Digging a Sea-Level Canal (arrogance prevails at Panama)
By Les Young
Aug 8, 2006, 00:00


It was decided.  A sea-level canal would be built at Panama.  This decision was taken, in 1879, at the International Congress for the Study of an Inter-Oceanic Canal in Paris.


Having accomplished at Suez what many said was impossible, Ferdinand de Lesseps , the French entrepreneur extraordinaire, would now attempt an even more improbable task – the construction of a canal in Central America.


The mismanagement of that endeavor deserves close attention.  We may be experiencing something similar in our own time.      


Following his phenomenal success at Suez, De Lesseps enjoyed the unquestioned confidence of an adoring French public, which anointed him to lead this new enterprise.  De Lesseps convened the Congress in May – a delightful month for rolling out a new product in Paris – and personally invited delegates from around the world, carefully selecting a majority of loyalists who could be counted on to vote his way.  The purpose of this Congress was to determine the location and type canal to be constructed.  


De Lesseps was a proud and determined man, one not to be upstaged.  A sea-level canal worked for him at Suez; he would make it work again in Panama.  True, de Lesseps encountered massive obstacles at Suez, but each was overcome through genius and sheer will power.  Similarly, the obstacles at the Isthmus would be conquered, of that he was confident, even though he’d never traveled to Central America.     


Some delegates at the Congress foresaw insurmountable barriers to a sea-level canal –  mountains to be removed with nowhere to place the earth, floods and landslides that would wash away and clog the canal and its entrances, and epidemics of malaria and yellow fever – but de Lesseps and his devotees paid scant attention.  Ten years before, in Egypt, de Lesseps found desert and sand.  At Panama it would be the infamous Culebra Cut and the swollen Chagres River in monsoon season. 


A French delegate-engineer, Godin de Lépinay, proposed an innovative stair-step plan for a lock canal which would convert obstacles into advantages, but neither de Lesseps nor his delegates listened.  Years later, the de Lépinay stair-step model would be adopted for the canal’s eventual construction.


De Lesseps’ reputation and cunning were so immense that he swept the Congress along with his ideas.  By a vote of 74 to 8, with 16 abstaining and 38 absent, a sea-level canal at the Isthmus of Panama was approved, even as all five French delegate-engineers voted against the plan. 


Eight years, 200 million dollars, and more than ten thousand lost lives later, de Lesseps accepted reality and switched to de Lépinay’s stair-step plan.  Lock-works and gates were ordered from Gustave Eiffel.  Sadly, the canal enterprise was too far gone and could not be rescued, resulting in the largest financial collapse of the nineteenth century.   


Such was the result of de Lesseps’ failure to listen to experience, and for placing faith in man’s ability to conquer the great unknowns.



Our current predicament:  “You are either with us or against us,” President George W. Bush warned our friends and enemies alike following 9/11.  In September 2002, the Bush II administration issued its National Security Strategy of the United States of America which asserts that America will not allow any country or group of countries to establish military force strong enough to challenge, ever again, our American strength and world dominance.  In essence, our American economic and military strength are so great, and our moral position so superior, that America alone can judge what’s best for world order, as well as for our own defense.  Furthermore, this document declares America’s right to attack first – that is to say, attack preemptively – any country or people that we may fear, someday in the future, might seek to threaten or attack us, our ally, or our interests.  This radical position is known as the Bush Doctrine.      


As Ferdinand de Lesseps fixed his Congress with delegates who would vote with him, so too the Bush II administration rolled out its new product in a manner that precluded effective opposition. 


By fixing intelligence around their policy, by instilling fear in the American public, by embracing our peace-loving God as if He were an American warrior-god, by rushing the war-vote in the midst of the 2002 election season, by denigrating the United Nations and its team of inspectors, and by formulating a demand which Saddam could never satisfy, “Declare that which you do not possess (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and destroy it,” the stars were shrewdly aligned to favor American preemption and occupation of Iraq.    


But, the French, and the Germans, and the Russians, and the Turks, and a majority of the United Nations Security Council did not see it as we Americans did.  The Bush II administration said these countries were acting merely in their national self-interests.  How could they not see what we saw?  Our intelligence told us the same things, for heaven’s sake, that their intelligence told them.  Isn’t that what we heard? 


By today it should be abundantly clear that our leaders possess tin ears, or they refuse to listen.  De Lesseps behaved in this same manner.  His countrymen expressed absolute faith in him.  They endowed him with unsparing political capital, to use a current term, which he could spend as he alone should choose.  De Lesseps did not listen. 


When will our leaders begin to listen?  When will they re-examine their flawed logic which jeopardizes our children’s security, prosperity, and national integrity?  When will our leaders and the American public stop to think through this indefensible National Security Strategy, the Bush Doctrine, in which we so blithely place our faith and dependence? 


Oyez!  Oyez!  We must not tarry long, as Ferdinand de Lesseps did during his Panama Canal debacle.  As is witnessed in de Lesseps, great men can make great mistakes. 



  • Note: Details concerning Ferdinand de Lesseps and his canal building exploits are taken from The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough.





Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, North Carolina, December 15, 2005.







© Copyright by