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TR and the Panama Canal as Told by R.R. McMillan

Anton Newspaper Columnist Shares His Panama Canal Experiences

It’s the little things that seem to annoy people. While it was only through the efforts of then President Theodore Roosevelt that the Panamanians were pulled out of the clutches of Colombia and became a Republic, many of them didn’t like TR. In fact, James Foote, TR impersonator told the audience at the Theodore Roosevelt Association May 27 lecture by Robert McMillan, that during a riot they destroyed a statue of him.

Mr. McMillan knew the reason. They didn’t like the fact that the treaty to build the canal was signed in perpetuity – forever ours. Just like Guantanamo Bay, said Mr. McMillan.

This was the third and last in the Dr. John Gable lecture series on the topic The Transformation of Panama and the Panama Canal. It is a subject that Mr. McMillan is well versed in since he was appointed board chair of the Panama Canal Commission by President George Bush.

Panama was a good mix for Mr. McMillan since he had been working for Avon in Central and South America. He said the recorded history of the Panama Canal began in 1534 when Charles V of Spain asked Balboa to survey the 50 mile isthmus. In 1671 the population of Panama City was 30,000 showing that it was thriving enough to attract Morgan the Pirate to raid it. Mr. McMillan said the Church of San Jose had a solid gold altar that was built in 1519, and when word got out that Morgan was coming, the priest had it painted a lead color to successfully hide it from the pirates.

France was interested in constructing a canal across the isthmus but the project went bankrupt in 1889. The reasons were malaria and yellow fever; bad engineering; and corruption, explained Mr. McMillan.

It took Theodore Roosevelt to get things done, he said.

Mr. McMillan called TR decisive and said that was what made the difference. At that time Colombia occupied Panama and would not grant the U.S. a treaty in perpetuity to build the canal. At first TR considered building a canal across Nicaragua but Philippe Bunau-Varilla (engineer) sent out a postage stamp of a volcano erupting in Nicaragua proving it a dangerous location for the project.

Mr. McMillan said TR took action against the Columbians who surrendered allowing TR to recognize Panama as a republic. In four days the treaty in perpetuity was signed.

Mr. McMillan said he has donated his papers on the canal history to his alma mater, Adelphi University – where it is available for research.

The challenge of the canal is that there is a 7.87 inch difference in sea level between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The tide level on the Pacific side is 19 feet higher than the Atlantic side. If allowed the water would just race across the isthmus – therefore the need for the locks. The most important part of the American’s construction process was taking on the job of reducing the incidence of malaria and yellow fever. Much as health officials do today in fighting West Nile Fever they told people to get rid of standing water in spare tires and pools of water where the mosquitoes breed. They also suggested sleeping under nets at night – which is being implemented in Africa today to cut down on the scourge of malaria.

There are three locks across the isthmus, Gatun Lock; Pedro Miguel Lock and Miraflores Lock. It takes 12 hours to go the about 50 miles. Fifty-two million gallons of water flow through the canal each day. Eighty-five percent of the traffic is cargo ships but there are cruise ships and small boats that also make the trip.

Today, with container ships getting bigger and bigger there is a need for a bigger canal and that is their newest challenge.

Mr. McMillan also talked about the background to the U.S. giving up their treaty. He said in the 1950s and 60s there were riots against the U.S. being there. It was the height of the cold war and, he said, “We were caught in the middle… There was no other choice at that time.”

On Dec. 20, 1989 the U.S. troops landed in Panama and ousted Manuel Noriega who was disrupting the transfer of the canal to Panama.

He said the U.S. is the largest user of the Panama Canal followed by China, Japan and Canada.

Mr. McMillan said as early as 1939 there was interest in widening the canal but WWII stopped that plan because of finances. After that the threat of communism and the Cold War withdrew the plan. Currently he said the whole world is interested in financing the widening of the canal that will double its capacity. It is a totally new canal alongside the original one.

Those large container ships that need the wider canal are also having a reverberation locally. He said, “Our ports are not deep enough for the big container ships. The Bayonne Bridge is coming down, if not the container ships can’t come here.” It may be changed to a bridge that lifts in the center, or a bigger bridge will be built, he added.

One in four ships in NY Harbor goes through the Panama Canal. He said, “We and China own ports on the side of the canal.”

Mr. McMillan said that in 1907 the U.S. had a free trade agreement with Panama which the congress hasn’t taken action on in the last three years. He said, “Congress better get off its butt and sign it.” He said 60 percent of their shipping comes to us.

If you want more information on the Panama Canal go to or go to; or

Mr. McMillan has written a book, Global Passage on the canal that includes up-to-date information about the plans to enlarge it. During the Q & A someone asked about the David McCullough’s book Passage Between the Seas on the canal. Mr. McMillan said he had new directors on the Panama Canal Commission read the book but added his was more up to date. Mr. McMillan said he met Mr. McCullough and gave him a watch with the seal of Panama on it. “He said, ‘I’m going to wear it. I never wear a watch. I just want to do what I want to do,’” Mr. McMillan told the group.

Someone asked the cost to use the canal. He said a cruise ship with 2,000 people pays $300,000 or about $150 per passenger. A big container ship can pay $250,000 to $275,000, but it is worth it economically. “Add the salaries of the crew to go around the cape and you will see the difference. Add the cost of fuel. There are significant savings using the canal,” Mr. McMillan said. Costs include a tug boat fee, and train equipment for pulling the boats; and during the 12 hours they are going through the canal repairs can be done to the ships.

He said 40 boats go through the canal every day and bring in a revenue of about $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion a year.

“The U.S. is still in charge of security at the Panama Canal. If we need to use it for military purposes we have first rights to do so. Every year there is a military panel to oversee the security measures. If a propane tanker blew up it could shut down the locks. We are the number one user of the Panama Canal and we hold regular drills to see that it is safely maintained,” he said.

Mr. McMillan knows Panama well. He said, Panama has more Texas Aggies alumna than any other place. They celebrate by lighting candles at their memorial. Most people speak English and the currency is the US dollar. He told a Panamanian joke. “What is the difference between Panama City and Miami?” The answer is, “More people speak English in Panama City.”

There are more species of birds in Panama than any other country. He said more U.S. citizens have a second home in Panama than in Florida.

Mr. McMillan said 80 percent of the Panamanians like the U.S.

Someone asked what the Panamanian view of TR was.

To explain, Mr. McMillan said, “When I had Jim Foote come to the World Trade Center to talk to the board, they didn’t want TR to brag about taking over the Panama Canal. There is still nationalist sentiment and the feeling that the treaty in perpetuity was wrong. There is still bitterness toward TR and the treaty.”

Mr. Foote said they vetted his speech to be sure it was politically correct, and that where where he added that during a riot in Panama they tore down a statue of TR.

Nick LaBella said it was Henry Clay Weeks of Oyster Bay who worked to get rid of the mosquitoes in Panama. He brought up the movie Arsenic and Old Lace in which TR is a loveable character – a batty brother whose sisters poison indigent men and call to Teddy saying, “We have another yellow fever victim. You need to dig another canal in the basement.”

Someone asked about the possibility of a “dry canal.” Mr. McMillan said unloading and re-loading the containers ships would make it cost-prohibitive.

The evening ended with words from TR, “I took the isthmus once and once is enough.”

Everyone appreciated ending on the words quoted by James Foote.