The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal

In This Review

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal
By Julie Greene
Penguin Press, 2009
448 pp. $30.00
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The labor historian Greene focuses on the gritty working men and women who dug "the big ditch," the harsh conditions under which they labored, and their inventive schemes -- some collective, some personal -- to improve their lots. But Greene's real contribution is to describe the complex labor-management system that organized, segregated, disciplined, and motivated the thousands of American whites and West Indian blacks recruited for the massive undertaking. This system, she contends, was as critical to the venture's success as were the more conventionally recognized public health innovations that contained tropical diseases and the engineering technologies that drove the huge shovels and built the massive metal locks. Greene also reminds us that it was the U.S. government that directed the enterprise, imposing a quasi-military "benevolent autocracy" in the Canal Zone -- an arrangement more efficient than democratic. So dominant was the government role that progressives imagined that it heralded a new scientific socialism wherein governments ran productive enterprises and guaranteed social services to workers and their communities. More the realist, Greene is chagrined, if not surprised, that the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, assembled to celebrate the glorious "kiss of the oceans," paid so little attention to the laborers who built it.