Modern history


Adventure by Trigonometry

The plan seems to me good.



Although negotiations for the canal treaty with the Republic of Colombia had begun well before passage of the Spooner Act, it was not until January of the following year that the agreement was at last signed, and for those most directly involved, the negotiations had been the most difficult, tortuous experience of their professional lives. Dr. Carlos Martínez Silva, the first of three successive Colombian diplomats, had been retired in a state of complete exhaustion and would die a year or so after returning home, a victim apparently of the strain in Washington. His replacement, Dr. José Vicente Concha, suffered a physical and emotional collapse upon resigning his post and reportedly was put on a ship in New York in a straitjacket. Even the indomitable William Nelson Cromwell succumbed to a siege of “nervous exhaustion” at one point in October. For John Hay it was the most thankless and exasperating episode in a long career.

To begin with, the routine at the State Department had been greatly altered by what Hay’s biographer would describe as “a new impelling force”—the man next door in the White House. The overriding aggravation, however, had been the Colombians, about whom, by 1903, even the temperate and very proper Hay could speak of as disparagingly nearly as did Roosevelt. Accustomed to treating with such adroit, worldly professionals as Julian Pauncefote—men much like himself—Hay had been forced to deal with a succession of edgy, inexperienced Latin Americans who were obliged to consult with Bogotá at every move. Communications with the Colombian capital were dreadful. An official exchange of letters between the minister in Washington and his government could consume three to four months, and Bogotá’s shifting, frequently cryptic positions were an endless source of frustration for the Colombian ministers no less than for anyone else.

Martínez Silva had made his first call on Hay in March of 1901. His instructions from Bogotá were to do all in his power to make possible the adoption of the Panama route by the United States, and with coaching from Cromwell he had been extremely conscientious, working with Hay, checking regularly with Admiral Walker, releasing statements to the American press that his government was ready at any time to deal liberally with the State Department. But then his superiors in Bogotá decided that he had allowed himself to become too closely associated with the French canal company—that is, attorney Cromwell—and so he had been replaced by the nervous, painfully proud José Vicente Concha, a former Colombian Minister of War, no diplomat either by training or temperament, who had never been outside his own country before, and who spoke no English.

The primary issue, as stated both by Martínez Silva and Concha, was Colombian sovereignty over the proposed canal zone, and in the fall of 1902, just at the critical point in Hay’s conversations with Concha, Colombia’s seemingly interminable civil war had flared up anew on the Isthmus. To secure the Panama Railroad, Roosevelt sent American Marines ashore without first receiving the expressed consent of Colombian authorities—neither those on the Isthmus nor those in Washington—as had always been done before whenever American forces had been landed. The Marines were withdrawn eventually but the damage done to progress on the treaty seemed irreparable. Of particular aggravation to the Colombians was the decision of an American admiral to prevent any movement of Colombian troops on the Panama Railroad at one crucial stage. To Dr. Concha such use of American force had been not merely a violation of the 1846 treaty, but an inexcusable humiliation and the perfect expression of the underlying imperialistic ambitions of the United States. His hostility to Hay personally became such that he refused to see him for weeks. The fact that Hay cabled Bogotá his regret at the misunderstanding that had arisen, declaring there had been “no intention to infringe sovereignty or wound the dignity of Colombia,” did not improve matters.

Meantime, Senator Morgan and other pro-Nicaragua figures on Capitol Hill, along with several influential newspapers, were saying that the “reasonable time” allowed by the Spooner Act for treaty negotiations was fast expiring.

The strain on Concha was severe. He grew ever more suspicious, ever more obstinate about the sovereignty issue. He also stood fast on Colombia’s right to make its own bargain with the Compagnie Nouvelle before releasing the company from the provision in the Wyse Concession that explicitly prohibited the sale of the franchise to any foreign power. It was Concha’s position, as it had been Martínez Silva’s before him, that if the French company was to receive $40,000,000 for its Panama properties and the rights granted by the Colombian government, then in all justice Colombia ought to receive an appreciable part of that sum in return for its willingness to permit the sale. It was a question of tremendous financial importance to Colombia.

Describing the Americans he dealt with for his home office, Concha wrote, “The desire to make themselves appear, as a Nation, most respectful of the rights of others forces these gentlemen to toy a little with their prey before devouring it, although when all is said and done, they will do so in one way or other.” For their part, Hay and Cromwell were undecided as to whether Concha was wholly sane, and from the American minister in Bogotá came a report that Concha was known there to be “subject to great nervous excitement.”

Infuriated by what he took to be insults to the honor of his homeland, Concha resigned several times in succession, only to be instructed to stay with his responsibilities. He was certain that his messages to Bogotá were being intercepted and requested his home office to change codes. In November he was at last ordered by Bogotá to sign the treaty, whatever his feelings about it (the final decision would rest with the Colombian Congress, he was reminded), but this his “conscience” would not permit him to do and so he quit. His distaste for dealing with Hay, he wrote, amounted to a “neurosis.”

His replacement was a sixty-year-old career diplomat, the Colombian chargé d’affaires, Dr. Tomás Herrán, a naturally tactful, intelligent, and rather sad-looking man, who was the son of General Pedro Alcántara Herrán, who in 1848 had campaigned so effectively in Washington for ratification of the Bidlack Treaty. It had been then, traveling with his father as a small boy, that Herrán had first come to the United States. He was a graduate of Georgetown University, the master of four languages; his English was perfect; he had innumerable friends in Washington. By Hay’s standards he was a vast improvement and so it had been presumed at the State Department that the final details of the treaty would now be dispensed with smoothly and swiftly. But Herrán proved extremely cautious and burdened with apprehension. In private, in his correspondence with Bogotá, he expressed his fear that Roosevelt’s “impetuous and violent disposition” might lead him to seize Panama by eminent domain, on the ground of universal public utility. It was only when Hay issued a sharp ultimatum—by command of the President, as Hay stated—that the impasse was broken. If Colombia refused any longer to agree to the treaty as it stood, then Hay would commence negotiations for a Nicaragua canal.

The ultimatum was issued on January 21. The Hay-Herrán Treaty was signed at Hay’s home the afternoon of the following day. “I feel,” Herrán wrote to a friend, “as if I am waking from a horrible nightmare. Gladly shall I gather up all the documents relating to that dreadful canal and put them out of sight.” Among those documents, one he quietly buried in the legation archives, was a cable from Bogotá, received three days after he had signed the treaty, directing him not to sign but to await further instructions.

The reaction in Washington was immensely favorable. To nearly everyone it seemed a solid, straightforward treaty, and in spite of the fiery, often brilliant, unyielding opposition of John Tyler Morgan, who proposed no less than sixty amendments, it was ratified by the Senate on March 17, without amendment and by an overwhelming margin (73 to 5).

By the treaty the Compagnie Nouvelle was authorized to sell its “rights, privileges, properties, and concessions” to the United States, and Colombia granted the United States control of a canal zone six miles wide from Colón to Panama City, but not including either of those cities. The franchise was for a hundred years and was renewable at the option of the United States. In return the United States was to pay the Republic of Colombia the lump sum of $10,000,000 cash (gold) plus an annual rent of $250,000. Though Colombian sovereignty over the canal zone was specifically recognized in Article IV, the United States was permitted to establish its own courts of law within the zone and to enforce its own regulations concerning the canal, ports, and the railroad. Police protection for the canal and the railroad was to be provided by Colombia, but if Colombia was unable at any time to meet this obligation, the United States could act with Colombia’s consent, or in an emergency, without that consent.

The response to the agreement in Bogotá was another matter, however, and the Colombian Congress had yet to grant its sanction. The Colombian government insisted still that it had the right to negotiate its own settlement with the Compagnie Nouvelle. The annual payment of $250,000 was regarded as too little, since it was no more than what was being received yearly from the Panama Railroad as things already stood. Being vastly larger, more important, more valuable, the canal ought to pay more than the little railroad, it was felt, and the payments for the canal, as the treaty presently read, were not to start until nine years after ratification. Ten million dollars was not enough for the cession of any territory in Panama, wrote a noted Colombian intellectual and political activist, Raúl Perez, in the pages of the North American Review. “Panama is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of Colombia, and has always been her cherished hope.”

Nor did the expressed guarantee of Colombian sovereignty within the canal zone appear quite so conclusive in Bogotá as it did in Washington.

Repeated warnings of Colombian anger over the treaty were cabled to the State Department by the American minister at Bogotá, Arthur Beaupré. “Without question public opinion is strongly against its ratification,” Beaupré wrote as early as March 30. What began as suspicion had quickly become outspoken hostility, he reported two weeks later. The Colombians, he reported next on May 4, believed the guarantee of sovereignty meant nothing, that “the lease is perpetual . . . the whole document is favorable to the United States and detrimental to Colombia.”

Beaupré was to be the target of much criticism later. He would be blamed for his roughshod, amateurish handling of the situation, his disregard of Latin sensitivities. But the charges are at odds with the facts of his career (he had had six years’ experience in Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia), his reputed “urbane, dignified manners and courtly demeanor,” and the perception apparent in his striking dispatches. That he was frequently blunt, even dictatorial, in his pronouncements to Colombian officials is also a matter of record, but in view of his orders from Washington he was left with little choice.

As of April 28, for example, Beaupré was instructed to inform the Colombian government that the United States would consider any modification whatever of the terms of the treaty as practically a “breach of faith” on the part of the Colombian government. By June, as the Colombian Congress was about to convene in special session, John Hay had abandoned any pretense of regard for the wishes or feelings of the Colombian people. The message of June 9 to Beaupré was strikingly ominous. “If Colombia should now reject the treaty or unduly delay its ratification, the friendly understanding between the two countries would be so seriously compromised that action might be taken by the Congress next winter which every friend of Colombia would regret.” Beaupré was ordered to communicate the substance of this verbally to the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was, as one noted diplomatic historian would observe, “an aggressiveness rarely found in friendly diplomatic intercourse.” The contrast in tone to that of the correspondence relating to the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, for example, could not have been much more pointed.

The nature of the threatened “action” was never specified officially, but just four days later, William Nelson Cromwell emerged from the White House after a “long conference” with the President and immediately dispatched his press agent, Roger Farnham, to the Washington bureau of the New York World. The following morning, June 14, the World carried this remarkable item:

Washington, June 13, 1903

President Roosevelt is determined to have the Panama canal route. He has no intention of beginning negotiations for the Nicaragua route.

The view of the President is known to be that as the United States has spent millions of dollars in ascertaining which route is most feasible, as three different Ministers from Colombia have declared their Government willing to grant every concession for the construction of a canal, and as two treaties have been signed granting rights of way across the Isthmus of Panama, it would be unfair to the United States if the best route be not obtained.

Advices received here daily indicate great opposition to the canal treaty at Bogotá. Its defeat seems probable for two reasons:

1. The greed of the Colombian Government, which insists on a largely increased payment for the property and concession.

2. The fact that certain factions have worked themselves into a frenzy over the alleged relinquishment of sovereignty to lands necessary for building the canal.

Information also has reached this city that the State of Panama, which embraces all the proposed Canal Zone, stands ready to secede from Colombia and enter into a canal treaty with the United States.

The State of Panama will secede if the Colombian Congress fails to ratify the canal treaty. A republican form of government will be organized. This plan is said to be easy of execution, as not more than 100 Colombian soldiers are stationed in the State of Panama.

The citizens of Panama propose, after seceding, to make a treaty with the United States, giving this Government the equivalent of absolute sovereignty over the Canal Zone. The city of Panama alone will be excepted from this zone, and the United States will be given police and sanitary control there. The jurisdiction of this Government over the zone will be regarded as supreme. There will be no increase in price or yearly rental.

In return the President of the United States would promptly recognize the new Government, when established, and would at once appoint a minister to negotiate and sign a canal treaty. This can be done expeditiously, as all the data is already supplied.

President Roosevelt is said to strongly favor this plan, if the treaty is rejected. . . .

It is known that the Cabinet favors the President’s idea of recognizing the Republic of Panama, if necessary to secure the canal territory. The President has been in consultation both personally and by wire with leading Senators, and has received unanimous encouragement. . . .

It is intended to wait a reasonable time for action by the Colombian Congress, which convenes 20 June, and then, if nothing else is done, to make the above plan operative.

The article was unsigned. The White House issued no denials.

A large part of the problem in Washington was a pervading ignorance of, indeed a chronic disinterest in, Colombia in general, Colombian politics, or the individuals with whom Beaupré was dealing. Bogotá itself was still as removed from the rest of the world as it had been when Lieutenant Wyse made his trek over the mountains in 1878. It was one of the most isolated, inaccessible cities in the world. In all Colombia in 1903, in a country as large as the combined areas of California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, there were less than four hundred miles of railroad. To reach Bogotá from either Buenaventura or Barranquilla still required anywhere from two weeks to a month of arduous travel. By North American standards Colombia was pathetically poor and backward and its government was both unstable and financially destitute as a result of a disastrous three-year civil war that had only ended in November 1902.

The present head of state was a Conservative, a direct descendant, politically speaking, of Rafael Núñez, whose triumphs following the uprisings of 1885 had centralized political power in Bogotá under a new constitution. He was José Manuel Marroquín, an elderly, bearded scholar and man of letters whose shyness had kept him in the background most of his career. In 1897 he had been elected first designado, or vice-president, on a ticket with an eighty-five-year-old presidential candidate named Manuel Sanclemente, also a scholar, who was in extremely feeble health. In 1900 Marroquín had taken power by coup d’etat.

At the State Department and at the White House, Marroquín was understood to be an iron-handed despot. His power was thought to be absolute and thus the whole process of treaty ratification by a specially convened Colombian Congress was regarded in Washington as a charade. Marroquín supposedly had only to say the word and the treaty would be accepted. At both the State Department and the White House the consensus was that Marroquín and a few cohorts would one day retire to some private place and divide up the $10,000,000 payment from the United States.

But in fact Marroquín’s power was limited, his personal prestige was in the decline, and in his every move concerning the canal issue he was subject to savage attacks from his political opponents, the Liberals, who accused him of selling out to the North Americans. Personally he was a rather abstract and inefficient idealist and, generally speaking, those about him were politically high-minded men of character, whatever their limitations, and exceedingly sensitive about their national honor—none of which, again, was ever quite understood in Washington.

Colombian regard for the political ideals of the United States was enormous. The country’s federal and state system had been modeled after that of the United States. Bolívar, the Liberator, was known as the “George Washington of South America.” Wealthy and educated Colombians sent their sons to be educated in the United States. By no means did the leading political figures fit the portrayal Theodore Roosevelt was to provide. An American minister to Colombia, James T. Du Bois, was to write some years later in this connection, “An impartial investigation at Bogotá . . . convinced me that, instead of ‘blackmailers’ and ‘bandits,’ the public men of Colombia compare well with the public men of other countries in intelligence and respectability. . . .” Until 1903, Du Bois said, Colombia was the best friend the United States had south of the Rio Grande.

Another large and important part of the problem in Washington was William Nelson Cromwell, since Roosevelt’s and Hay’s appraisal of the situation in Bogotá, the picture they had of Marroquín and his regime, the tactics devised, even the wording of instructions to Beaupré, were strongly influenced by Cromwell.1 Especially was his influence felt at the State Department. He was consulted just about daily; he was relied upon for information (Cromwell had his own paid operative in Bogotá to keep him posted); his say, his expertise, were major factors at virtually every important juncture, as is plain in the record and as Cromwell himself would later boast.

It was a highly unorthodox arrangement, to say the least, to have the attorney for the corporation most directly in line to benefit from the treaty, a man with no official title, no rightful business to be involved in any official capacity, operating at will at the highest diplomatic level, instrumental to a degree exceeded only by the Secretary and the President, and with full impunity. But such was this exceptional man’s influence over Hay and such it had been since the negotiations began. When Hay had at last put his large, legible signature to the treaty in January, it was to Cromwell that he turned and presented the pen.

Most important, Cromwell had succeeded in persuading Hay—and thus Roosevelt—that the United States must not sanction or be party to any move by Colombia to deal independently with his client, the Compagnie Nouvelle. Roosevelt had earlier sent Attorney General Philander C. Knox to Paris to make a thorough examination of the French firm, which Knox reported to be “vested with good and sufficient title to the property it intended to convey.” On February 17, Knox had formally notified the company that its offer of sale was hereby accepted by the United States; that is, that the United States would pay the full asking price of $40,000,000 for the Panama holdings. So as the company’s attorney, Cromwell was determined that nothing should jeopardize this unprecedented transaction, this largest real-estate sale on record.

Specifically, he was determined that Colombia would be given no chance at any part of the $40,000,000.

Hay not only agreed to this in principle, but instructed Beaupré to make it known in Bogotá in the plainest terms. Thus the State Department was being used to secure the interests of the French company, its stockholders, and its American attorney, who, if the sale went through, stood to profit more personally than any other individual involved. And it was when Beaupré reported back that ratification could probably be secured if the French company were to agree to pay Colombia $10,000,000 that Hay responded with his ominous telegram of June 9, a telegram drafted by Cromwell.

That the United States government had no rightful authority in a dispute between a foreign power and a private corporation was lost sight of. A settlement by Colombia and the Compagnie Nouvelle would have cost the United States nothing, and in retrospect it would appear that even a comparatively modest settlement—plus a little tact—could have resolved the whole issue quite swiftly. But to Hay, to Roosevelt, talk of a Colombian lien on the French company was patent extortion, a “holdup.” As men of honor they could never be “party to the gouge,” as Roosevelt expressed it.

Their personal regard for Latin-American politicians of any nationality had never been particularly high, it must be emphasized, but Cromwell had succeeded in convincing them that here they were dealing with the slipperiest, most corrupt variety of Latin American and that the sovereignty issue was the purest political hypocrisy. So the report from Beaupré that $10,000,000 from the French company would settle everything served only to substantiate all their worst suspicions of “those bandits in Bogotá,” as Roosevelt was to call them.

When in early August the State Department released the information that the Colombians were holding out on the treaty in the hope of getting more money, the press mistakenly reported that the increased payment was to come from the United States—a misstatement the State Department did not bother to contradict. The widespread impression, therefore, was that Colombia was trying to “hold up” the United States, which was not at all the case.

The generally arbitrary tone assumed by the State Department, the threatening cable of April 28, were all designed to call Colombia’s bluff, Cromwell would later explain. The story he planted in the World had also been contrived, he said, purely to frighten the Colombian Congress into ratifying the treaty.

Quite possibly that is so. But it is also possible that his underlying intention right along, perhaps even the underlying hope at the White House, was for the treaty to fail at Bogotá. In other words, if the language used by Beaupré or a story leaked by Cromwell following an ostentatious exit from the White House infuriated the Colombians, it was because they were meant to, because a crisis situation was wanted.

A great deal would be written and said to refute accusations that the White House or the State Department was ever in any way party to the kind of scheme Cromwell had prophesied for the World in such amazing detail. And in fact the full story of what was transpiring behind the scenes will probably never be known. Cromwell, for example, for all that he would have to say for public consumption, appears to have purposefully created one of the larger gaps in the historical record. For in the otherwise complete file of his business dealings, still in the possession of the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, there is not a paper relating to his Panama operations; all correspondence, cables, documents, expense vouchers, and the like are mysteriously missing.

• •

On August 14, having finished a lunch with the President at Sagamore Hill, the President’s home at Oyster Bay, Long Island, Senator Shelby Cullom, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, held a press conference with reporters from the New York papers. The President, he said, was fully prepared for bad news from Bogotá and the President still wanted a Panama canal. “What will be done is a matter of discussion and consideration after the Colombian Congress has finally acted.” When a reporter asked how the canal could be built without the treaty, Cullom replied in a matter-of-fact way that “we might make another treaty, not with Colombia, but with Panama.”

Was the United States prepared to foster a Panama revolution? he was asked.

“No, I suppose not. But this country wants to build that canal and build it now.”

The interview appeared the morning of August 15, the same day the long-awaited cable from Beaupré reached the State Department. Three days before, on August 12, the Colombian Senate had rejected the Hay-Herrán Treaty by a unanimous vote.

The President was notified immediately, as was the Secretary of State, who was also away from Washington at his summer place on Lake Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire. All matters of consequence at the State Department were being attended to by Acting Secretary Francis B. Loomis and Second Assistant Secretary Alvey A. Adee, both conversant with the Colombian situation. Adee, a man of vast experience with the department, a friend and colleague of John Hay’s for thirty years, had installed a cot in his office and was on duty virtually around the clock.

Roosevelt’s mounting frustration with the entire situation had become a source of some concern to Hay. “Those contemptible little creatures in Bogotá ought to understand how much they are jeopardizing things and imperiling their own future,” Roosevelt had written earlier in the summer. Hay’s instinctive response, then as now, was to urge restraint, patience. “I would come at once to Oyster Bay to get your orders,” he now wrote, “but I am sure there is nothing to be done, for the moment.” He advised consultation with Hanna and Spooner. Then, pointedly, he referred to Nicaragua as the “simple and easy” course, adding, “If you finally conclude to close with Nicaragua, it will be quick work to get a treaty ready. But I presume you may think best to do nothing definite until our Congress meets . . .”

It was Hay at his best and a very different letter than he would have written had Cromwell been with him in New Hampshire. It crossed in the mail with another angry missive from Roosevelt saying, “We may have to give a lesson to those jack rabbits.”

These must have been exciting days for anyone sorting the mail in the little New Hampshire community. On August 18, Alvey Adee cautioned the Secretary by letter against any thought of American involvement in a Panama revolution. “Such a scheme could, of course, have no countenance from us—our policy before the world should stand, like Mrs. Caesar, without suspicion.” A day later Adee wrote again to suggest to Hay that maybe, after all, Nicaragua was the best way out. “. . . We are very sorry, but really we can’t help it if Colombia doesn’t want the Canal on our terms.”

But writing to Hay that same day, Roosevelt left no doubt as to his position concerning Panama. “. . . It seems that the great bulk of the best engineers are agreed that that route is the best; and I do not think that the Bogotá lot of jack rabbits should be allowed permanently to bar one of the future highways of civilization . . . what we do now will be of consequence, not merely decades, but centuries hence, and we must be sure that we are taking the right step before we act.”

Roosevelt’s particular interest at the moment was a memorandum that had been sent on to him by Acting Secretary Loomis, a lengthy document prepared by a specialist in international law and diplomacy at Columbia University, Professor John Bassett Moore, which Roosevelt now forwarded to Hay. Professor Moore’s thesis, in essence, was that by the tenets of the old Bidlack Treaty the United States already had sufficient legal grounds to proceed with the canal. The “right of way” at Panama was already “free and open” to the United States, as stated in the treaty of 1846.

Hay went to Sagamore Hill on August 28, and there, while numerous Roosevelt children in light summer clothes scampered over a great green sweep of lawn, the two men conferred at length. Afterward, a correspondent for the Herald sent a long dispatch to his office. The President and the Secretary had settled on three possible courses of action in view of the failure of the canal treaty. The first was to proceed to construct the canal under the treaty of 1846, and “fight Colombia if she objects.” (This, it was felt, would be a short and inexpensive war.) The second was for the President to move in accordance with the Spooner Act and turn to the Nicaragua route. The third course was to delay the great work “until something transpires to make Colombia see the light,” then negotiate another treaty.

It will, doubtless, be a surprise to the public that a course which is sure to involve the country with war with a South American Republic is one of the methods of procedure being soberly contemplated by the United States. . . .

Persons interested in getting the $40,000,000 for the Panama Canal Company are of course eager that this government shall go ahead and seize the property, even though it leads to war.


When Dr. Manuel Amador first landed in New York he had still to meet William Nelson Cromwell. Dr. Amador, whose full name was Manuel Amador Guerrero, was a leading physician and a popular figure in the social life of Panama City. His wife was the brilliant María de la Ossa and he himself was known as a man of “unblemished character,” large property interests, and much political acumen. Born in Turbaco (near Cartagena), Colombia in 1833—which made him just seventy in 1903—he was a graduate of the University of Cartagena who had come to Panama at the time of the gold rush. His political career as a Conservative had flourished along with his medical practice until 1867, when he was designated president of the Department of Panama, but did not take office because of a revolution. Defeated, captured by the opposition, he was sent into exile, not to return again for a year, at which point he went back to medicine at the Santo Tomás Hospital, where he became superintendent. It was as chief physician of the Panama Railroad, however, that Dr. Amador had attained most of his influence and prestige, as well as his interest in the canal. He had been among those prominent Panamanians to appear at the various occasions arranged to honor Ferdinand de Lesseps. When Lieutenant Wyse made his second journey to Bogotá in 1890 to secure an extension of the Wyse Concession for the court-appointed liquidator, the doctor was the head of a delegation of Panamanians who joined Wyse there to lobby in his behalf.

He was a neat, frail-looking man of medium height with thin white hair, a shaggy white walrus mustache, large ears, and heavy black brows, and he wore small steel-rimmed glasses. In his photographs at least, he seems to have had a habit of looking at people with his head cocked slightly sideways. He was also a man of nerve and ambition and he had come to New York to help arrange a revolutionary takeover at Panama.

The first known organized meeting of the movement had been held at a country estate outside Panama City on a Sunday late in July, probably July 25, 1903, a meeting at which Dr. Amador had not been present. Those who were there included his old friend Senator José Agustín Arango, Carlos Constantino Arosemena, and an American named Herbert G. Prescott, all of whom, like the doctor, were employees of the Panama Railroad and had been in regular communication with William Nelson Cromwell. Arango, a senator from the Department of Panama, was the railroad’s attorney on the Isthmus, its land agent and chief lobbyist; Arosemena was a staff civil engineer; Prescott was the assistant superintendent. Also present were the United States consul general at Panama City, Hezekiah A. Gudger, and two officers from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the only American Army officers on the Isthmus, who had been sent by the Walker Commission, Major William Black and Lieutenant Mark Brooke. The complete guest list is said to have numbered twenty-five or twenty-six people and the hosts were Ramón and Pedro Arias. Hezekiah Gudger, who was the main speaker, would be unable to recall later exactly what the meeting established, other than that “plans for the revolution were freely discussed.”

All evidence is that Senator Arango (El Maestro), a most distinguished-looking gentleman with a white Vandyke beard, was the inspirational force; that in May he had begun talking revolution with his sons, sons-in-law, and the “intelligent and devoted” Arosemena, men in their late twenties or early thirties, all of whom had been educated in the United States. It was also El Maestro, whose office was side by side with Amador’s, who personally recruited Amador early in August.

At that point the group was anxiously awaiting the return from New York of another railroad employee, James Beers, freight agent and port captain, who had left on a secret mission to see Cromwell. Whether he went on Cromwell’s orders, whether he was actually summoned to New York, as later charged, cannot be proved. But at least six men were to testify that Cromwell sent for Beers, and it is unlikely that Beers or any other railroad employee would leave his job to stir up a revolution unless sent for by a superior, and as the railroad company’s New York attorney, Cromwell ran the railroad. Beers, “a shrewd and calculating” former sea captain, had Cromwell’s confidence, in any event, and he returned to Panama with the word that Cromwell was ready to “go the limit” for them. (Cromwell, in Arango’s subsequent account, Data for the History of the Independence, would be referred to never by name, only as “the responsible person.”)

Arango, Amador, and Arosemena became the nucleus of the conspiracy, to be joined shortly by Federico Boyd, son of the founding editor of the Star & Herald. Amador insisted that Arango should become the first president of the projected new republic of Panama. Arango, out of courtesy, said it should be Amador, and Amador agreed.

Amador, it was further decided, should also be the one to go to New York to see “the responsible person” in order to line up the necessary arms and money, and to secure some kind of assurance from the American Secretary of State that a revolution would be given military support by the United States. Amador, it was thought, would arouse the least suspicion since he had a son in the United States, a doctor with the United States Army, who was then stationed in Massachusetts. As instructed, the son sent a cable to his father saying, “I am sick; come.” So on August 26 Amador sailed for New York, taking with him a cable code that he and the others had devised to cover every possible contingency.

The code had thirty numbered expressions for Amador to use in cables to Panama—he need only cable the appropriate number or combination of numbers—and sixteen numbered expressions for those at home to use in reply. Amador’s list is especially interesting in that it shows how very uncertain things were at this stage. It shows, for example, that the conspirators had not excluded the possibility that Cromwell might be a liar.

Amador’s code went as follows:

1. Have not been satisfied with Hay in my first conference.

2. Have had my first conference with Hay, and I found him determined to support the movement effectively.

3. Have not been able to talk to Hay personally, only through a third person; I believe that everything will turn out in line with our desires.

4. Hay is determined to aid us in every way, and has asked me for exact details of what we need to ensure success.

5. My agent is going with me, fully authorized to settle everything there.

6. Cromwell has behaved very well, and has facilitated my interviews with important men who are disposed to cooperate.

7. You can hurry up matters, as everything here goes well.

8. I am satisfied with the result and can assure success.

9. Minister Herrán has suspected something and is watching.

10. Have not been able to obtain assurances of support in the form in which I demanded it.

11. Delay of Cromwell in introducing me to Hay makes me suspect that all he has said has been imagination and that he knows nothing.

12. It appears that Hay will not decide anything definitely until he has received advices from the commissioner who is there [in Panama].

13. I understand that Hay does not wish to pledge himself to anything until he sees the result of the operation there.

14. The people from whom I expected support have attached little importance to my mission.

15. Those who have decided can do nothing practical for lack of necessary means.

16. I have convinced myself that Hay is in favor of the rival route, and for that reason will do nothing in support of our plan.

17. News that has arrived from there on facilitating the construction of the canal has caused opinion here to shift in regard to our plan.

18. The pretensions manifested in the new draft of an agreement [treaty] render all negotiations between the two Governments impossible, and for this reason I have again resumed conferences.

19. The new commissioner is expected here to negotiate. On this depends my future movements.

20. I consider that I can do nothing practical here now, and for this reason I have decided to take passage for home.

21. Await my letter, which I write today.

22. Here it is thought best to adopt a different plan in order to obtain a favorable result for the construction of the work.

23. Cromwell is determined to go the limit, but the means at his disposal are not sufficient to ensure success.

24. Hay, Cromwell, and myself are studying a general plan of procedure.

25. The commissioner there is an agent of Cromwell’s, of which fact Hay is ignorant.

26. I wish to know if anything has been advanced there and can I fix date here to proceed.

27. Delay in getting satisfactory reply obliges me to maintain silence.

28. B. [Beaupré apparently] communicates here that the contract can be satisfactorily arranged.

29. I have considered it prudent to leave the capital [Washington] and continue negotiations from here [New York] by correspondence.

30. I await letters from there in reply to mine, in order to bring matters to a close.

Of additional interest is the fact that Amador departed from Colón with insufficient cash to meet even the most modest travel expenses. It was only as a result of several good days at the poker table during the voyage that he was able to make ends meet.

• •

There was trouble almost immediately. Among Amador’s fellow passengers—indeed, the one he had won the most from at the poker table—was a man of “large interests” in Panama, J. Gabriel Duque, a Cuban by birth and a naturalized American who owned theStar & Herald, an ice plant, a construction company, and the extremely lucrative Panama lottery. Though not part of the Arango-Amador inner circle, Duque was aware of all that was going on and appeared entirely sympathetic. On reaching New York he went directly to Wall Street to see Cromwell, while Amador trailed off uptown to find an inexpensive hotel.

It is unclear exactly what Duque was up to, but Cromwell said that if Duque provided $100,000 to finance the revolution, then he, Cromwell, would see that Duque was made the first president of the new republic. He told Duque, furthermore, that the Secretary of State was eager to see him, and with Duque sitting before him, he picked up the phone, put through a call to Hay at the State Department, and set up the appointment. It was further suggested that Duque go to Washington by overnight train to avoid registering in a Washington hotel, a suggestion that Duque followed the next evening.

He arrived in Washington at seven in the morning, September 3, and after a breakfast at Harvey’s Restaurant, he went to the State Department. At ten o’clock Hay appeared. The conference lasted for the next two and a half hours. Hay is said to have given Duque no promise of direct American assistance in the conspiracy. But in the same breath he emphasized that the United States was determined to build a Panama canal and did not propose to let Colombia stand in the way. Then, allegedly, he went still further. Should revolutionists take possession of Colón and Panama City, he said, they could depend on the United States to stop Colombia from landing troops to put down the revolution. This, Hay said, would be done to guarantee “free and uninterrupted transit” on the railroad, which the United States was treaty bound to maintain.

Duque understood perfectly. And no sooner had he descended the front steps of the State Department than he was on his way to the Colombian legation to see Tomás Herrán and tell him everything. Perhaps this had been his intention all along out of spite over some real or imagined insult on the part of the inner circle. Perhaps it was a sudden impulse resulting from something Hay had said, or the way he said it. Or possibly he thought such a warning, when relayed to Bogotá, would jolt the Colombian regime into apprising the seriousness of the situation. Whatever the explanation, Cromwell had been doublecrossed.

Herrán immediately sounded the alarm. He cabled Bogotá that revolutionary agents were in Washington seeing Hay, and that if the treaty was not ratified, Panama in all probability would secede, and with American support. He notified the Colombian consul general in New York of the Panama Railroad Company’s involvement in the plot and of Amador’s activities. The plot, he wrote, had been “well received” in Washington. He put detectives on Amador’s track, then wrote to Cromwell and to the Paris office of the Compagnie Nouvelle to warn that they would be held directly responsible for any secessionist movement on the Isthmus. Implicit in the warning was the threat of full abrogation of all rights and privileges possessed by the Compagnie Nouvelle—all that it was about to sell for $40,000,000—if the company or its agents were party to an act of sedition.

For Amador, meanwhile, the mission to New York had suddenly become a bewildering dead end.

Unaware of what Duque had done, oblivious of the fact that he was being trailed by detectives, he saw only that Cromwell, the model of hospitality and enthusiasm on first meeting, had turned unexplainably rude and unreceptive. Amador appears to have made his first call on Cromwell on September 2, or the day after Cromwell saw Duque. Cromwell made “a thousand offers in the direction of assisting the revolution,” even promised Amador that he would finance the undertaking. “I was to go to Washington to see Mr. Hay,” Amador would recall. But by the time Amador returned for a second conference with the lawyer, Duque had been to see Herrán. Herrán had fired off his warning letters to New York and Paris, and Cromwell, determined to protect himself and safeguard the interests of his client, had decided to have no further ostensible dealings with conspirators from Panama.

Amador was told that Mr. Cromwell was out. When Amador declined to leave, insisting that he be received by the attorney, Cromwell at last burst out of his office and ordered Amador to go at once and not come back. In the end the elderly physician was shoved into the hall and the door was slammed behind him.

No explanation had been given and there appeared to be nowhere else to turn. Furious, worried that his money was running out, at a loss to report what had happened by means of his code phrases, he sent off a one-word cable (in English)—“Disappointed”—to his friends in Panama and prepared to leave on the next ship.

But then through a Panamanian banker based in New York, Joshua Lindo, of Piza, Nephews & Company, at 18 Broadway, Amador received word that if he simply remained quiet in New York there would be “help from another quarter.”

• •

“We can never know too much about the personality of Theodore Roosevelt,” a learned student of the President’s career once remarked. And to the many who were trying to appraise what was happening in regard to Panama, or more important, what the next turn might be, that personality seemed the crux of the matter.

“The warning I gave [in a previous telegram] . . . is founded on threatening statements which he has uttered in private conversations, and which by indirect means have come to my knowledge,” wrote Tomás Herrán to his home office on September 11. “Your excellency knows the vehement character of the President, and you are aware of the persistence and decision with which he pursues anything to which he may be committed. These considerations have led me to give credit and importance to the threatening expressions attributed to him.”

And Roosevelt’s ultimate response to the Panama situation was to become the most disputed act of his career largely because it appeared to be an act of such violent impulse, an expression of what even many of his strongest admirers saw as an arrogant, nearly infantile insistence on having things his way and plunging ahead heedless of obstacles or consequences. To some observers there seemed something unpleasantly appropriate about the fact that his recreational passion at Sagamore Hill that summer of 1903 was the so-called point-to-point “obstacle walk,” the one rule, the only rule, being that the participant must go up and over, or through, every obstacle, never around it. He was invariably the leader on such escapades, followed by a band of excited children, perhaps a stout-hearted guest or two. Once his sister Corinne Robinson saw him approach “an especially unpleasant-looking little bathing-house with a very steep roof” and she hoped this time a detour would be in order. “I can still see the sturdy body of the President of the United States hurling itself at the obstruction and with singular agility chinning himself to the top and sliding down the other side.”

But for all the “vehement” reputation, for all his unpleasant private remarks concerning contemptible little creatures in Bogotá, for all the deliberate misstatements or threats by Cromwell and others that he let stand, Roosevelt was still taking no action as summer ended and the record shows that he was still giving serious thought to several possible “ways around” at Panama.

The expert on international law, Professor Moore, was invited to spend a night at Sagamore Hill to elaborate on his theory. Mark Hanna was queried for his views. (Hanna recommended patience and moderation. He was sure a satisfactory settlement could be reached with Colombia.) Hay remained a steady sounding board.

Hay observed in early September that a revolution on the Isthmus was “altogether likely,” but advised caution and careful consideration. “It is for you to decide whether you will (1) await the result of that movement, or (2) take a hand in rescuing the Isthmus from anarchy, or (3) treat with Nicaragua.”

Roosevelt’s reply of September 15 was to agree to do nothing until he returned to Washington at the end of the month. “Then we will go over the matter very carefully and decide what to do.” Only to this extent had he reduced the field of choice. Henceforth, he told Hay, he wanted no further dealings with “those Bogotá people.”

“No one can tell what will come out in the Isthmian Canal business,” he wrote that same day to his friend “Will” Taft in the Philippines.

Once, in describing his method of executive leadership, Roosevelt remarked to a friend, “When I make up my mind to do a thing, I act. A good many . . . call me jumpy and say I go off half-cocked, when, as a matter of fact, I have really given full consideration to whatever it is that is to be done.” It was his quickness in following up on a decision that misled people, his cousin Nicholas would reflect years later; the decision itself, however, was rarely ever arrived at without enormous forethought.

For the moment, Roosevelt was waiting also for response to a request made through Secretary of War Elihu Root as far back as mid-March, before the Senate approved the Hay-Herrán Treaty. He had ordered that two or three picked men from the Army be sent to Panama in civilian dress to appraise the situation from a military point of view and to report back to him personally.

On October 1, or several days after Roosevelt’s return to Washington, Tomás Herrán reported the official policy to be one of “watchful waiting.”


Manuel Amador’s “help from another quarter” arrived September 22. “I had gone to New York by pure chance,” Philippe Bunau-Varilla maintained later. But so “fortuitous” a coincidence would strike many as highly improbable. It had been just two weeks since Amador had sent his “Disappointed” cable, or exactly time enough for Cromwell to have wired Paris and have Bunau-Varilla catch the next steamer.

At any rate the audacious little engineer had been busy much of the summer burning up the wires to Bogotá with vigorous, costly cables to Marroquín warning of dire consequences should the Colombians reject the treaty. He had been corresponding with Loomis at the State Department and publishing lengthy paid announcements in Le Matin. He was sure the dark forces that had destroyed Ferdinand de Lesseps were loose again.

Once in New York, according to his subsequent testimony, he “never even saw the shadow” of Cromwell. He had come, he said, to pick up his thirteen-year-old son, Étienne, a hay-fever victim who had been spending the summer at John Bigelow’s country place on the upper Hudson. “I naturally took advantage of my presence in America to visit and to question, as to the state of affairs at Panama, those who could give me any information,” he wrote later. In fact, through Joshua Lindo, whom he had known in Panama years before, Bunau-Varilla was in touch with Amador by phone the day after his arrival.

He had checked in at his favored Waldorf-Astoria and it was in his room there, Room 1162, that he and Amador sat down to talk for the first time on the morning of September 24, at precisely 10:30, according to Bunau-Varilla’s recollection. They too had known each other in years past on the Isthmus, but Bunau-Varilla had by no means forgotten what the difference in rank had been between a mere local physician in the employ of the railroad and the director general of the Compagnie Universelle.

Amador, “deeply moved by emotion and indignation” (according to Bunau-Varilla), unburdened himself of all that had happened. If his friends in Panama should be found out and shot as a result of Cromwell’s meddling, Amador declared, then he would kill Cromwell. Bunau-Varilla called it “unpardonable folly” ever to have listened to Cromwell in the first place. “With your imprudence you have indeed brought yourselves to a pretty pass,” he lectured. The situation, however, was not hopeless. To extricate themselves from their plight the doctor and his friends had only to appeal to reason and to put the matter in the hands of Philippe Bunau-Varilla. “Tell me what are your hopes and on what are based your chances of success. Tell me all calmly, methodically, precisely.”

The particulars, as Amador presented them, were these:

Only a small, weak garrison of federal troops was maintained on the Isthmus. The soldiers had not been paid for months and their commanding officer, young General Huertas, was known to be sympathetic to the revolutionary movement. Colombia, however, had command of the sea and so could land more troops at will.

(Except for the part about General Huertas, it was all information that could have been obtained from a careful reading of the newspapers over the past few months—or from Cromwell, were Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell secretly in contact with each other, a side of the story that will never be known.)

The immediate need was money Amador said. Exactly what figure did he have in mind? Bunau-Varilla asked. Six million dollars replied Amador, which would cover the cost of the necessary gunboats.

Bunau-Varilla told Amador that he now understood the situation perfectly and that he would need a few days to devise a solution. In the meantime Amador was to keep out of sight and talk to no one. Amador had impressed him as a risky confederate—“a childish dreamer.” If Amador wished to make contact by phone, he was to use the name Smith. “I shall take that of Jones.”

According to Bunau-Varilla he was now confronted with a grave question of conscience. “Had I the moral right to take part in a revolution and to encourage its development?” The answer, he quickly decided, was yes. “Yes, because Colombia was obviously prosecuting a policy of piracy aiming at the destruction of the precious work of Frenchmen.”


At noon on October 10, 1903, Assistant Secretary of State Loomis escorted Philippe Bunau-Varilla across from the State Department to the White House. Loomis was a handsome man in his early forties, starched, eager, with a marvelous handlebar mustache and thin black hair plastered with brilliantine. A former press agent, Loomis planned to introduce Bunau-Varilla to Roosevelt informally as the publisher of Le Matin. Loomis, another of Bunau-Varilla’s “personal friends,” had been spotted and cultivated by the Frenchman in Paris a few years before when Loomis was en route to a post in Portugal.

According to the subsequent recollections of both Bunau-Varilla and Roosevelt, their conversation began with talk of the Dreyfus Affair and of the part played by Le Matin, after which Bunau-Varilla asserted, “Mr. President, Captain Dreyfus has not been the only victim of detestable political passions. Panama is another.” The exchange that followed was conducted by all parties with scrupulous care. Describing the scene later, Roosevelt would remark that there might just as well have been a Dictaphone in the room. Bunau-Varilla predicted a revolution on the Isthmus and according to Bunau-Varilla the “features of the President manifested profound surprise.”

“A revolution?” murmured Roosevelt (according to Bunau-Varilla’s account). “Would it be possible?”

Bunau-Varilla said later that he never asked Roosevelt what the United States would do in the event of such an uprising. But in Roosevelt’s version, given off the record ten years later, Bunau-Varilla asked point-blank whether the United States would prevent the landing of Colombian troops, then added, “I don’t suppose you can say.” To which Roosevelt replied in substance that he could not. All he could say was that Colombia by its action had forfeited any claim on the United States—and that he had no use for the Colombian government.

In a letter to Roosevelt written only a few months later, a letter very possibly written on request, Loomis stated, “Nothing was said that could be in any way construed as advising, instigating, suggesting, or encouraging a revolutionary movement.”

Be that as it may, Bunau-Varilla left the President’s office positive that he knew where Roosevelt stood, and Roosevelt allowed later that had Bunau-Varilla failed to grasp what he, Roosevelt, intended to do then Bunau-Varilla would not have been very bright.“Of course I have no idea what Bunau-Varilla advised the revolutionists,” Roosevelt would tell John Bigelow, “ . . . but I do know, of course, that he had no assurances in any way, either from Hay or myself, or from anyone authorized to speak for us. He is a very able fellow, and it was his business to find out what he thought our Government would do. I have no doubt that he was able to make a very accurate guess, and to advise his people accordingly. In fact, he would have been a very dull man had he been unable to make such a guess.”

Bigelow, however, was among those who would remain unconvinced. And his private observations cast a very different light on the situation. Bunau-Varilla had come to Bigelow’s country place at Highland Falls, on the Hudson—his family was staying with the Bigelows—immediately after seeing the President, and from the conversation that had passed between them there, Sunday the eleventh, Bigelow clearly understood that Roosevelt had been fully informed as to Bunau-Varilla’s revolutionary plan. Bigelow, it should also be noted, was a staunch admirer of Roosevelt’s and would later share none of the scruples over the role of the United States in “the Panama business,” as Roosevelt called it. The following is taken from Bigelow’s private journal. It was written within a week of Bunau-Varilla’s White House conference:

Bunau-Varilla was up over Sunday, has seen the President and the Ass’t Secretary of State; unfolded to them his scheme for proceeding with the Isthmian Canal without much more delay . . . . It is in brief to have Isthmians revolt from the Colombian govt. declare their independence . . . issue a Proclamation to that effect, adopt the Constitution of Cuba at the same time, and give Dictatorial powers to the President [Amador] who is an old and trusty friend of B-V., have the U.S. send vessels to protect . . . the new state from any hostility that could do it any harm, etc. &c.

But according to Bunau-Varilla it was only when he was on the train back to New York from Washington that he conceived his plan. Fundamentally, it was no different from what Cromwell had outlined for the World months earlier, except that Bunau-Varilla saw American gunboats playing the key role. He knew it would work, he said later, because he had watched it happen during the revolution of 1885. In point of fact, however, he had seen no such thing, since no American force at Panama had prevented the landing of Colombian troops in 1885 or during any previous disturbance.

He saw Amador at the Waldorf the night of the thirteenth and told him there was no cause to buy gunboats, explaining why in only the most general terms. Amador insisted that there was still a great need for money to guarantee the support of the Colombian garrison at Panama City. Bunau-Varilla thought $100,000 ought to be sufficient and promised to provide that amount from his own pocket if necessary. Amador remained highly agitated. He had had visions of much larger sums; he felt there ought to be a commitment from someone in Washington, something beyond the Frenchman’s mere say-so. He was distressed over a notion of Bunau-Varilla’s that the new republic need only comprise the canal zone, not the whole of the Isthmus. If he and his friends wanted the entire Department of Panama, they could take it later, Bunau-Varilla said; with the canal treaty ratified, they would get the $10,000,000 authorized by the Spooner Act and could wage all the war they wanted.

They separated “coldly,” but Amador was back again first thing the next morning, pale and haggard after a sleepless night, and declared himself prepared to go along with whatever Bunau-Varilla wished.

“This is what I call a sensible speech,” responded Bunau-Varilla. He would be leaving again that morning for Washington. The doctor meantime was to prepare himself to sail for Panama. On Bunau-Varilla’s return from Washington, he would be given the precise program of action.

At his Washington hotel over the next few days, prior to seeing John Hay, Bunau-Varilla prepared everything he thought Amador would need—a ready-made revolution kit, including a proclamation of independence, a basic military plan, a scheme for the defense of Colón and Panama City, the draft of a constitution, a code by which he and the rebels could correspond. The one element lacking for the moment was a flag for the new republic.

• •

Things began to move rapidly. On October 15, Cromwell, who had been staying under cover this whole time, sailed for France, removing himself thereby from any possible association with activities in Washington or New York. As a parting gesture, in a letter to Roosevelt dated the fourteenth, he advised that his associates in New York would be on call at the President’s command. “Never before was this problem of the ages so near solution as at this moment,” Cromwell wrote, “and, if the opportunity be lost, it probably will be lost for centuries to come.”

It was also on the fifteenth that a dispatch went out from the Navy Department to Admiral Henry Glass, commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron. One week hence, on the twenty-second, he was to proceed with his squadron on an “exercise cruise” to Acapulco. Further instructions would follow.

The next day, October 16, with Loomis again serving as his entrée, Bunau-Varilla saw John Hay at Hay’s house on Lafayette Square—this at Hay’s suggestion. The meeting occurred in the afternoon and it was a most curious and ultimately critical confrontation.

Bunau-Varilla had pictured Hay as cold and severe, an American Bismarck, as he later wrote, but instead he found a man of “delicate and refined mind” whose ideas “coincided rigorously with my own.” Together they deplored “the blindness” of Colombia. The entire state of affairs, declared the Frenchman, would end in a revolution, and Hay agreed that this, unfortunately, was the most probable hypothesis. “But we shall not be caught napping,” Hay said. “Orders have been given to naval forces on the Pacific to sail towards the Isthmus.”

To anyone with a personal interest in a revolution, this was, as both men appreciated, a momentous, an invaluable, piece of information. But as in Bunau-Varilla’s exchange with the President, the tone remained one of perfect propriety. Bunau-Varilla appears neither to have registered any response to the news nor to have given Hay any indication as to his own intentions.

What followed instead was a long diversion by Hay, a lot of small talk seemingly about a novel the Secretary had just read and that he happened to have at hand. Giving Bunau-Varilla the book, he told him to take it and read it at first opportunity. The title wasCaptain Macklin, and the author was Hay’s friend Richard Harding Davis. Bunau-Varilla was to write that it was “the subtle symbol, the password exchanged between Mr. Hay and myself.”

The story, as Hay briefly recounted for Bunau-Varilla, concerns an idealistic young West Point cadet, Royal Macklin, who sails to Central America (on a ship called Panama) to seek his fortune after being expelled from the Academy for a minor infraction of the rules. He casts his lot with an older French officer and together they bring off a revolution in Honduras. There is much of the author’s customary zest for manly combat, and at one point, the hero, a figure very much like the author, kisses the locket given to him by his sweetheart and thereby recovers his confidence and determination. But it is also a book in which the local political leader is a figure of ridicule, the revolution is a “comic opera,” and Central America is seen as a frontier of untold opportunity if only the white man were to take charge.

“ ‘I know all of Central America, and it is a wonderful country,’ ” observes one character, a North American.

“There is not a fruit nor a grain nor a plant that you cannot dig out of it with your bare fingers. It has great forests, great pasture-lands, and buried treasures of silver and iron and gold. But it is cursed with the laziest of God’s creatures, and the men who rule them are the most corrupt and the most vicious . . . . They are a menace and an insult to civilization, and it is time that they stepped down and out, and made way for their betters, or that they were kicked out.”

The book’s most memorable figure, however, is the French freebooter, a tragic, sad, honorable, chivalrous knight-errant who fights on at the head of Latin soldiers, but who is plainly too good for them. To John Hay, as he told Bunau-Varilla, the ambitious young Macklin and the French officer were brothers in spirit, “searchers after the Ideal.”

By his own account Bunau-Varilla came away from the interview in something like a spiritual daze. He had met “one of the most noble characters it has ever been given me to know”; he would “cherish . . . the memory of Mr. Hay [with] an almost religious admiration.” Was Hay saying that they too were “searchers after the Ideal”? Did Hay see this Frenchman’s own soldierly part in the epic of Panama as akin to that of the Frenchman in the story? Plainly the American Secretary of State was trying to tell him something. “Did he not wish to tell me symbolically that he had understood that the revolution in preparation for the victory of the Idea, was taking shape under my direction? . . . It only remained for me to act.”

• •

The same evening, the evening of October 16, two Army officers were ushered into the President’s office at the White House to report on their confidential mission to Panama. Captain Chauncey B. Humphrey was an instructor of drawing at West Point; Lieutenant Grayson M.-P. Murphy had graduated from the Academy only the year before. Either might have been picked to portray Captain Macklin had anyone been casting a stage production.

From all they had seen, the officers told the President, a revolution on the Isthmus could be expected at any moment. Rifles and ammunition were being smuggled into Colón in piano boxes, a fire brigade recently organized in Panama City was intended as a revolutionary military unit, a man named Arango was the ringleader (they had picked up the name of the wrong Arango, as it happens), and the people of Panama seemed unanimous in their low regard for the government at Bogotá.

As Lieutenant Murphy would later confide, the prospects for a swift, neat, potentially lucrative revolution had struck them as so very certain that they were thinking of resigning their commissions forthwith and “assisting in its consummation.” Their plan was to approach J. P. Morgan for the necessary financing. For bringing the revolution off, their fee was to be $100,000 each, a fair cut they believed of the $10,000,000 the United States was to turn over to Panama.

That their reconnaissance had been no chance or casual assignment is borne out by a subsequent written report, which includes such vital details for a military campaign as the best positions for artillery to command Colón and Panama City and the estimated number of mules that could be procured in remote interior villages. Nor is there much question that the word of such men would have carried great weight with Roosevelt. Probably theirs was the first account of the situation in Panama that he felt he could regard as trustworthy.

However, the response they saw was such that they left the White House convinced the United States would play no part in any such revolution. They had been astonished at how much Roosevelt seemed already to know of the topography of the Isthmus and other such details, but their immediate mutual reaction was to scrap any further thought of seeing J. P. Morgan. “There goes our revolution,” Murphy said. “I sail for the Philippines.”

• •

Philippe Bunau-Varilla was now in high gear. He had gone directly from Hay’s house to the station, had taken the next train to New York, and during the stop at Baltimore had sent a telegram telling “Smith” that “Jones” expected to see him at the usual place at 9:30 in the morning. At the stated hour Amador knocked at Room 1162 at the Waldorf, which, according to Bunau-Varilla, deserved to be regarded as “the cradle of the Panama Republic.”

He had Amador sit down. There was no time left to quibble over details. Amador was to question neither his assertions nor his sources. He could now assure Amador that he and his junta would be protected by American forces within forty-eight hours after they proclaimed their new republic. Only one prior commitment was required. They must agree to entrust him, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, with the diplomatic representation of the new nation at Washington. He must be the one to draw up the canal treaty with the American Secretary of State.

Amador objected. To have a foreigner serve as their first representative abroad would be a blow to Panamanian pride.

“I can easily see that,” Bunau-Varilla answered, “but a supreme law must dictate our resolution. It commands us to assemble every element which may ensure final success. A battle royal will be fought at Washington. Let him wage it who is best equipped to win the victory.”

Amador promised to see what he could do.

The following day, October 18, was a Sunday, a sparkling autumn Sunday along the Hudson River, as Bunau-Varilla went north by train again to John Bigelow’s place at Highland Falls, adjacent to West Point. On Monday he returned, looking like any other man of affairs newly refreshed by country air and vistas, but bringing in his suitcase a strange silk “flag of liberation” that Madame Bunau-Varilla and Bigelow’s daughter Grace had spent nearly all Sunday stitching together “in the greatest secrecy.”

Amador appeared again at Room 1162 for a last briefing. Bunau-Varilla displayed the flag, which, according to Bunau-Varilla, Amador “found perfect.” The design was very like that of the flag of the United States, the differences being that the white stripes were yellow and in place of white stars were two yellow suns (symbolizing the two continents) joined by a yellow band (for the canal). As one Roosevelt biographer would note, there is a certain injustice to the fact that Roosevelt was unaware of these latest preparations. With his sense of humor and boyish love of adventure he would have savored every detail.

Amador said it would take him at least fifteen days after reaching Panama to get everything ready. His ship was due at Colón on the twenty-seventh. Bunau-Varilla said he could not wait that long. He wanted the revolution to occur on November 3—election day in the United States—which gave Amador exactly seven days once he reached home. If he and his friends could not do what had to be done in that time, if the revolution did not occur on the third, then they were on their own and he would take no responsibility for the consequences.

Amador received all the documents Bunau-Varilla had prepared, the code, the flag, on the following morning just before his ship sailed. He was also given the text for a telegram that he was to send to Bunau-Varilla the moment the new republic was proclaimed.

The government has just been formed by popular acclamation. Its authority extends from Colón inclusive to Panama inclusive. I request you to accept the mission of Minister Plenipotentiary in order to obtain the recognition of the Republic and signature of Canal Treaty. You have full powers to appoint a banker for the Republic at New York, and to open credit for immediate urgent expenses.

Upon receipt of this message, and only upon its receipt, he would send Amador the promised $100,000 and the guaranteed military protection would arrive within forty-eight hours. According to Bunau-Varilla, Amador then departed from the Waldorf, having solemnly affirmed his complete agreement with all “conditions thus stipulated.”

Amador sailed on the steamer Yucatan, the same ship that had once carried Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to the war in Cuba. To the purser, he entrusted a package, telling him to put it in the ship’s safe and to guard it carefully, as it was vital to the future of Panama. The purser, young George Beers, was the son of Captain James Beers.

“The plan seems to me good,” Amador had written to his son, the Army doctor, in a letter mailed just before sailing.

• •

For Bunau-Varilla the week that followed was interminable. He busied himself with cables to Paris banks to arrange for a loan of $100,000 borrowed against personal securities and saw to the transfer of the money by cable to a New York bank (Heidelbach, Ickelheimer & Company). But mainly he worried over the possible movement of Colombian troops from Cartagena to Panama, a turn of fate that, if it came too soon, could wreck everything. He watched the New York papers and on October 26 read with “indescribable joy” a small dispatch saying that General Tobar, commander of the Colombian troops at Cartagena, though expected to leave soon for the Isthmus would probably not do so until November.

On the twenty-seventh, the day the Yucatan was due at Colón, there was no word from Amador. And there was nothing on the twenty-eighth. But on the morning of the twenty-ninth, Bunau-Varilla received the following signed “Smith”:


The first part of the message was in Bunau-Varilla’s code and was perfectly clear.

Fate—This cable is for Bunau-Varilla

News—Colombian troops arriving


Powerful—Five days

Tiger—More than 200

Though the rest—Urge vapor Colón— did not conform to the prearranged code, he took it to mean Send steamer Colón.

These were puzzling and annoying words and he was at a loss to understand what they implied. But then it dawned that Amador wanted him to send an American man-of-war to Colón at his, Amador’s, request. He was asking Bunau-Varilla to prove to the others at Panama, to the rest of the junta, that he could deliver on notice and exactly what was needed. “It was not information which was transmitted to me, it was a test to which I was being submitted.”

The little Frenchman was at once in a grand state of agitation. An American ship must be sent to Colón at once; everything depended on it. But how? “If I succeeded in this task the Canal was saved. If I failed it was lost.” He could think better on a train he decided, and so out of the Waldorf he hurried, on his way to Washington again.

He saw Francis Loomis at his home that evening and told him to keep in mind the date November 3. There would be a repetition of what had happened at Colón in 1885, he said, and it would be a terrible shame if no American ship were on hand, or if her commander were to behave as had the commander of the Galena during the Prestan Uprising. Apparently Loomis said he could not and would not commit himself. But the following morning, as Bunau-Varilla was walking about Lafayette Square wondering whether to call on Hay directly, he ran into Loomis and this time Loomis declared in a notably formal manner that the situation at Colón was indeed “fraught with peril” and that it would be “deplorable if the catastrophe of 1885” were to be repeated.

And this, according to Bunau-Varilla’s subsequent account, is all Loomis said. Still the message was clear: “The words I had heard could have but one interpretation: ‘A cruiser has been sent to Colón.’ ”

He was at that moment like the character in King Solomon’s Mines who, recalling that a solar eclipse is imminent, tells his savage captors that he will show his powers by blotting out the sun. He now had only to inform Amador that the ship was on its way and the first sight of it on the horizon at Colón would have exactly the desired effect.

A very great many people, however, were to find this explanation extremely difficult to believe. The Frenchman had gone to Washington, it would be charged, not to clear his thoughts or to stroll idly about Lafayette Square, but to tell Loomis to send a ship at once and that Loomis had assured him the next morning that the ship was on its way.

The answer given to this charge is vintage Bunau-Varilla:

My only reply to such critics is that they have not the slightest idea of scientific methods.

I built all this subtle diplomatic structure as a bridge is built: that is, by calculating its various elements, and not by trying to obtain direct information which it would have been impossible to obtain.

The abstract operations of trigonometry lead to results more certain than physical measurements, when both operations are possible, but in the majority of cases trigonometry alone can be used. I have made diplomacy as it were by trigonometry.

Such a method will without doubt seem incomprehensible to many minds.

He had noticed in the New York papers the reported movements of certain American naval vessels. The Dixie had been reported on its way to Guantanamo a few days earlier in The New York Times. The Nashville was at Kingston, Jamaica. If a ship had been ordered to Colón, it would be the Nashville, the one stationed nearest Colón, which, as he knew, had been in Colón earlier in the month. Figuring the ship’s speed to be ten knots, he decided that she could cover the five hundred miles from Kingston to Colón in two days. He then added twelve hours for preparations before sailing, which, he reckoned, would bring her over the horizon at Colón on the morning of November 2.

Having talked to Loomis, he took the morning (eleven o’clock) train back to New York and again at Baltimore got off to send a wire to Amador. The wire went off a little after noon on October 30. Decoded it read as follows:


In The New York Times delivered to his room the morning of Sunday, November 1, on page 4 in the bottom right-hand corner, Bunau-Varilla found a small dispatch datelined Kingston, Jamaica, October 31:

The United States gunboat Nashville sailed from here this morning under sealed orders. Her destination is believed to be Colombia.

1 Reportedly it was Senator Hanna who put Roosevelt on to Cromwell. “You want to be very careful, Theodore,” Hanna is supposed to have advised in fatherly fashion, “this is very ticklish business. You had better be guided by Cromwell; he knows all about the subject and all about those people down there.” Roosevelt replied that “the trouble with Cromwell is he overestimates his relation to Cosmos.” “Cosmos?” said Hanna. “I don’t know him—I don’t know any of those South Americans; but Cromwell knows them all; you stick close to Cromwell.”

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