Synopses & Reviews
A groundbreaking history of the Panama Canal offers a revelatory workers-eye view of the momentous undertaking and shows how it launched the American century
The Panama Canal has long been celebrated as a triumph of American engineering and technology. In The Canal Builders, Julie Greene reveals that this emphasis obscures a far more remarkable element of the canals constructionthe tens of thousands of workingmen and -women who traveled from around the world to build it. Drawing on research from around the globe, Greene explores the human dimensions of the Panama Canal story, revealing how it transformed perceptions of American empire at the dawn of the twentieth century.
For a project that would secure Americas position as a leading player on the world stage, the Panama Canal had controversial beginnings. When President Theodore Roosevelt seized rights to a stretch of Panama soon after the country gained its independence, many Americans saw it as an act of scandalous land-grabbing. Yet Roosevelt believed the canal could profoundly strengthen American military and commercial power while appearing to be a benevolent project for the benefit of the world.
But first it had to be built. From 1904 to 1914, in one of the greatest labor mobilizations ever, working people traveled to Panama from all over the globefrom farms and industrial towns in the United States, sugarcane plantations in the West Indies, and rocky fields in Spain and Italy. When they arrived, they faced harsh and inequitable conditions: labor unions were forbidden, workers were paid differently based on their race and nationalitywith the most dangerous jobs falling to West Indiansand anyone not contributing to the project could be deported. Yet Greene reveals how canal workers and their families managed to resist government demands for efficiency at all costs, forcing many officials to revise their policies.
The Canal Builders recounts how the Panama Canal emerged as a positive symbol of American power and became a critical early step towards twentieth-century globalization. Yet by chronicling the contributions of canal workers from all over the world, Julie Greene also reminds us of the human dimensions of a project more commonly remembered for its engineering triumphs.
Just as building the Panama Canal was a miracle of modern engineering, so is The Canal Builders
a marvel of historical recreation. With precision and compassion, Julie Greene guides us through the complex, contentious world of the roughnecks who muscled their way through the Isthmus in the early days of the last century. A compelling story of imperial ambition, class conflict, racial injustice, and the ordinary men and women who remade the map of the world.
Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age
The Canal Builders is a marvelous account of an epic feat of engineering and construction, and a profoundly revealing interpretation of U.S. power in the 20th century world. Julie Greene has rightfully placed the workers who built the great canal at the center of her compelling narrativeone that sets a new standard of excellence for transnational history.
James Green, author of Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America
Many books will tell you that Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal, but don't believe them; in fact it was working men and women from all over the world. In vivid prose, Julie Greene explains how they labored and lived and died, and what in the end they accomplished. In doing so she offers more real insight into the character and costs of American imperialism than any previous writer. This is a story to inspire awe and break your hearta splendid book.
Fred Anderson, co-author of The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000
In this extraordinary book, Julie Greene has given us the first complete history of the Panama Canal by chronicling the international labor force that built it, the flawed politicians and engineers who designed it, and the utopian notions it inspired in many Americans. The Canal Builders is a landmark in the history of workers in the modern world, filled with revelations on nearly every page.
Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
Compellingly written and meticulously researched in Panamanian, British, and American archives, this is the first history of the Panama Canal that tells the personal stories of the peopleblack and white, women and menwho actually built it, and reveals how they fared under military management in this part of Americas empire.
Walter Nugent, author of Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion
With crystal clear style and pioneering research, Julie Greene finally, and thankfully, takes us far beyond the well-known technology which built the Panama Canal to reveal two great themes of the project, themes which also characterized much of the following century. First, it was built by a pluralistic labor forcein this case one dominated by blacks and including nurses whose heroism is (until now) little known. Second, an historic U.S. imperialism shaped and drove the project. As the sign said at the outskirts of the Canal's largest town, Welcome to Empire. Greene here reveals the fascinating and central roots of the empire that followed that Empire.
Walter LaFeber, Andrew and James Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University
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 shifts the focus away from those at the top, instead telling the story of rank-and-file workers on the ground.
Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies.
In this brilliant and pathbreaking book, Julie Greene reframes our understanding of the Panama Canal story and the imperial agenda at its center. In a riveting narrative Greene shows how racist labor policies, Progressive reformers, workers wives and washerwomen, imperial courts, the Panamanian people and especially the laborers themselves all shaped the canals construction. Shes dug down deep to expose the dirty work of empireand built a monumental work of her own.
Dana Frank, author of Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism
The Canal Builders is magnificent. Julie Greenes exhaustive research, careful analysis, and eloquent writing style have produced an account of the people who built the Panama Canal that no student of history should overlook. Greene focuses on the tens of thousands of North Americans, West Indians, Europeans, and Asians who came to Panama in search of employment and, sometimes, a new life. As The Canal Builders reveals, their skills, their toil, and too often their deaths carved out the indispensable transit point that made way for twentieth-century globalization.
David Montgomery, author of The Fall of the House of Labor
This groundbreaking history of the Panama Canal offers a revelatory workers-eye-view of the momentous undertaking and shows how it launched the American century.
A revelatory look at a momentous undertaking-from the workers' point of view
The Panama Canal has long been celebrated as a triumph of American engineering and ingenuity. In The Canal Builders, Julie Greene reveals that this emphasis has obscured a far more remarkable element of the historic enterprise: the tens of thousands of workingmen and workingwomen who traveled from all around the world to build it. Greene looks past the mythology surrounding the canal to expose the difficult working conditions and discriminatory policies involved in its construction. Drawing extensively on letters, memoirs, and government documents, the book chronicles both the struggles and the triumphs of the workers and their famiand#173;lies. Prodigiously researched and vividly told, The Canal Builders explores the human dimensions of one of the world's greatest labor mobilizations, and reveals how it launched America's twentieth-century empire.
About the Author
Julie Greene is a professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 18811917. Educated at the universities of Michigan, Cambridge, and Yale, Greene has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies.