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- Theodore Roosevelt and His Times, - 20/31 -

in the ragged Roosevelt handwriting containing a proposal for a solution. ** The proposal went to Paris, then to Morocco. The solution was adopted by the conference, and the Hohenzollern menace to the peace of the world was averted for the moment. Once more Roosevelt had shown how being wise in time was the sure way to peace.

* Willie Fletcher Johnson, "America's Foreign Relations", vol. II, p. 376.

** The author had this story direct from Mr. Roosevelt himself.

Roosevelt's most important single achievement as President of the United States was the building of the Panama Canal. The preliminary steps which he took in order to make its building possible have been, of all his executive acts, the most consistently and vigorously criticized.

It is not our purpose here to follow at length the history of American diplomatic relations with Colombia and Panama. We are primarily concerned with the part which Roosevelt played in certain international occurrences, of which the Panama incident was not the least interesting and significant. In after years Roosevelt said laconically, "I took Panama." In fact he did nothing of the sort. But it was like him to brush aside all technical defenses of any act of his and to meet his critics on their own ground. It was as though he said to them, "You roundly denounce me for what I did at the time of the revolution which established the Republic of Panama. You declare that my acts were contrary to international law and international morals. I have a splendid technical defense on the legal side; but I care little about technicalities when compared with reality. Let us admit that I did what you charge me with. I will prove to you that I was justified in so doing. I took Panama; but the taking was a righteous act."

Fourteen years after that event, in a speech which he made in Washington, Roosevelt expressed his dissatisfaction with the way in which President Wilson was conducting the Great War. He reverted to what he had done in relation to Panama and contrasted his action with the failure of the Wilson Administration to take prompt possession of two hundred locomotives which had been built in this country for the late Russian Government. This is what he said:

"What I think, of course, in my view of the proper governmental policy, should have been done was to take the two hundred locomotives and then discuss. That was the course that I followed, and to which I have ever since looked back with impenitent satisfaction, in reference to the Panama Canal. If you remember, Panama declared itself independent and wanted to complete the Panama Canal and opened negotiations with us. I had two courses open. I might have taken the matter under advisement and put it before the Senate, in which case we should have had a number of most able speeches on the subject. We would have had a number of very profound arguments, and they would have been going on now, and the Panama Canal would be in the dim future yet. We would have had half a century of discussion, and perhaps the Panama Canal. I preferred that we should have the Panama Canal first and the half century of discussion afterward. And now instead of discussing the canal before it was built, which would have been harmful, they merely discuss me--a discussion which I regard with benign interest."

The facts of the case are simple and in the main undisputed. Shortly after the inauguration of Roosevelt as President, a treaty was negotiated with Colombia for the building of a canal at Panama. It provided for the lease to the United States of a strip six miles wide across the Isthmus, and for the payment to Colombia of $10,000,000 down and $250,000 a year, beginning nine years later. The treaty was promptly ratified by the United States Senate. A special session of the Colombian Senate spent the summer marking time and adjourned after rejecting the treaty by a unanimous vote. The dominant motive for the rejection was greed. An attempt was first made by the dictatorial government that held the Colombian Congress in its mailed hand to extort a large payment from the French Canal Company, whose rights and property on the Isthmus were to be bought by the United States for $40,000,000. Then $15,000,000 instead of $10,000,000 was demanded from the United States. Finally an adroit and conscienceless scheme was invented by which the entire rights of the French Canal Company were to be stolen by the Colombian Government. This last plot, however, would involve a delay of a year or so. The treaty was therefore rejected in order to provide the necessary delay.

But the people of Panama wanted the Canal. They were tired of serving as the milch cow for the fattening of the Government at Bogota. So they quietly organized a revolution. It was a matter of common knowledge that it was coming. Roosevelt, as well as the rest of the world, knew it and, believing in the virtue of being wise in time, prepared for it. Several warships were dispatched to the Isthmus.

The revolution came off promptly as expected. It was bloodless, for the American naval forces, fulfilling the treaty obligations of the United States, prevented the Colombian troops on one side of the Isthmus from using the Panama Railroad to cross to the other side where the revolutionists were. So the revolutionists were undisturbed. A republic was immediately declared and immediately recognized by the United States. A treaty with the new Republic, which guaranteed its independence and secured the cession of a zone ten miles wide across the Isthmus, was drawn up inside of two weeks and ratified by both Senates within three months. Six weeks later an American commission was on the ground to plan the work of construction. The Canal was built. The "half century of discussion" which Roosevelt foresaw is now more than a third over, and the discussion shows no sign of lagging. But the Panama Canal is in use.

Was the President of the United States justified in preventing the Colombian Government from fighting on the Isthmus to put down the unanimous revolution of the people of Panama? That is precisely all that he did. He merely gave orders to the American admiral on the spot to "prevent the disembarkation of Colombian troops with hostile intent within the limits of the state of Panama." But that action was enough, for the Isthmus is separated from Colombia on the one hand by three hundred miles of sea, and on the other by leagues of pathless jungle.

Roosevelt himself has summed up the action of the United States in this way:

"From the beginning to the end our course was straightforward and in absolute accord with the highest of standards of international morality . . . . To have acted otherwise than I did would have been on my part betrayal of the interests of the United States, indifference to the interests of Panama, and recreancy to the interests of the world at large. Colombia had forfeited every claim to consideration; indeed, this is not stating the case strongly enough: she had so acted that yielding to her would have meant on our part that culpable form of weakness which stands on a level with wickedness . . . . We gave to the people of Panama, self-government, and freed them from subjection to alien oppressors. We did our best to get Colombia to let us treat her with more than generous justice; we exercised patience to beyond the verge of proper forbearance . . . . I deeply regretted, and now deeply regret, the fact that the Colombian Government rendered it imperative for me to take the action I took; but I had no alternative, consistent with the full performance of my duty to my own people, and to the nations of mankind."

The final verdict will be given only in another generation by the historian and by the world at large. But no portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, and no picture of his times, can be complete without the bold, firm outlines of his Panama policy set as near as may be in their proper perspective.


In the evening of that election day in 1904 which saw Roosevelt made President in his own right, after three years of the Presidency given him by fate, he issued a brief statement, in which he said: "The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form, and under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination." From this determination, which in his mind related to a third consecutive term, and to nothing else, he never wavered. Four years later, in spite of a widespread demand that he should be a candidate to succeed himself, he used the great influence and prestige of his position as President and leader of his party to bring about the nomination of his friend and close associate, William Howard Taft. The choice received general approval from the Republican party and from the country at large, although up to the very moment of the nomination in the convention at Chicago there was no certainty that a successful effort to stampede the convention for Roosevelt would not be made by his more irreconcilable supporters.

Taft was elected by a huge popular plurality. His opponent was William Jennings Bryan, who was then making his third unsuccessful campaign for the Presidency. Taft's election, like his nomination, was assured by the unreserved and dynamic support accorded him by President Roosevelt. Taft, of course, was already an experienced statesman, high in the esteem of the nation for his public record as Federal judge, as the first civil Governor of the Philippines, and as Secretary of War in the Roosevelt Cabinet. There was every reason to predict for him a successful and effective Administration. His occupancy of the White House began under smiling skies. He had behind him a united party and a satisfied public opinion. Even his political opponents conceded that the country would be safe in his hands. It was expected that he would be conservatively progressive and progressively conservative. Everybody believed in him. Yet within a year of the day of his inauguration the President's popularity was sharply on the wane. Two years after his election the voters repudiated the party which he led. By the end of his Presidential term the career which had begun with such happy auguries had become a political tragedy. There were then those who recalled the words of the Roman historian, "All would have believed him capable of governing if only he had not come to govern."

It was not that the Taft Administration was barren of achievement. On the contrary, its record of accomplishment was substantial. Of two amendments to the Federal Constitution proposed by Congress, one was ratified by the requisite number of States before Taft went out of office, and the other was finally

Theodore Roosevelt and His Times, - 20/31

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