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The successful opening of the canal in August 1914, at almost precisely the moment when Old Europe was embarking on a ruinous war, was the climax of the United States’ spectacular rise to world power. The Isthmus was the key to the struggle for mastery of the Western Hemisphere as well as to wider international commercial and naval strength. With the successful completion of the Washington-funded and dominated canal, the United States emerged as a truly global power and the “American Century” could begin.

In December 1849 British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston sent Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer to Washington to try to find a solution to the standoff. The result was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, at the heart of which lay the desire by both sides to avoid having a canal exclusively controlled by the other. In effect, the fear of a foreign-controlled canal—which would hand to its owner total dominance of the region—was greater than the benefits that such a waterway might provide. The treaty stipulated that neither the United States nor Great Britain would take exclusive control over any waterway in Central America or try to fortify any that might be built.

CHAPTER ONE “THE KEYS TO THE UNIVERSE” What had motivated the voyages that led to the discovery of the New World was exactly what the Panama Canal would eventually deliver—a through passage to the East. ” At one point he anchored in Limón, or “Navy,” Bay, now the Atlantic terminus of the canal. Even after Columbus's failure to find an open passage to the East, the idea died hard. In 1507, the first map ever printed of the New World optimistically showed an open strait about where the Isthmus of Panama is located.

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