The 51-mile link between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean across the Panamanian isthmus stands as one of the great engineering feats of all human history, comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Apollo moon landings. In The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal, labor historian Julie Greene asks: Was it the princes or presidents who did those things? What about the compass bearers, the joiners and those who fed the horses and cooked the meals?
The central figures in Greene's story—the "builders‚" referred to in her title—are the 35,000 ordinary people who traveled to Panama, and, from 1906 to 1914, raised new towns, built houses, ran railroads, operated commissaries, set up a constabulary and judiciary and, above all, moved dirt. Greene examines how the U.S. government, determined to build the canal as fast as possible, managed this force of working people from all over the world.
"The engineering and constructional difficulties melt into insignificance compared with labor‚" she quotes chief engineer John Stevens as saying. Indeed, Greene finds that project director Col. George W. Goethals tried to apply the ideal of Progressivism: that by regulating environments one could improve human behavior. While the jungle gave way before steam shovels, this social engineering faltered and often failed. Goethals could not control appetites for drink, sex and money; eliminate racial or ethnic prejudice; make people fair or honest; or come close to perfecting the human character. The undeniable success of the project even left an indelible stain on the Republic of Panama, which the U.S. had brought into being: that country's sovereignty over its own territory was not retuned to it until 2000, when the U.S. ceded the Canal.
The great adventure might have taught Americans to take people and nations not as we might wish them to be but as they often are: perverse, selfish, nationalistic. Yet somehow the overtopping idealism and magnificent vision inspired this multitude to build the great Canal.
James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.