the recognition of its independence by the United States, and the signing of a treaty with the new republic which would give our government the desired right of way for a canal. Then the United States could buy the French canal interests and the Panama Railroad according to the Spooner act.
Mr. Duque was convinced by his conference with Secretary Hay that the United States was in a mood to try any plan that promised an early solution of the problem of securing a Canal Zone. Secretary Hay, of course, committed nothing to paper, and talked in a negative rather than a positive manner about the part the United States would play in a revolution, but he did suggest that September 22d, the date originally set for the revolution, was perhaps a trifle premature; that they might do better to wait a few weeks. September 22d was the day the Congress of Colombia had intended to adjourn, and therefore the last day that this body might reverse its action and ratify the treaty. The Colombian Congress actually did not adjourn until October 30th, and the date of the revolution was accordingly advanced to November 4, 1903.
The Junta went back to Panama to make their preparations. Minister Herran, representing Colombia at Washington, immediately notified his government of this conference, and its import, and urged that the garrison at Panama be strengthened. President Marroquin, of Colombia, did not follow this advice, doubtless hoping for a change of sentiment in his country that would ratify the treaty. He instead showed his friendliness to Panama by appointing as friend of the treaty and of the province. This and other actions by President Marroquin seemed to create favorable conditions for the success of the revolution.
About four hundred Colombia soldiers, under Gen. Huertas, constituted the garrison of Panama. This commander was won over to the cause of the revolutionary Junta, thus giving them a clear field for their prospective operations, provided Colombia did not send fresh troops. Colombia could send reinforcements, either from Cartagena, on the Atlantic side, or from Buenaventura, on the Pacific side. But September and nearly all of October passed without any such action.
In the latter part of October, two gunboats of Colombia, in the harbor of Panama, on the Pacific side, asked the Panama Railroad to supply them with coal so that they might go to Buenaventura for troops to add to the Panama garrison. J. R. Shaler, superintendent of the railroad, was acting with the Junta as the representative of the French interests in the revolutionary scheme. At the Junta's suggestion, he refused to supply the coal, although the railroad had followed such a practice from time immemorial. He evaded the request by saying that the coal was in Colon, on the Atlantic side. This action, therefore, headed off the arrival of troops from the pacific port of Colombia.
All that remained to be done, to create perfect conditions for carrying out the secession, was to prevent the arrival of Colombian troops from the Atlantic side. This, it may be acknowledged, was the most vital task of the while plan, and it devolved upon the United States. The understanding the Junta had with our State Department was that the United States would maintain the neutrality of the Panama Railroad, construing neutrality, in this instance, to mean that Colombian troops could not pass over the line.
Such a construction of the treaty of 1846 was unprecedented before 1903. The United States had undertaken, in effect, to prevent the passage of Colombian troops over a railroad which it had chartered and the concession of which expressly provided for the passage of Colombia's troops over the line at any time. It justified this unusual action on the argument that it was thereby maintaining the neutrality of the railroad as provided by the treaty.
Our State Department was kept advised of the movement of Colombian troops, so that when two ships left Cartagena, on October 30th, for Colon, the gunboat Nashville simultaneously received orders to proceed to Colon, arriving there on November 2d. The Colombian troops, numbering about five hundred men, arrived on November 3d. Everyone recognized that the crucial moment of the revolutionary scheme had arrived.
Commander John Hubbard, of the Nashville, had orders to keep the Panama Railroad open, not allowing either Colombian or revolutionary troops to be transported over it. This was termed maintaining the neutrality of the railroad. It should be noted, however, that when this order was issued to the Nashville, no revolution had started, and, outside of a few Panamanian capitalists, the people of Panama knew nothing about it except in the way of rumor. The Junta had appointed a committee to "let the people know of the impending event," but as the people were not necessary to the success of the plan, so long as the United States did its part, they were not specially considered or consulted by the Junta. Hence, the order to prevent the passage of revolutionary troops not only was premature, showing the thorough knowledge the United States had of the revolutionary plan, but it was likewise superfluous. Still, we hardly could have kept a straight face over the order if the nonexistent revolutionists had not been included.
Generals Tovar and Amaya, of the Colombian troops, left them in Colon while they went across ahead to take command of the Panama garrison. The arrival of the reinforcements was a day earlier than the date set for the revolution, which was November 4th, so the Junta had to advance its plans a day. It hastily was decided to pull off the event on November 3d.
As a first step in this decision, the two generals were arrested, as also was Governor Obaldia. The Panama garrison under Gen. Huertas had been fixed weeks before, so no danger lay in that quarter. An ordinary street mob of a city followed the lead of the Junta in these actions. One of the Colombian gunboats in the harbor of Panama fired two shots over the city, one of which by chance struck a nonbelligerent Chinaman, who had the honor of being the only victim of the revolution. The land fort replied and the gunboat precipitately retired, leaving Panama in the hands of the triumphant Junta. All was lovely if the United States should perform its part at Colon.
The news of these proceedings in Panama did not reach Colon until the next morning, November 4th. Col. Torres, who had been left in command of the Colombian troops there, immediately demanded a train by 2 o'clock that afternoon, a refusal to grant which, he declared, would be followed by the death of every American in the city. Mr. Shaler, the railroad superintendent, following the instructions of the Junta, and the wishes of our State Department and the French interests, refused the transportation, and notified Commander Hubbard, of the Nashville, of his decision.
There only were 192 men all told on the Nashville, while the Colombian troops numbered 500, not counting the assistance they would get from the native population, if the day seemed to be going against the Americans. The employees of the railroad, with 42 men from the Nashville, fortified themselves in a stone railroad shed, while the women and children were placed on steamers in the harbor for safety. The Nashville drew up close to assist with its guns in the defense.
It was a tense situation where the slightest overt act on either side would have precipitated a great loss of life. The Colombians outnumbered the marines ten to one, but when 2 o'clock came, they had though better of their threat, and asked for a parley. It was agreed that both sides should withdraw from Colon while the Colombians sent an officer to Panama for a conference with the imprisoned generals. A special train was provided for the emissary.
The next day, on November 5th, the Dixie arrived with 400 additional marines. It became apparent to the Colombians that the full power of the United States was back of the railroad company's refusal to transport them to Panama, and so they agreed to take ship again for Colombia. On the 6th, the day following their departure, the Atlanta arrived, bringing the number of marines up to 1,000. The Navy Department also sent ships to the city of Panama on the Pacific side, but there was nothing for them to do there.
Fresh orders from Washington to the marines were to the effect that Colombia would not be allowed to settle the "revolution" by force. That lone Chinaman had been buried, so that it would have taken a microscope to find the revolution. But the orders plainly enough showed where the United States stood in regard to the secessionary movement, and since by force was the only way Colombia could settle the revolution, the orders in substance meant that it was the United States, and not Panama, that Colombia would have to fight to regain sovereignty over her richest province.
The Colombian troops on November 4th might have wiped out the American defense in Colon, swept over to Panama and crushed the Junta and street mob there, and so summarily preserved sovereignty over the territory. And had it done all this, it would have been squarely within its rights as a sovereign nation. But they knew that such a triumph would be transient. They realized it would bring down upon Colombia the whole devastating force of the mighty United States, which the Spanish-American War so recently had shown was something truly to be feared. Hence, their withdrawal was prudent, though humiliating. It is superfluous, of course, to remark that the United States could not have played such a role with any nation capable of defending itself.
Commander Hubbard had no illusions about the vital part the United States played in making the revolution a success. He stated, in the following paragraph of his cablegram to the Navy Department on November 5th, that the critical time was when the marines stood between the Colombian troops and passage to the seat of insurrection at Panama. Said he: "I am positive that the determined attitude of our men, their coolness and evident intention of standing their ground, had a most salutary and decisive effect on the immediate situation and was the initial step in the ultimate abandoning of Colon by these troops and their return to Cartagena the following day."
On November 6th, two days after the "revolution," the United States recognized the independence of the Republic of Panama. this was two days before the news of the secession reached Bogota, the capital of Colombia. There was a popular demonstration against the United States in that city, but no attempts against American life or property. The faction which had grown tired of diplomatic dilly-dallying. The faction antagonistic to the treaty realized that the United States had stolen second base in the canal game. The Colombian government offered an immediate treaty if the United States would permit it to recover Panama, but President Roosevelt spurned the overtures.
Within twelve days after recognizing the independence of the new republic, the United States had secured a treaty which ceded it to a Canal Zone. P. Bunau-Varilla, of the French Canal Company, was made the Minister of the de facto Panama government, to negotiate this treaty with Secretary Hay. Thus the United States was assured of getting all that it had been promised by the Junta. The first article of the treaty signed on November 18th, at Washington, stated that "The United States guarantees and will maintain the independence of the Republic of Panama." Colombia thereby was notified that Panama, the historic transit route of the new world, was lost to her sovereignty.
Extreme haste in signing the treaty before there was a regular legislative body at Panama had been necessary because president Roosevelt wished to get the whole affair safely accomplished before our Congress should open on December 7th. The Republic of Panama ratified the treaty on December 2d, but the American Senate, miffed a little that the Executive should take such importantand to many questionableaction without its knowledge or consent, debated for several months, then finally ratified the treaty on February 23, 1904. The American people have in this whole transaction an illuminating example of the power a President has to commit the United States to a radical policy during a recess of Congress.
President Roosevelt always had leaned strongly toward the Panama route for a canal. The setting up of a republic there had the effect of complying with the Spooner act, which made the selection of the Panama route depend upon securing a right of way at this point. He made the point to Congress in his message on December 7th, that as the new treaty provided this right of way, it became imperative that Panama be chosen, and thus the revolution was used as a club to force the selection of Panama over Nicaragua.
The advocates of the Nicaragua route already had been urging that as Colombia refused a right of way at Panama, the United States was compelled to turn to Nicaragua. President Roosevelt did not believe Nicaragua was the proper place for a canal, and his judgment on this point, in the light of later years as well as from all logical considerations of trade and topography, was eminently sound. His consent for the United States to go the length it did in securing the Panama route was prompted by his desire to prevent the nation from selecting a less advantageous route.
It has been charged that the President favored Panama so that the American financiers, led by Mr. Cromwell, who were interested in selling the French property to the government, could get the $40,000,000 the sale involved. This charge is not justified either by the character of President Roosevelt or by the natural advantages of the two routes. It is doubtful if the President gave any thought to the owners of the French interests, and it is certain that such ownership was not a factor in determining him in favor of Panama.
The French interests, of course, had staked all on the success of the revolution. Had it failed, Colombia would have forfeited their concessions forthwith, and Minister Herran had notified them to that effect. It is clear that Mr. Cromwell and associates were dead certain that the United States never intended that the revolution should fail. Their grasp on the situation is shown by the naming of M. Bunau-Varilla to negotiate the treaty with the United States for Panama.
With $40,000,000 hanging in the balance, the French interests were prepared to be generous in drawing a treaty. It is to be doubted if a more one-sided treaty was ever drawn. Secretary Hay, with the willing consent of the Junta, gave the Untied States all the latitude we would have had, if, instead of taking a Canal Zone, we had taken the whole republic. Panama got all that had been promised to Colombia, including a cash payment of $10,000,000 and beginning in 1913, an annual payment of $250,000. The United States is to pay for any additional lands in the republic that may be needed for the canal and we may use any rivers or lakes in the republic necessary to the canal, two provisions broad enough to permit the conversion of the whole republic to the position of an adjunct to the canal. The cities of Colon and Panama were made subject to American sanitary measures, and if Panama cannot preserve order, the United States, in its discretion, may introduce troops for that purpose, a right which substantially robs the republic of sovereignty. The United States guarantees the neutrality of the canal but reserved the right to fortify it.
Nobody in the Canal Zone makes any pretense that the United States was disinterested in its part in the revolution. Most of the canal employees wonder why the President did not take the whole republic. Many confidently expect the United States to abolish the government there sooner or later, because it is clear that the republic cannot stand clear of American support. On three occasions already the Americans have prevented the disruption of the republic. In 1904, Gen. Huertas, who had assisted the Junta, became dissatisfied with his rewards, and started to overturn the administration by force. The marines had to disarm his small army. In 1908 the United States had to interfere to insure a fair election, and in 1912 this writer saw the presidential campaign reach a point where the marines and infantry had to be placed at the Panama pools to prevent rioting and fraud. It was obvious that if the United States had not been present in armed force the usual Central American method of changing administrations by a revolution would have been employed. How long will the United States be patient with such conditions?
President Roosevelt did not appear in the revolution preliminaries because his part later on required the "Oh, this is so sudden" tone, in recognizing the independence of the new republic. He devoted himself assiduously to proving that the United States had done a righteous thing in that act and had closed his message with the high profession of friendly zeal to the effect that "he would not for one moment discuss the possibility of the United States committing an act of such baseness as to abandon the new Republic of Panama." But eight years later, in San Francisco, he threw off the mask thus assumed and declared: "I took Panama and left Congress to debate the matter afterward."
Did President Roosevelt know that his government deliberately aided and abetted a province of a sovereign power, with which the United States had a solemn treaty, to secede and set up an independent government, so that the United States might get territory it otherwise could not obtain?
Dear reader, you might just as sanely ask a Panamanian if he thinks it will be wet in the next rainy season!
Was there anything, big or little, going on in Theodore Roosevelt's administration with which he was not fairly familiar? Secretary hay have given the impression to the revolutionary Junta that if they would go through the trifling act of raising a flag, the United States would do the rest. When Secretaries of State began assisting revolutions in foreign countries without the knowledge and consent of the president, it will be under a far less dominating Executive than Theodore Roosevelt!
With the ratification of the treaty, the decks at last were cleared for the long-dreamed-of project of building a canal. The people of the United States frankly were glad that such progress had been made, but they were inclined to believe that it would not be well to nose too deep into the method of acquiring the territory. They knew that the payment of $10,000,000 for the Canal Zone paid somebody for the right of way, though whether the rightful owner was a question the administration was very glad to let remain dormant. The Saturday Evening Post, speaking editorially in the spring of 1912, doubtless expressed the attitude of many Americans when it said:
|"It seems to be the part of statesmanship in this dilemma to talk loudly about the benefits we confer upon the world's commerce by digging the canal and to regard our acquisition of the canal a closed incident."|
Yet, the American people never have solved any issue in which a moral question was involved, by thus seeking to obscure it. The true facts about the acquisition of the Canal Zone only came out by dribs, but events seem to conspire to bring the whole transaction to light. On June 26, 1912, Mr. J. Gabriel Duque, who had been a leader in the revolution, got into a controversy with Mr. Ricardo Arias, also a member of the 1903 Junta, and over his own signature in his paper, The Star and Herald, published at Panama, made the following admission:
|"Mr. Arias should know that I have friends in Washington, seeing that as far back as 1903 when we worked together for Panama's independence, I was in confidential treatment with Secretary Hay."|
Mr. Tracy Robinson, author of a book on Panama, was another leading figure in the revolution. He declines to give the history of the affair, although so competent to reveal its inward processes, but tells his readers that "The details would afford material for a wonder story."
Since President Roosevelt had candidly confessed that he "took" Panama, there is no reason why the main actors in the play should not speak out and the immediate future is going to see the disclosure of much illuminating material about this "wonder story." The American people have had a vague idea of what did happen at Panama, but there is no longer any excuse for a pretense of virtuous conduct on the part of the United States, except on the point of giving the world something essential to its convenience. It is hypocritical to profess that we made adequate compensation when we paid Panama for the Canal Zone. We must applaud President Roosevelt for taking the Canal Zone, but the failure to make reparation to Colombia is a conspicuous piece of self-deception and moral obliquity. We raised the Maine, however, and we will yet make amends to Colombia.