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The Panama Canal: A Complicated Backstory
Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 6:45 p.m.
Political cartoon in the 1903 New York Herald depicting Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal
Building the Panama Canal was either a bold, decisive diplomatic stroke that claimed America’s rightful place on the world stage or a crude display of arrogance and corruption. Either way, it was a project tailor-made for the take-charge mindset of Teddy Roosevelt who viewed the construction of a canal as the centerpiece of America’s growing global power.
As a controversial symbol of American might, the canal remained unshaken for three-quarters of a century, unleashing one of the most contentious foreign-policy debates in American history over ceding the canal to Panama in 1978. The campaign by treaty opponents spawned a grassroots movement that would became the model for similar activist organizations on a wide range of future issues.
Historian Ralph Nurnberger, who served on the staff of the Senate Committee that oversaw the Panama Canal treaties, examines the sweep of the canal saga, including the intrigue in the halls of Congress, the revolution against Columbian rule in Panama and the appointment of a French citizen as the ambassador from the newly independent nation to seal the deal.
Nurnberger tackles such sticky issues as how the U.S. claimed the right to build a canal in another country and why Panama was selected as its location when most engineering studies recommended Nicaragua. He also examines how the sharp debate over the canal treaties in the 1970s contributed to the current polarization of parties in Congress by triggering the process of purging moderate Republicans.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)