In his memoir, McMillan (Columns, 2007), a former chairman of the Panama Canal Commission, details the canal’s recent history and its transfer from U.S. to Panamanian control.
McMillan, an American, takes a personal approach to history in this book about the evolution of the Panama Canal, published in concert with the canal’s 2014 centennial. As a member of the canal’s board in the late 1980s and as chairman in the 1990s, McMillan developed a thorough understanding of the canal’s role in both Panamanian politics and in global commerce, which he explains in clear, well-developed prose. Readers unfamiliar with Omar Torrijos, Manuel Noriega and other figures who played a significant role in the canal’s recent history will find plenty of background information to help them follow the changes in government and the implications for the Panama Canal. Much of the narrative focuses on the 1999 transfer of control from the United States to Panama, and McMillan offers persuasive evidence to assure readers that Panama has demonstrated competence in its management of the canal, despite trepidation expressed by many Americans before the transfer. While political concerns, from the 1989 invasion of Panama to the country’s first free elections in 25 years, establish the book’s historical context, McMillan also devotes chapters to the canal’s commercial implications, explaining how the current effort to increase the canal’s capacity will have an impact throughout the shipping industry, driving development in both Pacific and Atlantic ports that can accommodate the larger ships that will be able to travel from one ocean to the other. In many cases, statistics provide evidence of the canal’s continuing importance in global commerce. At times, McMillan’s American triumphalist tone can be grating, as when he criticizes a Panamanian official for choosing to speak in Spanish: “I personally found Foreign Minister [Julio] Linares just plain inconsiderate. He refused to speak any English at a dinner party I once attended—in spite of his ability to speak the language fluently.” But even readers who would prefer a more skeptical approach to the history of U.S. interference in Panamanian affairs will find no fault with McMillan’s accuracy, attention to detail or the unique perspective he provides on a lesser-known moment in history.
An insider’s account of the Panama Canal over the last three decades, full of detail and insight.