THE CANAL BUILDERS by Julie Greene

THE CANAL BUILDERS

Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The Path Between the Seas, viewed from a decidedly different angle.

Most histories focus on the larger-than-life men who conceived the Panama Canal, particularly President Theodore Roosevelt and chief engineers John Stevens and George Goethals. Greene (History/Univ. of Maryland; Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917, 1998, etc.) shifts the focus away from those at the top, instead telling the story of rank-and-file workers on the ground. The incredibly diverse labor force assembled between 1904 and 1914, tens of thousands strong, included Americans, West Indians, Mexicans and workers from all over South America and Europe. When they arrived in the Canal Zone, they soon realized that conditions were brutal. The weather was hot, the work was extremely dangerous, the food was barely edible and early on there were outbreaks of yellow fever, bubonic plague, malaria and pneumonia. An estimated 15,000 workers died during the course of the building project, mostly nonwhites. American officials imported segregationist and anti-union policies from home; nonwhite workers, particularly West Indians, received far lower pay. Dissatisfaction eventually flared up into strikes and threats of riots. The author deftly details how hard-line American policy clashed with the reality of managing an army of laborers in a foreign land. Officials were eventually forced to revise their policies and make concessions to workers on many issues. Greene also examines the resentment generated by American colonialism, ably illustrated with the story of a 1912 riot in Panama City between American personnel and Panamanians that caused the death of one U.S. citizen. American imperialism was frequently at odds with American idealism, the author skillfully demonstrates. A telling quote from Secretary of State Elihu Root conveys the essential: “The Constitution follows the flag, but it does not catch up with it.”

Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies.

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-201-8
Page count: 458pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2008




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