Classic History Books


The Path of Empire. A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power
by Carl Russell Fish

"I enclose you, purely for your own information, a copy of a letter of September 5th, from our minister to
Colombia. I think it might interest you to see that there was absolutely not the slightest chance of

securing by treaty any more than we endeavored to secure. The alternatives were to go to Nicaragua

against the advice of the great majority of competent engineers - some of the most competent saying that

we had better have no canal at this time than go there - or else to take the territory by force without any

attempt at getting a treaty. I cast aside the proposition made at the time to foment the secession of

Panama. Whatever other governments can do, the United States cannot go into the securing, by such

underhand means, the cession. Privately, I freely say to you that I should be delighted if Panama were an

independent state; or if it made itself so at this moment; but for me to say so publicly would amount to an

instigation of a revolt, and therefore I cannot say it."

Nothing, however, prevented the President from keeping an attentive eye on the situation. On the 16th of
October he directed the Navy Department to send ships to the Isthmus to protect American interests in

case of a revolutionary outbreak. On the 2d of November, he ordered the squadron to "maintain free and

uninterrupted transit.... Prevent the landing of any armed force with hostile intent, either government or

insurgent, at any point within fifty miles of Panama." At 3:40 P.M., on the 3d of November, the acting

Secretary of State telegraphed to the Isthmus for confirmation of a report to the effect that an uprising

was in progress. A reply dated 8:15 P.M. stated that there had been none as yet, but that it was rumored

one would take place during the night. On the 4th of November independence was proclaimed. The only

fatality was a Chinaman killed in the City of Panama by a shell from the Colombian gunboat Bogota. Its

commander was warned not to fire again. On the 6th of November, Secretary Hay instructed our consul

to recognize the new republic, and on the 13th of November, President Roosevelt received Bunau-Varilla

as its representative at Washington.

This prompt recognition of a new state, without waiting to allow the parent Government time to assert
itself, was contrary to American practice. The United States had regarded as a most unfriendly act Great

Britain's mere recognition of the belligerency of the Southern Confederacy. The right of the United States

to preserve the neutrality of the isthmus, as provided by the Treaty of 1846, certainly did not involve the

right to intervene between the Government and revolutionists. On the other hand, the guarantee of

possession which the United States had given to Colombia did involve supporting her Government to a

reasonable extent; yet there could be little doubt that it was the presence of American ships which had

made the revolution successful.

The possible implications of these glaring facts were cleverly met by President Roosevelt in his message
to Congress and by the Secretary of State in the correspondence growing out of the affair. The

Government really relied for its justification, however, not upon these technical pleas but upon the broad

grounds of equity. America has learned in the last few years how important it is for its safety that "scraps

of paper" be held sacred and how dangerous is the doctrine of necessity. Nevertheless it is well to

observe that if the United States did, in the case of Panama, depart somewhat from that strict observance

of obligations which it has been accustomed to maintain, it did not seek any object which was not just as

useful to the world at large as to itself, that the situation had been created not by a conflict of opposing

interests but by what the Government had good reason to believe was the bad faith of Colombia, and that

the separation of Panama was the act of its own people, justly incensed at the disregard of their interests

by their compatriots. This revolution created no tyrannized subject population but rather liberated from a

galling bond a people who had, in fact, long desired separation.

With the new republic negotiation went on pleasantly and rapidly, and as early as November 18, 1903, a

 

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