Courtesy Reuters

Control of the Panama Canal: an Obsolete Shibboleth?

HAS American policy with respect to the Panama Canal outlived its usefulness? Changes in technology, in the international power structure and in the climate of world opinion would suggest that it has. In an age when the United States is turning increasingly to international arrangements to protect its interests on other continents, its position regarding the Canal becomes increasingly inconsistent, if not embarrassing. It might well embroil us in a struggle, initially one-sided, in which all Latin America would move to defend the sovereignty of a sister republic and the principles of self-determination and non-intervention. In the altered circumstances of today we need to take a fresh look at our relationship to the Panama Canal. This involves a candid reassessment of the strategic and economic arguments for its control by the United States.


From the outset the strategic value of the Canal to the United States has been regarded by American leaders as of first importance. More than three decades before the Canal was completed President Hayes advised the Senate: "Its relation to our power and prosperity as a nation, to our means of defense, our unity, peace and safety, are matters of paramount concern to the people of the United States."[i] Toward the turn of the century the need for a waterway across the Isthmus was dramatized by the Spanish-American War exploit of the Oregon, steaming at flank speed from Puget Sound to Cuban waters by way of the Magellan Straits, a distance three times what it would have been had the Canal been built. Then came the conquest of the Philippines, bringing new American responsibilities in the Pacific far from the centers of power on the Atlantic seaboard. Long before the Japanese were to threaten American interests in Asian waters, President Theodore Roosevelt declared in a special message to the Congress in 1904 that the Canal "has become, as the result of the recent extension of our territorial domination, more than ever essential to our naval defense. . . . Reasons of

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