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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough

Reader's Group Guide

1. The relations between Panamanians and the canal builders progressively worsened during the construction period. An American journalist noted, "In temperament and tradition, we are miles away from the Panamanians...the age-old hostility to the 'Gringo' is deep-rooted. Differences in language, customs and religious practices kept the breach wide." What (if anything) do you think that the canal leaders could have done to improve relations with local people? In your opinion, should that have been a priority or were there too many other pressing issues?

2. The International Congress on the Study of an Interoceanic Canal of 1879 in Paris was ostensibly an international gathering of knowledgeable delegates who would arrive at an "impartial, scientific, international sanction" about the location and type of interoceanic canal. Instead it had been conceived to "provide an inaugural ceremony for a decision already made by...Ferdinand de Lesseps. American delegate A.G. Menocal was very disappointed that the Congress lacked "serious people, professionals of proven competence" and people who "would make their decision in a spirit of reason and impartiality." Was Menocal's expectation a naïve one? Do you believe that the 1879 Congress is representative of most international congresses or was it the exception?

3. Boasting about the U.S.' involvement in aiding the Panama Revolution, Theodore Roosevelt states in a 1911 speech, "Accordingly I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me." Years later, the United States would pay an indemnity of $25,000,000 to Colombia under President Wilson. Do you feel that this was sufficient? Were you surprised by the extent of the U.S.' involvement in the Panama Revolution? Do you believe that the U.S. government today would offer the same type of assistance to a group of revolutionaries if it were advantageous to U.S. interests?

4. The completion of the Panama Canal, "a masterpiece in design and construction," is considered one of the most important engineering triumphs of all time. Even more impressive, is that the canal was built despite the persistence of torrential rains, unbearable heat, disease and colossal mudslides. As a result, the last chapter of the book is appropriately titled "Triumph." What do you believe was the biggest triumph of the canal?

5. Unquestionably the "unskilled" West Indian labor force was as essential to building the Panama Canal as the American engineers. However, there was a vastly different approach to the treatment of these two populations during the canal-building period. Did the U.S. have an obligation (moral or otherwise) to provide better housing and disease prevention to these workers, although they were not American citizens? Why or why not?

6. With the collapse of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son, Charles, both lost everything that they had invested in the company, along with scores of French investors. Does this somehow make the de Lesseps' deceitful actions seem less malicious? Compare and contrast the de Lesseps with corporate leaders of today charged with deceiving investors.

7. The collapse of the French canal-building company revealed an enormous level of corruption in French society. By the time Edouard Dumont began pointing fingers in La Libre Parole, "a government had fallen; three former premiers had been named in the plot, along with two former ministers and two prominent senators; more than a hundred deputies or former deputies stood accused of taking payoffs..." Were you surprised at just how pervasive corruption surrounding the French efforts at Panama was? Why do you think that the U.S. effort at Panama was free of corruption?

8. McCullough describes Ferdinand de Lesseps as complex and ambivalent man, with a personality filled with many contradictions. He was " both the most daring of dreamers and the cleverest of back-room manipulators. He was the indestructible optimist...and he was perfectly capable of deceit and of playing to the vanity and greed in other men." What do you think were Ferdinand de Lesseps greatest attributes and worst faults? What was the principal reason for the collapse of his French canal company? Do you think he was most guilty of self-deception? Explain.

9. Theodore Roosevelt insisted that he was not an imperialist. "It was inconceivable to him that Americans could ever be viewed as imperialistic...Expansion was different; it was growth; it was progress, it was in the American grain. He was striving to lead his generation toward some larger, more noble objective than mere moneymaking." Is there validity in this statement or is this a matter of semantics? Was the building of the Panama Canal an imperialistic effort on the part of the U.S. government?

10. Harry Franck, a canal employee who wrote a book about his experiences in Panama, likened the society within the Canal Zone to the caste society of India. Franck says, "The Brahmins are the gold employees, white American citizens with all the advantages and privileges thereto appertaining." Do you agree with this description of the gold-silver system in the Canal? Explain.

11. Phillipe Banau-Varilla's actions following Panama's revolution are considered nothing short of betrayal by Panamanians. With respect to the treaty negotiated by the U.S. and this Frenchman, U.S. Secretary Hays confided that the treaty was "very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the U.S....and not so advantageous to Panama...You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object." What do you believer was the principal motivation for Banau-Varilla's treachery? Was it greed, paternalism, egotism or something else? Explain.

12. Although there were several popular explanations for the causes of transmission of malaria and yellow fever, many believed that morality was a factor. Similarly, morality was thought to play a part in becoming infected with HIV/AIDS early on. Why do you think there is a tendency for people to correlate infectious diseases with morality?

13. One of the recurring themes of this book is the incredibly paralyzing effect that ideology can have on its adherents, even when facing irrefutable facts to the contrary. Two examples of this were the insistence on building a sea level canal although it was impossible given the geography of Panama and the dismissal of the scientific progress made by Dr. Gorgas in the study of the mosquito's role in disease transmission. Were you surprised at how much ideology played a part in practically every facet of the building of the canal? Explain.

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sks2, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by sks2)
This is a wonderful work of research and skilled writing, describing the construction of the Panama Canal, between 1870 and 1914. It chronicles both the failed French effort, as well as the successful American effort at what was then (and still is) one of the largest and most costly engineering projects of all time. The book is just crammed with interesting anecdotal information, political intrigue, personal accounts, original photography, etc. If you enjoy reading about historical events in great detail, then this is a book for you! 600 or so pages, so prepare for a couple of weeks worth of reading…
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OneMansView, November 16, 2008 (view all comments by OneMansView)
This book is a highly informative account of the entire history of the contemplation and building of the Panama Canal involving many nations across several decades. The difficulties facing any entity, private or public, considering building an Isthmus-crossing canal were unbelievable: the sheer complexity of the canal design; the volume of earth to move and the size of the structures to build; the huge and multi-dimensional labor force; the tremendous earth-moving machinery required and its effective usage; the magnitude and difficulties of coordinating all the work; the decimating impact of yellow fever and malaria on the work force; and the logistics of supplying an obscure part of the world. In addition, the political maneuverings involving the governments of France, the US, Columbia, and Panama and any number of lobbyists during several periods were crucial in deciding the location and type of an Isthmus-crossing canal, as well the decisions to proceed. The debate of whether Panama or Nicaragua was most appropriate for a canal was waged repeatedly with final decisions being made on little more than a coin-flip.

Personalities are very important in the author’s story. He scarcely conceals a predisposition to the belief that brilliant and appropriate men will eventually rise to meet the most difficult of challenges. Perhaps surprising to most readers is that the first attempt to build a canal across Panama was made by a private French conglomerate led by the charismatic aristocrat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps in the 1880s. While his dominating personality persuaded many to undertake the huge risks of building a canal in Panama, his complete lack of technical competency and his tendency to ignore and conceal serious problems, thus deceiving investors, were factors in the collapse of the French effort after a near-decade of prodigious but ultimately futile efforts. What was to be a triumph of French ingenuity turned into bitter recriminations, with jail time being served by a few scapegoats.

The middle third of the book is devoted to the politics of the US taking on the task of building a canal and the support of the US of the Panamanian coup in 1903. Powerful interests led by Sen John T. Morgan supported a Nicaraguan canal but President Theodore Roosevelt threw the weight of his office behind, what he considered to be the more practical alternative, Panama. An enigmatic Frenchmen, part of the de Lesseps effort in Panama, Philippe Bunau-Varilla not only was persuasive during that period but coordinated the Panama takeover. Though the US quickly came to terms with Columbia over the loss of Panama, that flexing of American power rankled for years in Latin America.

The last section of the book is an amazing story of the completion, with substantial alteration, of the original French canal. After some lackluster appointees were replaced and administrative structures streamlined, serious advancement of the project began. Again, very talented individuals were key to the progress. Dr. William Gorgas was able to implement a country-wide program of eradicating mosquitoes, the carriers of yellow fever and malaria. John Stevens, a veteran of railroad design, in his role as chief engineer undertook a vast improvement of the infrastructure of Panama, such as housing, sewerage, and water supply, greatly improving the well-being of the labor force and also devised a means of non-stop digging and movement of dirt. The author suggests that Stevens’ efforts were perhaps most important for the project’s completion, yet he is largely forgotten because he prematurely resigned. His successor, George Goethals, though rather aloof, proved to be an equally able administrator and saw the Panama Canal through to its completion in 1914.

The story told is complicated with many considerations and individuals involved. However, at times, almost too much detail is provided – too many names, too many physical descriptions of people. The luminous personality of de Lesseps gets excessive attention, as well as the political intrigue in France and the US. It was not the author’s intent to write an exposition on canal building; the approach is far more social, political, and economic. It’s impossible to read this book without coming to realize the sheer audacity and improbability of building a canal across Panama, especially one hundred years ago.

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Product Details

ISBN:
9780671244095
Preface:
McCullough, David
Author:
McCullough, David
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Location:
New York :
Subject:
History
Subject:
Modern - 20th Century
Subject:
United States - 20th Century
Subject:
Central America
Subject:
United States - 20th Century (1900-1945)
Subject:
Panama canal
Subject:
Panama Canal (Panama)
Subject:
Panama Canal (Panama) History.
Subject:
Latin America - Central America
Subject:
General History
Subject:
World History-Central America
Subject:
Panama Canal, making of Panama Canal, Creation of Panama Canal, National Book Award winner, passageway, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, feats of engineering, Gold Rush, Walter Reed, George Washington Goethals, Ferdinand de Lesseps
Copyright:
Edition Description:
B102
Series Volume:
1998-206554
Publication Date:
January 1978
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
61 bandamp;w photos t-o
Pages:
704
Dimensions:
9.25 x 6.12 in 30.17 oz

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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$10.50 In Stock
Product details 704 pages Simon & Schuster - English 9780671244095 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A chunk of history full of giant-sized characters and rich in political skullduggery."
"Review" by , "McCullough is a storyteller with the capacity to steer readers through political, financial, and engineering intricacies without fatigue or muddle. This is grand-scale expert work."
"Synopsis" by , Winner of the National Book Award

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, here is the national bestselling epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal. In The Path Between the Seas, acclaimed historian David McCullough delivers a first-rate drama of the sweeping human undertaking that led to the creation of this grand enterprise.

The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale.

Winner of the National Book Award for history, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs), The Path Between the Seas is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, the history of technology, international intrigue, and human drama.

"Synopsis" by , From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, here is the national bestselling epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal. In The Path Between the Seas, acclaimed historian David McCullough delivers a first-rate drama of the sweeping human undertaking that led to the creation of this grand enterprise.

The Path Between the Seas tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. Applying his remarkable gift for writing lucid, lively exposition, McCullough weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating tale.

Winner of the National Book Award for history, the Francis Parkman Prize, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the Cornelius Ryan Award (for the best book of the year on international affairs), The Path Between the Seas is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, the history of technology, international intrigue, and human drama.

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