An American utopia


Alexander Missal demonstrates that the construction site of the Panama Canal was not just filled with mud and water – but with meaning for the US as it began
to assert itself on the world stage


Seaway to the Future:
American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal

Alexander Missal
2009, University of Wisconsin Press
267 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

FITTING as it is that, as Panama labours ambitiously to complete by its centenary year in 2014 an expansion of the Canal that has become synonymous with the country, attention has turned to the role the seaway has played in US history, a paradox lies therein.

It taken nearly a century for scholars to begin digging at the cultural substratum upon which the Canal was constructed – in one of the largest and toughest engineering projects ever undertaken – yet no more important harbinger, and monument, of geopolitical relations in the western hemisphere exists. As Alexander Missal points out: the Panama Canal was America’s imperial arch, an assertive statement of intent, yet its contribution to US identity has been strangely absent from historical research.

It is almost as if historians themselves have been lost on a journey along the waterway as it was taking shape, hampered by the deadly landslides of the Culebra Cut and the debilitating effects of yellow fever, and have only recently emerged at the other end with the notion that construction of the Canal and of American national identity were simultaneous and intertwined. Perhaps if 28,000 historians had died in place of the workmen who gave their lives while it was built, things would have been very different.

All this makes Missal’s eloquent mission to open the Canal’s cultural locks a work worthy of its new era as a thoroughly Latin American asset – Panama gained sovereign control over the Canal in 2000 – as well as a reminder to colleagues of the importance of discourse in the study of history. Small wonder the writer is a journalist whose approach speaks volumes about the contribution writers of his ilk can make towards the development of an intertextual historiographical perspective.

Cultural turn

The author of Seaway to the Future suggests that it has only been the linguistic or cultural turn in the humanities over the last 15 to 20 years that has enabled scholars to start bringing culture into the history of foreign relations; while the anomalous condition of the Panama Canal Zone – arguably not dissimilar to that of Puerto Rico or Guantánamo Bay etc. – has served to exclude it from that history. In fact, the implications of his argument represent a mild indictment of what might be called an official US historiography that took its initial cue from that master of imperial spin, Theodore Roosevelt himself. Missal writes:

“As an ‘expressly artificial addition to the nation,’ the Canal Zone was neither part of the United States nor a proper colony, neither foreign nor domestic. This may explain why it has so far eluded the practitioners of a new cultural or diplomatic history. But it is precisely this terrain of ‘ambiguous spaces’ that makes the Panama Canal and its interpretations relevant to historical inquiry.” [p. 9]

Missal has compiled a cultural history of the US Canal project from 1903 to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that celebrated its completion as revealed through the texts and images of policymakers and commentators of the era: officials, journalists and travel writers. He demonstrates that the construction site was not just filled with mud and water – but with meaning, at a time when American society was engaged in a search for order amid rapid social change. He adds:

“Confronted with these challenges, policymakers and commentators viewed the Canal as an imperial project of building a new nation, a future America.” [p. 4]

The Canal offered an unmissable opportunity to mould the imagination of the American people, most of whom would never see it or experience it firsthand, at a time when the mass media was beginning to play a key role in the formation of the middle class at the dawn of the modern age.

Missal charts the role the Canal project played in the social visions of expansionist intellectuals such as Roosevelt himself. When he became president, the author writes, Roosevelt made the construction of the Canal the centre of his programme to build a “manlier” nation. Commentators were eager to use the contrast between America’s success in completing the Canal and France’s previous failure as a source of lessons for an American society perceived as morally corrupt and lacking resolve.

Despite the crucial role played by a majority of West Indian workers, moreover, observers drew attention to life in the US-administered Canal Zone as “a collectivist mini-state ruled and inhabited by white Americans” under a benevolent despot, the engineer-soldier George Goethals. This suburban society and how it could be interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon adventure in the tropics provided much raw material for utopian ideals. Missal writes:

“The Panama Canal project shared many characteristics with colonial ventures and became part of the emerging American empire… In order to build the Canal and guarantee its operation in the decades to come, the commission had to set up a semi-permanent administration on the Isthmus that would organize the work and take care of the needs of its employees, including their social life. By definition, this mini-state had a single purpose: to produce and maintain the Canal. But most of the Panama authors chose to ignore this context of special circumstances and explained the society on the Isthmus as part of the larger project of constructing a new nation. The Canal Zone was turned into an American utopia.” [pp. 122-123]

Indeed, Missal shows how commentators discovered an ideal community in the tropics based upon an enthusiastic endorsement of autocratic collectivism that could serve as a model for the US itself. Those utopian visions were premised upon an acceptance of segregation between white workers from the US and the mass of black labourers on the project from the West Indies – 150,000 of them during the entire decade of American construction – who were not only described in the discourse of the day in “blatantly racist, derogatory” language but received much lower pay and had few if any rights as workers.

How instructive about the changing nature of US relations with Central America it is, then, that as a Panama run by a centre-left president asserts its control over the waterway through its ambitious $5.25bn expansion project, a black man has finally become president of the country that built it, overturning those white, utopian visions constructed upon the labour and sacrifices of a largely black, non-American workforce.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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