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Message of The President on The Panama Canal
Communicated to the two Houses of Congress
by President Theodore Roosevelt
December 17, 1906


Complaints Not Well Founded

The result of the investigation of this honest complaint was typical of what occurred when I investigated most of the other honest complaints made to me.  That is, where the complaints were not made wantonly or maliciously,they almost always proved due to failure to appreciate the fact that time was necessary in the creation and the completion of this Titanic work in a tropic wilderness.  It is impossible to avoid some mistakes in building a giant canal through jungle-covered mountains and swamps, while at the same time sanitating tropic cities, and providing for the feeding and general care of from twenty to thirty thousand workers.  The complaints brought to me, either of insufficient provision in caring for some of the laborers, or of failure to finish the pavements of Colon, or of failure to supply water, or of failure to build wooden sidewalks for the use of the laborers in the rainy season, on investigation proved, almost without exception, to be due merely to the utter inability of the Commission to do everything at once.

For instance, it was imperative that Panama, which had the highest death rate and where the chance of a yellow fever epidemic was strongest, should be cared for first; yet most of the complaints as to the delay in taking care of Colon were due to the inability or unwillingness to appreciate this simple fact.  Again, as the thousands of laborers are brought over and housed, it is not always possible at the outset to supply wooden walks and bath houses, because other more vital necessities have to be met; and in consequence, while most of the settlements have good bathhouses, and, to a large extent at least, wooden walks, there are plenty of settlements where wooden walks have not yet been laid down, and I visited one where the bath houses have not been provided.   But in this very settlement the frames of the bath houses are already up, and in every case the utmost effort is being made to provide the wooden walks.  Of course, in some of the newest camps tents are used pending the building of houses.  where possible, I think detached houses would be preferable to the semi-detached houses now in general use.

Unjust Criticism

Care and forethought have been exercised by the Commission, and nothing has reflected more credit upon them than their refusal to either go ahead too fast or to be deterred by the fear of criticism from not going ahead fast enough.  It is curious to note the fact that many of the most severe critics of the Commission criticize them for precisely opposite reasons, some complaining bitterly that the work is not in a more advanced condition, while the others complain that it has been rushed with such haste that there has been insufficient preparation for the hygiene and comfort of the employees.  As a matter of fact neither criticism is just.  It would have been impossible to go quicker than the Commission has gone, for such quickness would have meant insufficient preparation.   On the other hand, to refuse to do anything until every possible future contingency had been met would have caused wholly unwarranted delay.  the right course to follow was exactly the course which has been followed.  Every reasonable preparation was made in advance, the hygienic conditions in especial being made as nearly perfect as possible; while on the other hand there has been no timid refusal to push forward the work because of inability to anticipate every possible emergency, for, of course, many defects can only be shown by the working of the system in actual practice.

In addition to attending to the health of the employees, it is of course necessary to provide for policing the Zone.  This is done by a police force which at present numbers over 200 men, under Captain Shanton.  About one-fifth of the men are white and the others black.  In different places I questioned about twenty or thirty of these en, taking them at random.  they were a fine set, physically and in discipline.   With one exception all the white men I questioned had served in the American Army, usually in the Philippines, and belonged to the best type of American soldier.   Without exception the black policemen whom I questioned had served either in the British army or in the Jamaica or Barbados police.  They were evidently contented, and were doing their work well.  Where possible the policemen are used to control people of their own color, but in any emergency no hesitation is felt in using them indiscriminately.

Inasmuch as so many both the white and colored employees have brought their families with them, schools have been established, the school service being under Mr. O'Connor.   For the white pupils white American teachers are employed; for the colored pupils there are also some white American teachers, one Spanish teacher, and one colored American teacher, most of them being colored teachers from Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Lucia.   The schoolrooms were good, and it was a pleasant thing to see the pride that the teachers were taking in their work and their pupils.

There seemed to me to be many saloons in the Zone; but the new high-license law which goes into effect on January 1 next will probably close four-fifths of them.  Resolute and successful efforts are being made to minimize and control the sale of liquor.

The cars on the passenger trains on the Isthmus are divided into first and second class, the difference being marked in the price of tickets.  As a rule second-class passengers are colored and first-class passengers white; but in every train which I saw there were a number of white second-class passengers, and on two of them there were colored first-class passengers.

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February 12, 1999

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