In the 1880s, the French began to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land separating the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic. The director was Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez canal and become a national hero. The attempt came to a spectacular end after eight years of effort, hundreds of millions of dollars, and 20,000 deaths from accident and disease. It left de Lesseps ruined and half mad.
Teddy Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1901 and decided to build the canal. After all, it would save shipping a trip "around the Horn," meaning Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, where the rough weather was legendary. Whoever controlled a canal across Panama was in a position of great power.
There were immediate problems. Panama at the time was a spur of Colombia and not made available to Roosevelt. It took Teddy Roosevelt -- chopper of trees, killer of moose -- one day to establish Panamanian independence from Colombia by fomenting a bloodless revolution, aided by the presence of an American gun ship. The isthmus was his.
But Roosevelt -- hard charging man of action -- ordered the director of the project to start digging at once. The order from Washington was "Make the dirt fly." Unfortunately, action that isn't preceded by thought, fails. The project went nowhere, men contracted malaria and yellow fever, and a new director brought in, John Frank Stevens.
Stevens, a seasoned engineer who hated politicians, told Roosevelt that the dirt had to stop flying until new equipment was brought in and the infrastructure modernized. Facilities like dormitories, schools, hospitals and commissaries needed to be built. A supply of electricity was needed. Furthermore, a sea-level canal was impossible in that terrain, so a series of locks need to be built to raise and lower ships over the mountains. It was a brilliant plan and it worked. And later, when Stevens was worn out, Roosevelt assigned General Goethels of the Army Corps of Engineers, who carried on with professional competence.
Deaths from disease and accident continued, so a special rail spur was built from the excavation sites to the graveyard. The film lays out the story of Dr. Gorgas' victory over yellow fever and describes in some detail the engineering aspect of the work.
It was a massive undertaking and the cost in lives and money was high. It was made possible by inspiration and underhanded geopolitical shenanigans, then completed by genius and resolve.
With informative and entertaining series like this available, it's hard to understand how American adults could know so little about their own history. A survey in 2011 showed that -- among college graduates -- 96% could identify Lady Gaga as a musical performer while one in three could not identify Abraham Lincoln as the leader of the Union Army. Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
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