In addition to governing its new and far-flung possessions, the United States suddenly had to prepare to defend them. An example of the problem of defense occurred during the Spanish-American War.
Before the war, the American battleship Oregon had been stationed on the Pacific coast of the United States. When war became likely, the Oregon was summoned to the Caribbean Sea. The battleship had to race around the entire South American continent, a distance of almost 13,000 miles, to reach the Caribbean. The United States realized that it would either have to build two complete navies or find an easier and quicker way to move warships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
A canal across the Isthmus of Panama had long been considered. The French company that built the Suez Canal had tried unsuccessfully to build a canal across Panama. In the late 1800s, the United States began negotiating for permission and a right-of-way to build a canal. It asked Colombia for a lease to a strip of land across the Isthmus of Panama, which by then was a Colombian province.
After negotiations the Colombian senate rejected the request, a move that angered people in the United States and some in the province of Panama who wanted the canal because it would create great benefits for them. When negotiations seemingly broke down, some Panamanian business leaders and American residents of Panama proclaimed a revolution to gain independence from Colombia.
American warships stationed at Panama prevented Colombian to from moving in reinforcements to suppress the revolt. The revolution succeeded, and the United States recognized the independence of Panama. In 1903 the new government gave the United States all rights necessary to build a canal across Panama.
The Panama Canal, one of the world’s great engineering achievements, opened in 1914. It might have been impossible to build without newly invented power shovels and other new machines. Medical science, too, played a vital part. A Cuban doctor, Carlos Juan Finlay, discovered that mosquitoes carry yellow fever, a disease that had decimated workers attempting to build the canal. By destroying the mosquitoes, scientists controlled the spread of the disease, thus enabling construction crews to work in the Panamanian jungles, The new canal shortened the sea route from New York to San Francisco by about 8,000 miles, Fleets in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could be shifted quickly. Merchant ships of all nations paid a toll to use the canal, but the vastly shortened route saved time and operating costs.
The Panama Canal also had an important effect on the countries of Central and South America that bordered the Caribbean Sea. Formerly a poor and unsettled region in frequent chaos, Central America became a crossroads of trade.