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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Foreign Affairs

The Panama Canal.—The most important foreign question confronting President Roosevelt on the day of his inauguration, that of the Panama Canal, was a heritage from his predecessor. The idea of a water route across the isthmus, long a dream of navigators, had become a living issue after the historic voyage of the battleship Oregon around South America during the Spanish War. But before the United States could act it had to undo the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, made with Great Britain in 1850, providing for the construction of the canal under joint supervision. This was finally effected by the Hay-Pauncefote treaty of 1901 authorizing the United States to proceed alone, on condition that there should be no discriminations against other nations in the matter of rates and charges.

This accomplished, it was necessary to decide just where the canal should be built. One group in Congress favored the route through Nicaragua; in fact, two official commissions had already approved that location. Another group favored cutting the way through Panama after purchasing the rights of the old French company which, under the direction of De Lesseps, the hero of the Suez Canal, had made a costly failure some twenty years before. After a heated argument over the merits of the two plans, preference was given to the Panama route. As the isthmus was then a part of Colombia, President Roosevelt proceeded to negotiate with the government at Bogota a treaty authorizing the United States to cut a canal through its territory. The treaty was easily framed, but it was rejected by the Colombian senate, much to the President’s exasperation. “You could no more make an agreement with the Colombian rulers,” he exclaimed, “than you could nail jelly to a wall.” He was spared the necessity by a timely revolution. On November 3, 1903, Panama renounced its allegiance to Colombia and three days later the United States recognized its independence.

Courtesy of Panama Canal, Washington, D.C.
Deepest Excavated Portion of Panama Canal, Showing Gold Hill on Right and Contractor’s Hill on Left. June, 1913

This amazing incident was followed shortly by the signature of a treaty between Panama and the United States in which the latter secured the right to construct the long-discussed canal, in return for a guarantee of independence and certain cash payments. The rights and property of the French concern were then bought, and the final details settled. A lock rather than a sea-level canal was agreed upon. Construction by the government directly instead of by private contractors was adopted. Scientific medicine was summoned to stamp out the tropical diseases that had made Panama a plague spot. Finally, in 1904, as the President said, “the dirt began to fly.” After surmounting formidable difficulties—engineering, labor, and sanitary—the American forces in 1913 joined the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Nearly eight thousand miles were cut off the sea voyage from New York to San Francisco. If any were inclined to criticize President Roosevelt for the way in which he snapped off negotiations with Colombia and recognized the Panama revolutionists, their attention was drawn to the magnificent outcome of the affair. Notwithstanding the treaty with Great Britain, Congress passed a tolls bill discriminating in rates in favor of American ships. It was only on the urgent insistence of President Wilson that the measure was later repealed.

The Conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War.—The applause which greeted the President’s next diplomatic stroke was unmarred by censure of any kind. In the winter of 1904 there broke out between Japan and Russia a terrible conflict over the division of spoils in Manchuria. The fortunes of war were with the agile forces of Nippon. In this struggle, it seems, President Roosevelt’s sympathies were mainly with the Japanese, although he observed the proprieties of neutrality. At all events, Secretary Hay wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1905, that the President was “quite firm in his view that we cannot permit Japan to be robbed a second time of her victory,” referring to the fact that Japan, ten years before, after defeating China on the field of battle, had been forced by Russia, Germany, and France to forego the fruits of conquest.

Whatever the President’s personal feelings may have been, he was aware that Japan, despite her triumphs over Russia, was staggering under a heavy burden of debt. At a suggestion from Tokyo, he invited both belligerents in the summer of 1905 to join in a peace conference. The celerity of their reply was aided by the pressure of European bankers, who had already come to a substantial agreement that the war must stop. After some delay, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was chosen as the meeting place for the spokesmen of the two warring powers. Roosevelt presided over the opening ceremonies with fine urbanity, thoroughly enjoying the justly earned honor of being for the moment at the center of the world’s interest. He had the satisfaction of seeing the conference end in a treaty of peace and amity.

The Monroe Doctrine Applied to Germany.—Less spectacular than the Russo-Japanese settlement but not less important was a diplomatic passage-at-arms with Germany over the Monroe Doctrine. This clash grew out of the inability or unwillingness of the Venezuelan government to pay debts due foreign creditors. Having exhausted their patience in negotiations, England and Germany, in December 1901, sent battleships to establish what they characterized as “a peaceful blockade” of Venezuelan ports. Their action was followed by the rupture of diplomatic relations; there was a possibility that war and the occupation of Venezuelan territory might result.

While unwilling to stand between a Latin-American country and its creditors, President Roosevelt was determined that debt collecting should not be made an excuse for European countries to seize territory. He therefore urged arbitration of the dispute, winning the assent of England and Italy. Germany, with a somewhat haughty air, refused to take the milder course. The President, learning of this refusal, called the German ambassador to the White House and informed him in very precise terms that, unless the Imperial German Government consented to arbitrate, Admiral Dewey would be ordered to the scene with instructions to prevent Germany from seizing any Venezuelan territory. A week passed and no answer came from Berlin. Not baffled, the President again took the matter up with the ambassador, this time with even more firmness; he stated in language admitting of but one meaning that, unless within forty-eight hours the Emperor consented to arbitration, American battleships, already coaled and cleared, would sail for Venezuelan waters. The hint was sufficient. The Kaiser accepted the proposal and the President, with the fine irony of diplomacy, complimented him publicly on “being so stanch an advocate of arbitration.” In terms of the Monroe Doctrine this action meant that the United States, while not denying the obligations of debtors, would not permit any move on the part of European powers that might easily lead to the temporary or permanent occupation of Latin-American territory.

The Santo Domingo Affair.—The same issue was involved in a controversy over Santo Domingo which arose in 1904. The Dominican republic, like Venezuela, was heavily in debt, and certain European countries declared that, unless the United States undertook to look after the finances of the embarrassed debtor, they would resort to armed coercion. What was the United States to do? The danger of having some European power strongly intrenched in Santo Domingo was too imminent to be denied. President Roosevelt acted with characteristic speed, and notwithstanding strong opposition in the Senate was able, in 1907, to effect a treaty arrangement which placed Dominican finances under American supervision.

In the course of the debate over this settlement, a number of interesting questions arose. It was pertinently asked whether the American navy should be used to help creditors collect their debts anywhere in Latin-America. It was suggested also that no sanction should be given to the practice among European governments of using armed force to collect private claims. Opponents of President Roosevelt’s policy, and they were neither few nor insignificant, urged that such matters should be referred to the Hague Court or to special international commissions for arbitration. To this the answer was made that the United States could not surrender any question coming under the terms of the Monroe Doctrine to the decision of an international tribunal. The position of the administration was very clearly stated by President Roosevelt himself. “The country,” he said, “would certainly decline to go to war to prevent a foreign government from collecting a just debt; on the other hand, it is very inadvisable to permit any foreign power to take possession, even temporarily, of the customs houses of an American republic in order to enforce the payment of its obligations; for such a temporary occupation might turn into a permanent occupation. The only escape from these alternatives may at any time be that we must ourselves undertake to bring about some arrangement by which so much as possible of a just obligation shall be paid.” The Monroe Doctrine was negative. It denied to European powers a certain liberty of operation in this hemisphere. The positive obligations resulting from its application by the United States were points now emphasized and developed.

The Hague Conference.—The controversies over Latin-American relations and his part in bringing the Russo-Japanese War to a close naturally made a deep impression upon Roosevelt, turning his mind in the direction of the peaceful settlement of international disputes. The subject was moreover in the air. As if conscious of impending calamity, the statesmen of the Old World, to all outward signs at least, seemed searching for a way to reduce armaments and avoid the bloody and costly trial of international causes by the ancient process of battle. It was the Czar, Nicholas II, fated to die in one of the terrible holocausts which he helped to bring upon mankind, who summoned the delegates of the nations in the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899. The conference did nothing to reduce military burdens or avoid wars but it did recognize the right of friendly nations to offer the services of mediation to countries at war and did establish a Court at the Hague for the arbitration of international disputes.

Encouraged by this experiment, feeble as it was, President Roosevelt in 1904 proposed a second conference, yielding to the Czar the honor of issuing the call. At this great international assembly, held at the Hague in 1907, the representatives of the United States proposed a plan for the compulsory arbitration of certain matters of international dispute. This was rejected with contempt by Germany. Reduction of armaments, likewise proposed in the conference, was again deferred. In fact, nothing was accomplished beyond agreement upon certain rules for the conduct of “civilized warfare,” casting a somewhat lurid light upon the “pacific” intentions of most of the powers assembled.

The World Tour of the Fleet.—As if to assure the world then that the United States placed little reliance upon the frail reed of peace conferences, Roosevelt the following year (1908) made an imposing display of American naval power by sending a fleet of sixteen battleships on a tour around the globe. On his own authority, he ordered the ships to sail out of Hampton Roads and circle the earth by way of the Straits of Magellan, San Francisco, Australia, the Philippines, China, Japan, and the Suez Canal. This enterprise was not, as some critics claimed, a “mere boyish flourish.” President Roosevelt knew how deep was the influence of sea power on the fate of nations. He was aware that no country could have a wide empire of trade and dominion without force adequate to sustain it. The voyage around the world therefore served a double purpose. It interested his own country in the naval program of the government, and it reminded other powers that the American giant, though quiet, was not sleeping in the midst of international rivalries.

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