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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


Railway Improvements

The most advanced methods, not only in construction, but in railroad management, have been applied in the one, with corresponding economies in time and cost.  This has been shown in the handling of the tonnage from ships into cars, and from cars into ships on the Panama Railroad, where, thanks largely to the efficiency of General Manager Bierd, the saving in time and cost has been noteworthy.  My examination tended to show that some of the departments had (doubtless necessarily) become overdeveloped, and could now be reduced or subordinated without impairment of efficiency and with a saving of cost.   The Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Shonts, has all matters of this kind constantly in view, and is now reorganizing the government of the Zone, so as to make the form of administration both more flexible and less expensive, subordinating everything to direct efficiency with a view to work of the Canal Commission.  From time to time changes of this kind will undoubtedly have to be made, for it must be remembered that in this giant work of construction, it is continually necessary to develop departments or bureaus, which are vital for the time being, but which soon become useless; just s it will be continually necessary to put up buildings, and even to erect towns, which in ten years will once more give place to jungle, or will then be at the bottom of the great lakes at the ends of the canal.

Critics and Doubting Thomases

It is not only natural, but inevitable, that a work as gigantic as this which has been undertaken on the Isthmus should arouse every species of hostility and criticism.   The conditions are so new and so trying, and the work so vast, that it would be absolutely out of the question that mistakes should not be made.  Checks will occur.   Unforeseen difficulties will arise.  From time to time seemingly well-settled plans will have to be changed.  At present 25,000 men are engaged on the task.   After a while the number will be doubled.  In such a multitude it is inevitable that there should be here and there a scoundrel.  Very many of the poorer class of laborers lack the mental development to protect themselves against either the rascality of others or their own folly, and it is not possible for human wisdom to devise a plan by which they can invariably be protected.  In a place which has been for ages a byword for unhealthfulness, and with so large a congregation of strangers suddenly put down and set to hard work there will now and then be outbreaks of disease.  There will now and then be shortcomings in administration; and there will be unlooked-for accidents to delay the excavation of the cut or the building of the dams and locks.   Each such incident will be entirely natural, and, even though serious, no one of them will mean more than a little extra delay or trouble.  Yet each, when discovered by sensation mongers and retailed to timid folk of little faith, will serve as an excuse for the belief that the whole work is being badly managed.  Experiments will continually be tried in housing, in hygiene, in street repairing, in dredging, and in digging earth and rock.  Now and then an experiment will be a failure; and among those who hear of it, a certain proportion of doubting Thomases will at once believe that the whole work is a failure.  Doubtless here and there some minor rascality will be uncovered; but as to this, I have to say that after the most painstaking inquiry I have been unable to find a single reputable person who had so much as heard of any serious accusations affecting the honesty of the Commission or of any responsible officer under it.  It is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere of the Commission breathes honesty as it breathes efficiency and energy.  Above all, the work has been kept absolutely clear of politics.  I have never heard even a suggestion of spoils politics in connection with it.

I have investigated every complaint brought to me for which there seemed to be any shadow of foundation.  In two or three cases, all of which I have indicated in the course of this message I came to the conclusion that there was foundation for the complaint, and that the methods of the Commission in the respect complained of could be bettered.   In the other instances the complaints proved absolutely baseless, save in two or thee instances where they referred to mistakes which the Commission had already itself found out and corrected.

Slanderers and Libelers

So much for honest criticism.  There remains an immense amount of reckless slander as has ever been published.  where the slanderers are of foreign origin I have no concern with them.  where they are Americans, I feel for them the heartiest contempt and indignation; because in a spirit of wanton dishonest and malice, they are trying to interfere with, and hamper the execution of, the greatest work of the kind ever attempted and are seeking to bring to naught the efforts of their countrymen to put to the credit of America one of the giant feats of the ages.  The outrageous accusations of these slanderers constitute a gross libel upon a body of public servants who, for trained intelligence, expert ability, high character and devotion to duty, have never been excelled anywhere.  There is not a man among those direction the work on the Isthmus who has obtained his position on any other basis than merit alone, and not one who has used his position in any way for his own personal or pecuniary advantage.

Plan to Build by Contract

After most careful consideration we have decided to let out most of the work by contract, if we can come to satisfactory terms with the contractors.  The whole work is of a kind suited to the peculiar genius of our people; and our people have developed the type of contractor best fitted to grapple with it.  It is of course much better to do the work in large part by contract than to do it all by the Government, provided it is possible on the one hand to secure to the contractor a sufficient remuneration to make it worth while for responsible contractors of the best kind to undertake the work and provided on the other hand it can be done on terms which will not give an excessive profit to the contractor at the expense of the Government.  After much consideration the plan already promulgated by the Secretary of War was adopted.   This plan in its essential features was drafted after careful and thorough study and consideration, by the Chief Engineer, Mr. Stevens, who, while in the employment of Mr. Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railroad, had personal experience of this very type of contract.   Mr. Stevens then submitted the plan to the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Shonts, who went carefully over it with Mr. Rogers, the legal adviser of the Commission, to see that all legal difficulties were met.  He then submitted copies of the plan to both Secretary Taft and myself.  Secretary Taft submitted it to some of the best counsel at the New York bar, and afterwards I went over it very carefully with Mr. Taft and Mr. Shonts, and we laid the plan in its general features before Mr. Root.  My conclusion is that it combines the maximum of advantage with the minimum of disadvantage.  Under it a premium will be put upon the speedy and economical construction of the canal, and a penalty imposed on delay and waste.  The plan as promulgated is tentative; doubtless it will have to be changed in some respects before we can come to a satisfactory agreement with responsible contractors -- perhaps even after the bids have been received; and of course it is possible that we can not come to an agreement, in which case the Government will do the work itself.  Meanwhile the work on the Isthmus is progressing steadily and without any let-up.

A Single Commissioner Desired

A seven-headed commission is of course a clumsy executive instrument.  We should have but one commissioner with such heads of departments and other officers under him as we may find necessary.  We should be expressly permitted to employ the best engineers in the country as consulting engineers.

I accompany this paper with a map showing substantially what the canal will be like when it is finished.  When the Culebra cut has been made and the dams built (if they are built as at present proposed) there will then be at both the Pacific and Atlantic ends of the canal, two great fresh-water lakes, connected by a road channel running at the bottom of a ravine, across the backbone of the Western Hemisphere.  Those best informed believe that the work will be completed in about eight years; but it is never safe to prophesy about such a work as this, especially in the Tropics.

I am informed that representatives of the commercial clubs of four cities -- Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis -- the membership of which includes most of the leading business men of those cities, expect to visit the Isthmus for the purpose of examining the work of construction of the canal.  I am glad to hear it, and I shall direct that every facility be given them to see all that is to be seen in the work which to hear it, and I shall direct that every facility be given them to see all that is to be seen in the work which the Government is doing.  Such interest as a visit like this would indicate will have a good effect upon the men who are doing the work, on one hand, while on the other hand it will offer as witnesses of the exact conditions men whose experience as business men and whose impartiality will make the result of their observations of value to the country as a whole.

Confident of Ultimate Success

Of the success of the enterprise I am as well convinced as one can be of any enterprise that is human.  It is a stupendous work upon which our fellow-countrymen are engaged down there on the Isthmus, and while we should hold them to a strict accountability for the way in which they perform it, we should yet recognize, with frank generosity, the epic nature of the task on which they are engaged and its world-wide importance.  They are doing something which will redound immeasurably to the credit of America, which will benefit the world, and which will last for ages to come.  Under Mr. Shonts and Mr. Stevens and Doctor Gorgas this work has started with every omen of good fortune.   They and their worthy associates, from the highest to the lowest, are entitled to the same credit that we would give to the picked men of a victorious army; for this conquest of peace will, in its great and far-reaching effect, stand as among the very greatest conquests, whether of peace or of war, which have ever been won by any of the peoples of mankind.  A badge is to be given to every American citizen who for a specified time has taken part in this work; for participation in it will hereafter be held to reflect honor upon the man participating just as it reflects honor upon a solider to have belonged to a mighty army in a great war for righteousness.  Our fellow-countrymen on the Isthmus are working for our interest and for the national renown in the same spirit and with the same efficiency that the men of the Army and Navy work in time of war.  It behooves us in our turn to do all we can to hold up their hands and to aid them in every way to bring their great work to a triumphant conclusion.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

The White House
December 17, 1906


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February 12, 1999

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