Panama: Another Major Sea Gate Relinquished

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Another Major Sea Gate Relinquished

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Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Suez, Aden, the Maldive Islands, Ceylon, Singapore and Hong Kong are legendary sea gates one encounters en route from the British Isles to the Far East. These gates gave Great Britain mastery of the seas for more than two centuries. These vital passages played an important part in times of military conflict and economic expansion. Without them it is questionable whether the Allies could have won the two world wars.

Travelers west encountered Bermuda, one of the first sea gates to be acquired by the British crown, the first with its own parliament. Bermuda remains a British possession. Further west were Britain's island properties in the Caribbean. Further south the Falkland Islands enabled the Royal Navy to control the area around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. St. Helena, Ascension Island, the Cape of Good Hope around South Africa, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Diego Garcia were all strategically located portals that controlled key ocean passages around the globe, granting the British people unrivaled dominance of the seas.

America becomes an international power

Later, after the Spanish-American War of 1898, America joined Great Britain as a world power. With the peace settlement that followed the war, the United States became a major sea power with the acquisition of its own sea gates in important locations. The Philippines and Guam gave America a major Pacific presence, while Puerto Rico and a military base in Cuba extended American influence in the Caribbean. Hawaii was also annexed in 1898. But the most important events were yet to come.

The Spanish-American War brought home to Americans a major strategic weakness. The weakness was attributable to simple geography: It took a long time for a ship on one of the country's coasts to travel to the other coast. Ships had to go around Cape Horn at the southern end of South America, one of the most hazardous shipping routes on earth. Even if danger had not been a problem, distance alone meant that any sea travel from coast to coast took months.

The 1898 war demonstrated a military weakness when the United States had to quickly dispatch the battleship Oregon to Cuba after the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor. Victory in the Caribbean was said to depend on the Oregon.

But first the ship had to travel from San Francisco 12,000 miles around Cape Horn, a journey that was expected to take two months. Long periods elapsed with no news of the ship. Americans followed her journey with mounting concern and excitement. Then, 67 days after leaving the West Coast, she was spotted off the coast of Florida, arriving just in time to play a role in the crucial Battle of Santiago Bay. Those 67 days emphasized the growing need for a so-called path between the seas that would link the Pacific and Atlantic and eliminate lengthy and dangerous journeys around Cape Horn.

Roosevelt's dream

Modern technology now made possible a dramatic and far-reaching solution. President Theodore Roosevelt became the driving force behind the building of what was to become the Panama Canal. Indeed, it was to be the greatest accomplishment of his administration, the one of which Roosevelt was to be most proud while at the same time the one that caused the most controversy.

Writes historian David McCullough: "Roosevelt was promoting neither a commercial venture nor a universal utility. To him, first, last, and always, the canal was the vital—the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as a commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy at sea" (The Path Between the Seas, 1977, p. 250). The same writer adds: "All other benefits resulting, important or admirable as they might be, were to him secondary" (ibid.).

What would Teddy Roosevelt have thought had he known the canal would remain in American hands for less than a century? Would he have built it at all?

On the last day of 1999 the United States ceded control of the canal to the nation of Panama under the terms of a revised treaty agreed to during the Jimmy Carter administration. In turn, Panama had already agreed to hand over much of the administration of the vital sea gate to a private Chinese company, which, like all other companies in China, is subject to control of the communist Chinese government.

Roosevelt correctly envisioned the Panama Canal as a significant advancement in American power. The building of the canal was to be a major step toward the country's domination of the world, enabling it to replace Great Britain as the major naval power by the end of World War II and usher in a half century of unprecedented prosperity.

Before suddenly assuming office after the assassination of President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt had been heavily influenced by his own experiences in the 1898 war with Spain and by an influential book written by a member of the faculty at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island. Roosevelt had met the writer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, when Roosevelt had been invited to lecture there on his specialty as a historian, the War of 1812.

Mahan's book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, was published in 1890 and became an international best-seller. The writer received honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge before being invited to dine with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, anxious to build a navy to rival Britain's, saw to it that copies of Mahan's book went to all of his naval captains and officers.

Japanese military colleges adopted the book as a text while, at home, Yale and Harvard conferred honorary degrees on Mahan. He was enthusiastically supported by members of Congress. "It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people," Henry Cabot Lodge declared from the Senate floor.

Notes David McCullough: "By tracing the rise and decline of past maritime powers, he [Mahan] had arrived at the extremely simple theory that national greatness and commercial supremacy were directly related to supremacy at sea" (p. 251).

A dream fulfilled

The building of the Panama Canal was one of the greatest engineering feats of history. Interest in the project began soon after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869. Suez, the artery of the British Empire, connecting Great Britain with its Indian and other Asian possessions, was built by a French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. The 74-year-old de Lesseps undertook the task of constructing an even greater waterway in Panama, but the effort collapsed in 1889. It was left to the United States to pursue the project in the new century.

The United States waited for the Colombian congress to debate its request to build a canal across Colombian territory. Preoccupied with a civil war between 1899 and 1903, the Colombians hesitated. The people of Panama then revolted against their Colombian rulers, and the United States accepted the rebels' offer of a treaty that granted the United States sovereignty (total control) over a 10-mile-wide Canal Zone in exchange for an annual payment to be made to the new Republic of Panama. Although the United States denied any direct involvement in the rebellion against Colombia, U.S.—Colombian relations suffer to this day. Relations with Panama have not been easy, either.

Work on the canal began in 1904, but little progress was evident before 1906 because of disputes over the type of canal that should be built. Completed in 1914, the canal is 51.2 miles long. Ironically, that same year saw the opening salvos of World War I in Europe and among European colonies around the world. This war was to see America's involvement in world affairs increase and the United States advance as a naval power rivaling Great Britain.

Prophecies of sea gates

We should not underestimate the importance of sea gates in catapulting Great Britain and the United States into world powers, as well as serving as strategic defense outposts. They are so important, in fact, that the acquisition and loss of such strategic strongholds were prophesied in the Bible thousands of years ago.

Genesis 48 reveals that God's promises to the patriarch Abraham were passed on to his great-great-grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. Their descendants were prophesied to become a "great" people and "a multitude of nations" (verse 19). The blessings passed down from Abraham included the promise that Ephraim's and Manasseh's descendants were to "possess the gate of their enemies" (Genesis 22:17; 24:60).

The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a "great" nation and "a multitude of nations" rise to a prominence and prosperity unlike anything the world had seen. The United States and the British Commonwealth dominated the oceans, not only through powerful military and merchant fleets, but through strategic choke points—"gates"—that controlled military and economic traffic worldwide.

Just as the acquisition of the gates gave the two nations worldwide preeminence, so does their loss dramatically illustrate declining power and military might. Major turning points in the decline of Great Britain were the loss of two of the most strategically important sea gates. The United States is following a similar path as it, too, surrenders sea passages that previous generations of Americans recognized as vital to national security.

Good-bye to sea gates

Two of the turning points in the decline and fall of the British Empire were the loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 and the loss of the Suez Canal to Egypt 14 years later. Singapore, Britain's major naval base in the Far East, was considered impregnable. It easily fell to the Japanese, who invaded through the jungles of British Malaya from the north, a direction from which the British had not anticipated a threat.

Singapore's loss was a major psychological blow to British pride, the biggest defeat the empire had suffered at the hands of an Asian nation. It sent a powerful message to other Asians that it was possible to defeat a seemingly invincible power. Although the British regained control of Singapore after the defeat of Japan in 1945, they voluntarily withdrew from the base a quarter of a century later when they could no longer afford to base troops there.

Suez was the final deathblow to hopes of continued empire. A group of army officers overthrew Egypt's King Farouk in 1952, promising to rid the country of foreign influence. The military men agitated for Egyptian control of the canal and finally seized it in 1956.

British, French and Israeli troops invaded Egypt. International financial pressures against Britain followed, and the Eisenhower administration refused to provide U.S. support, thereby effectively ending British and French control of the Suez Canal. The ripple effect was the collapse of both colonial empires and the proliferation of new states around the world—situations that have complicated international diplomacy in recent years.

The loss of superpower status

Is America following in Britain's footsteps? In the less than 25 years since the 1977 Panama Canal treaty guaranteed the handover of the channel, the United States has lost its military bases in the Philippines and scaled down its military forces and bases throughout the world. Meanwhile American military commitments have increased, with escalating pledges of support and involvement in minor nations throughout the world, a burden the United States increasingly tries to share with its NATO allies and the United Nations.

This paradox is sometimes referred to as imperial overreach, the same problem that afflicted Great Britain in its decline. A superpower tends to overcommit itself in an effort to try to maintain its leadership role. Eventually global commitments effectively result in no commitment because forces in each area are spread too thin on the ground. Current trends suggest America is following the same path as Great Britain, its predecessor as world superpower.

Almighty God, who declares that He can give nations "the gate of [their] enemies," also said that because of national disobedience He can and does remove such blessings. He prophesied to the ancient Israelites that if they and their descendants refused to obey Him He would "break the pride of [their] power" (Leviticus 26:19). This verse is part of a chapter in the Bible that is a powerful prophetic reminder of the consequences of a people's actions—whether they choose to obey or disobey God's commands. A rise to international greatness can be quickly followed by a precipitous decline when a nation forgets God. GN