Modern history


Among those who were most profoundly stirred by the opening of the canal in August 1914 were Charles de Lesseps and Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and Thomas Oliver Selfridge, all three quietly retired, but each still very much alive.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, having declared it a moment of glory for Goethals (and for “the Genius of the French nation”), rushed home to fight. He lost a leg at Verdun and in later years could be seen “taking his exercise” on the Champs Élysées, a tiny, upright figure marching along on a wooden leg, eyes front, his chauffeur in a limousine following slowly some distance behind. A young American journalist in Paris, Eric Sevareid, who made his acquaintance in 1940, would recall, “I had never encountered such a powerful personality.”

Bunau-Varilla died on May 18, 1940, only weeks before Paris was occupied by the German Army.

Theodore Roosevelt never returned to Panama; he never saw the Panama Canal. The passage of the Pacific fleet through the locks in 1919 took place seven months after his death. Nor did he live to see the United States pay Colombia an indemnity of $25,000,000 (in 1921) for the loss of Panama, a move that had been initiated during the Wilson Administration, much to Roosevelt’s fury. “One of the rather contemptible features of a number of our worthy compatriots,” he wrote privately to Bunau-Varilla, “is that they are eager to take advantage of the deeds of the man of action when action is necessary and then eager to discredit him when the action is once over.”

William Gorgas, who headed the Army medical service in the First World War, died of a stroke while in London in 1920. Before his death, Gorgas was visited in the hospital by King George and was knighted for “the great work which you have done for humanity.”

George Goethals remained as Governor of the Panama Canal through 1916. During the war he was made quartermaster general in Washington and had charge of procurement, transport, and storage of all supplies for the Army. As a private consulting engineer after the war, with offices on Wall Street, he was extremely active but not a particular success financially, largely because he refused to allow the use of his name “for financial consideration.” He died of cancer in 1928 and was buried, as he had requested, at West Point.

John Stevens survived the longest. His work had taken him over much of the country since leaving Panama, and in 1917, at the request of Woodrow Wilson, he went to Russia to reorganize the Trans-Siberian Railway, an assignment that lasted five years. Unlike the others, he made a return trip to Panama, but though tremendously impressed by all that he saw, it was the flight on a Pan American Clipper that gave him the greatest thrill. Vigorous to the end, Stevens died in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in 1943 at the age of ninety.

Once, in a paper addressed “To the Young Engineers Who Must Carry On,” Stevens said something with which all of these remarkable men would assuredly have agreed—for all that had happened to the world since Panama.

His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote. The great works had still to come. “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean. . . .”

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