Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Panama was unprecedented for a sitting president. It was daring, unexpected, and defied tradition.
When Roosevelt left Washington and proceeded to Panama in November 1906, he was the first sitting president to leave the country. It signaled a new era in how chief executives may manage foreign relations with other countries.
The trip was more than just a diplomatic expedition. It was also a way for Roosevelt to dispel some of the public’s anxieties regarding the Panama Canal’s construction. It’s also where Theodore Roosevelt’s got his love for Panama canal fashion.
Here’s the reason why Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Panama.
Theodore Roosevelt Visits Panama
After William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, taking on new life. The US purchased the rights to France’s initial proposal, but the Columbian government, where the isthmus of Panama is located, vetoed America’s overture to create the waterway.
Roosevelt was undaunted by Columbia’s stance. He plotted with Panamanian economic interests to stage a bloodless revolution — the Republic of Panama was established, and a treaty was signed with the new government. For $10 million (about $26 billion in today’s money), the United States obtained permission to construct a canal over a large land area that the Americans would hold in perpetuity.
The United States’ first attempt, in 1904, was no more successful than the French’s had been years before. Before any building could be restarted, a newly appointed head engineer recognized that the laborers’ living conditions had to be changed to prevail.
Army doctor William Gorgas directed extensive sanitary efforts to limit the number of casualties caused by disease-carrying mosquitoes. He was efficient, and work resumed on a gigantic scale never seen before.
While some questioned his decision to travel outside the country while in power, others were more worried about his visit to a disease-infested zone. Roosevelt said it’s safe as a health resort.
On November 6, 1906, Roosevelt and his wife boarded the USS Louisiana, the fleet’s largest battleship, for a voyage to Panama and a brief layover in Puerto Rico. Two cruisers were also part of the flotilla. The admiral’s stateroom had been renovated with brass beds, wicker chairs, and oriental rugs to accommodate the first couple throughout their trip.
They arrived during the wettest summer in years.
It rained three inches in two hours at one point, but that didn’t dampen Roosevelt’s enthusiasm. He splashed through the water-logged muck on horseback and foot, determined to investigate the most basic work locations. He frequently deviated from his formal escort to interview workers at random and evaluate their living conditions.
Roosevelt fostered the image of a general visiting his troops at the front, dressed in a straw hat and mud-splattered white tropical suit. Photographers quickly photographed all of his antics for the American people; the images immortalized his flamboyant demeanor for the history books.
Roosevelt thrived on the affection shown to him by Panamanian leaders and people.
On his arrival, they had cleaned Panama City, and flags were flying — there was a festive feeling. Outside of the city, there were excited crowds everywhere. In one instance, he and the first lady dined with canal workers in their mess hall rather than attending an extravagant luncheon arranged in their honor at a fancy hotel. The workers were overjoyed to see them.
Roosevelt felt exalted in what he had seen and heard by the end of the day. His pride in the accomplishments of the workers and engineers was clear in the illustrated bound book he submitted to Congress to describe his journey. This type of writing was a historical first; it informed the public about Roosevelt’s actions.
On August 15, 1914, the canal opened eight years after Roosevelt’s visit.
It was an endorsement of America’s global development. However, the occurrence gained little notice since newspapers consigned the story to the back pages. German soldiers moving across Europe had stolen the spotlight from one of history’s greatest architectural feats.
Roosevelt’s 17-day tour has long-term implications for foreign policy. He broke the consistent practice of sitting executives avoiding trips outside the nation. Every successive commander in chief would utilize personal foreign presidential diplomacy.
Constructing the Panama Canal, 1903–1914
President Theodore Roosevelt supervised the completion of a long-term United States goal: constructing a trans-Isthmian canal. Throughout the 1800s, British and American companies and authorities desired to move commodities between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts at a low cost and on time.
To that purpose, the United Kingdom and the United States negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850 to quell rivalry over a proposed canal across the Central American Republic of Nicaragua. The Anglo-American canal, on the other hand, was never completed. French efforts to forge a canal through Panama (a Colombian region) advanced.
The French started excavating in 1880, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of Egypt’s Suez Canal. Yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases combined against the de Lesseps campaign, and the French endeavor failed after nine years and almost 20,000 deaths. Despite such difficulties, American enthusiasm for a canal remained unbroken.
The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901 repealed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and authorized the United States to construct and administer its canal. Following a fierce discussion over the proposed canal’s location, the United States Senate voted to construct the canal via Panama on June 19, 1902.
Within six months, Secretary of State John Hay forged a pact to develop the new canal with Colombian Foreign Minister Tomás Herrán. Colombia’s Congress rejected the offer because the financial parameters were unsatisfactory.
In support of Panamanian independence, President Roosevelt dispatched US warships to Colón (on the Atlantic) and Panama City (on the Pacific). Colombian troops could not navigate the Darien Strait forests, and Panama declared its independence on November 3, 1903.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla (a French engineer involved in the earlier de Lesseps canal proposal) was instantly appointed Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary by the newly established Republic of Panama. In his new post, Bunau-Varilla arranged the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, which gave the United States a one-time payment of $10 million to Panama, a ten-mile-wide stretch of land for the canal, and a $250-per-year annuity.
The United States also committed to safeguarding Panama’s independence. In 1914, the Panama Canal signified the United States’ economic dominance and scientific brilliance when it was finished. Although US management of the canal subsequently became an irritant in US-Panamanian ties, it was hailed as a major foreign policy triumph at the time.
If you’re determined to follow in Roosevelt’s steps and leave your comfort zone, here are must-have items for remote travel you can bring.