A history of the grand-scale madness attendant to—the lunar landing and the Manhattan Project notwithstanding—the 20th-century’s greatest engineering feat.
From 1513, when Balboa first glimpsed the Pacific from atop a Panamanian hill, the dream of a water passage through the isthmus obsessed the European powers. By the 19th century, a canal’s military and economic advantages had become apparent also to the young American nation and, from Franklin to Jefferson to Grant and, most famously, Teddy Roosevelt, the feasibility of the undertaking took increasingly material form. Mindful of the Monroe Doctrine, the Americans warily eyed France’s 1881 attempt—one that would offer walk-on roles to the likes of Paul Gaugin and Gustave Eiffel—to build a canal. Under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, famed builder of the Suez Canal, the French effort foundered, a victim of local political unrest, a misconceived sea-level plan, shaky financing, Panama’s difficult terrain and climate and malaria and yellow fever, which caused death on a massive scale. With de Lesseps disgraced and the French economy all but bankrupted, the Americans took up the challenge. Though Parker (Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II, 2004, etc.) pays ample attention to the engineering problems—the taming of the Chagres River, the excavation of the Culebra Cut, the building of the locks—he maintains his focus on the fever that became known as “canalitis.” From the sleazy lobbying of Wall Street lawyer William Nelson Cromwell and investor Philippe Bunau-Varilla, to the revolution cooked up in Panama, to the rigidly racist regime imposed on the workforce, the United States did what was necessary to “make the dirt fly.” Parker gives the heroes their due (the engineers Stevens and Goethals, the doctor William Gorgas), but he also spotlights the ordinary people—West-Indian natives, European and American families—whose lives were transformed by work on the canal.
Thirty years have passed since David McCullough’s stunning The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914, the seeming last word on this subject, but the capacious canal story easily accommodates Parker’s focus on how the waterway appeared to craze anyone, famous and unknown, who touched it.