Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The end of an era will occur in December when the United States terminates its colonial rule in Panama after nearly a century and gives up its control of the Panama Canal.

Some Americans still deplore a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and ratified by Congress, that committed the United States to turn over the Canal Zone to Panama by the end of 1999. Most Americans, however, view the issue as ancient history.

U.S. involvement in Panama dates to 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt concluded a treaty (by subterfuge, some say) with the new republic which granted the United States exclusive control of a l0-mile strip of territory running 51 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, across the Isthmus of Panama. The treaty had no termination date and allowed the United States to build a canal and administer the adjacent territory "as if it were sovereign."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the monumental job of digging and building a huge lock canal through the jungle and a mountain range in Panama. The waterway was hailed as a technological wonder when it was completed in 1914. For Americans of that generation, building this canal after a French company had failed to do so was proof that the United States was indeed a great power with unparalleled technological skills.

The achievement reinforced the idea of America as an imperial power, which Theodore Roosevelt had championed a few years earlier when America annexed the Philippines and Puerto Rico after defeating Spain in a war over Cuba. The United States then ruled as a colonial power.

I first visited Panama in 1973 with a seminar from the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville. During that one-week study tour we sailed through of the huge locks, watched the controllers operate the machinery from their control tower, and received briefings from the Panama Canal Company, a U.S. government agency that was in charge of the waterway. We also visited several military camps in the Canal Zone and observed the beautifully landscaped neighborhoods where American civilian and military personnel resided with their families.

The contrast between the U.S. zone and adjacent Panama City, the capital, was striking. Panamanians, like most residents in Central American countries, lived modestly by American standards. Shops along the main streets resembled those in most Third World countries. Some said the Canal Zone was a beautiful oasis, a little piece of the United States, transplanted in Central America. But the zone was not at all typical of most U.S. communities.

In the 1970s the canal emerged as a burning issue in American politics as well as a serious foreign policy problem, for the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Panamanian nationalists, led by a military strongman, General Omar Torrijos, demanded that the 1903 treaty be scrapped and that Panama should gain full sovereignty and control over the canal.

Most Latin American governments supported Panama's claim and Panama threatened in 1974 to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council. Critics argued that Washington should never have "caved in" to international pressure and agreed to negotiate the issue. "It's our canal and we should run it for as long as we want," was the theme often heard in Congress.

It fell to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, serving the Nixon and Ford administrations, to negotiate the basic terms of a treaty relinquishing control of the canal by the end of 1999. This occurred shortly before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and when the United States was in a weakened international position. Still, the Pentagon had determined that the Panama Canal was no longer a vital strategic interest because the United States had a large two ocean Navy, and the largest aircraft carriers could not use the canal.

President Jimmy Carter deserves much credit for deciding, after he took office in 1977, to go forward with a treaty, and he eventually obtained congressional approval. He was denounced by conservatives for selling out U.S. interests. Ronald Reagan, who ran for president four years later, opposed the treaty. But he carried out its terms when he entered the White House in 1981.

Critics argue that giving Panama control of the canal means that it will soon deteriorate because of political favoritism and corruption in the government of Panama. It has countered these fears by approving a constitutional amendment giving a new Canal Authority exclusive power to run the waterway free of political pressures. Most observers think the canal will be run smoothly and profitably.

Optimists cite the turnover of the Suez Canal by Great Britain to Egypt in the 1950s as a precedent. Despite fears at that time that Egypt could not run that waterway in an efficient, nonpolitical manner, the Suez Canal has functioned well.

The larger story here is the evolution of American foreign policy over the last thirty years, away from the colonial outlook that had been established early in the 20th century in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Panama. Later American occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua were a continuation of that colonial mindset. However, in 1946 we granted independence to the Philippines and have offered it as well to Puerto Rico. And finally, we are leaving Panama.

Colonialism may be finished in U.S. foreign policy, but the desire for power and control continues. The challenge for American diplomacy in the next century is to find the right balance between being a respected world leader, or the world's policeman.

With luck, we will debate that major issue in the 2000 presidential election campaign.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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