The great ship moved silently through the water, knifing the jet-black Caribbean Sea as it approached Panama. As dawn broke and the fog lifted, it finally appeared, in all its glory: The massive Gatun locks of the Panama Canal, lifting ships 1,000 feet long and 90,000 tons 85 feet above sea level to a water bridge crossing the Continental Divide and connecting the Pacific. The 50-mile canal, separating two continents but uniting the world, shaves a whopping 8,000 miles off a run from New York to San Francisco. A dream that goes as far back as Columbus undisputedly stands as one of the greatest achievements of in all of human history.
Yet it almost never came to be, as centuries’ worth of attempts to construct a path between the seas all resulted in disaster due to ineptitude, disease and the deaths of more than 30,000 workers.
So what changed? Who found success where others had failed? How were seemingly impossible obstacles, literal and otherwise, bulldozed on the path to victory?
Easy. The United States got involved.
As we look back from this 100th year anniversary of the canal, it’s abundantly clear that "America" was synonymous with "greatness" at that point in history. The country was alive and vibrant, forging ahead with bold ideas carried to fruition by bold leaders. Men like Teddy Roosevelt, who innately understood what was in America’s strategic interests and pursued those initiatives with a gusto that made success a foregone conclusion. Failure simply wasn’t in the lexicon.
How things have changed. The nation that once valued decisiveness over impotence, and risk over fear, somehow morphed into a timid, risk-averse politically correct shell of its former glory that too often tries to be all things to all people — so long as those people aren’t its own citizens.
And there is no better example of that warped mindset than the giveaway of the Panama Canal. While seeing the canal makes one gape in sheer awe, it also evokes a fury, a constant "what were we thinking?" refrain, reinforcing a notion that our nation is in decline, entirely of our own making.
An outline of the canal’s history seems too far-fetched to be true, as it defies the common sense expected of the world’s most powerful nation:
» Thousands die trying to connect the oceans. Project declared impossible.
» America defies the odds by constructing canal ahead of schedule and under budget.
» America saves countless lives by eradicating yellow fever and discovering the cause of, and thus controlling, the region’s ultimate killer: Malaria.
» America operates canal not for profit but to facilitate international commerce, even for those not trading with the United States.
» America, despite its 85 years of flawless operation, freely gives the canal to Panama in exchange for absolutely nothing, netting a zero return on investment.
» American ships now pay massively increased fees (passed on to American consumers) while Panama laughs all the way to the bank.
» Despite the giveaway, America continues to guarantee Panama’s security in perpetuity, with no benefit to the U.S.
If this story weren’t so tragic, it would be a comic, because giving away the canal made America’s strategic vision a complete joke.
President Jimmy Carter negotiated and signed the 1977 treaty giving away the canal (which took effect in 1999). The list of American giveaways is substantial: The canal itself, the huge Gatun Lakes dam, the hydroelectric plant, the isthmus-wide railroad, and the 10-mile wide Panama Canal zone, with all its infrastructure. Rubbing salt in the wound, even Titan, one of America’s largest cranes (war booty from Hitler’s Germany) was given to the Panamanians in 1999 after 50 years of operation in Long Beach, Calif. All invalidate the blood, sweat and yes, deaths, of the Americans who worked so proudly on the canal.
Perhaps most startling, no consideration was given to America for all it had done, despite it being the largest user, by far, of the canal. Virtually all the new equipment, from the "mule" trains that guide the ships to the massive steel doors going into the enlarged locks now under construction, is made everywhere but America.
Five other nations are involved in the construction of the new locks, but America is not one of them. And yet that consortium has already experienced money problems, labor disputes and cost overruns for the $5 billion project, whereas we spend that amount every 12 hours. Nor does America manage the large ports on either side of the canal. Instead, that honor goes to China. Naturally.
Not only does Panama rake in $2 billion annually from its fees, but it doesn’t spend a penny on an army, because thanks to Uncle Sam, it doesn’t have one. So if Nicaragua becomes belligerent, American men and women will fight and die solely for Panama’s sake. Help me out on that one.
Some may ask, "Nice history lesson, but why bring it up now? What’s done is done."
Wrong, for two reasons:
1) While the treaty won’t be scrapped, America could clearly exact concessions from Panama to benefit American shippers and consumers. Our ships, at a minimum, should receive a substantial discount for passage (the Colombian Navy passes for free. Go figure). Those savings would make our products and companies more competitive, and keep jobs in America. If Panama resists, the protection deal could be immediately revoked along with all other foreign aid to Panama. No third-world country should be dictating to America, especially one in our own backyard.
2) Infinitely more important, it should be a wake-up call to stop engaging in one-sided deals that only hurt America. The Panama giveaway is not an isolated incident, but a mindset that persists to this day.
Both parties are complicit, but it is we the people who are ultimately to blame, as we no longer demand excellence and strategic vision from our leaders. Instead, mediocrity with no eye to the future rules the day, and with it, a lingering pessimism that seems destined to be with us until a leader like Teddy Roosevelt emerges. Someone who, in Teddy’s words, "is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who spends himself in a worthy cause … so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Let’s re-read our history, learn from our mistakes and regain the greatness that is uniquely American.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]