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The Man Who Invented Panama

July 2024
10min read

A distinguished newsman recalls a snowy night in wartime Paris, when a radio network briefly rescued from obscurity “one of the most extraordinary Frenchmen who ever lived”

Philippe Bunau-Varilla, one of the most extraordinary and extraordinarily effective Frenchmen who ever lived, was born in Paris on July 25, 1859, and died there on May 18, 1940, just as Hitler’s Panzer Corps was smashing across the French border. That was three months after my strange night with him, the cold, snowy night when he made his last public utterance.

I have often wondered if the strain of that night hastened his death. If so, it may have been mercy in disguise; had he lived a month longer, he would have watched Nazi troops marching under his windows in the Avenue d’lena. He would have died with a broken heart, in a resurgence of the bitterness he felt toward previous French governments—the one that failed with the Panama Canal, his young heart’s goal; and the one responsible for the false conviction of Captain Dreyfus, with whose final vindication Bunau-Varilla had much to do.

It could be that I was the last American he ever conversed with, and if so, I would take that as a great honor. Had this man not lived it may be doubted that the Canal would exist where it does, or that the United States would control it, or that Panama would be an independent nation. It is not stretching things so terribly far to say that Bunau-Varilla virtually invented Panama. I do not know what Panamanian history books say about this Frenchman. Certainly, there is precious little in American history books about him. If you had heard of him before you began reading this article, you are one American in a million. Indeed, I suspect that even very few Frenchmen today are aware of this countryman of theirs who had much to do with the construction of the Paris subway system, who helped save a French army in World War I, and who invented the technique that purifies the water that millions of French city dwellers now drink.

Bunau-Varilla was a great engineer; he was also, perhaps, the most persuasive one-man lobby that ever harassed and cajoled the Congress of the United States into doing exactly as he desired—and the Western alliance is safer today because of it.

I had not thought of the man for years until I arrived for a dinner party at the French Embassy in Washington one evening in the spring of 1958.1 knew that Ambassador Hervé Alphand had just remarried, but I had not known that his new wife was the former daughter-in-law of Bunau-Varilla. Her two children were present, a remarkably beautiful daughter and a son of about twenty. He was also named Philippe, and his resemblance to his grandfather was extraordinary-the same slim, slight body; the small, fine features; the same widely spaced, grave, and steady eyes. This stirred old memories in me, and when I got back to my Virginia home that night I searched among the records of my Paris wartime days. Among my wife’s effects I found something—a faded calling card. Scrawled above and below the name Philippe Bunau-Varilla, in the slightly shaky script of a very old man, were the words, in French, “Respectful homage to Madame Sevareid, with his gratitude for her gracious hospitality of the morning.” The date was February 17, 1940. On the back of the card, for reasons she cannot recall, my wife had scribbled, “This came with the beautiful box of candy the next day after he called on us from midnight to four A.M. He’s an awfully nice old man, very entertaining and has a wooden leg and lots of money and memories.”

It was his memories that interested me that winter in Paris. A cable from CBS in New York requested me to find out if the Colonel was still alive and if so, to have him make a five-minute broadcast on the Robert Ripley “Believe It or Not” radio program about his role in the Panama Canal. Very much alive in a magnificent apartment near the Etoile, the old gentleman immediately agreed. Clearly, it was an immense pleasure for him to be resurrected on the American scene, if only for five short minutes on the radio. He had his vanity, and he was entitled to it.

I called on him several times to discuss his life story as we would condense it for the broadcast. He would get books down from his shelves, open great albums of photographs, read to me from letters written to him by members of Theodore Roosevelt’s family, U.S. Cabinet members, senators, bankers, writers—all the famous worthies of the turn of the century, it seemed to me. I began to get nervous—I was young and inexperienced, and an eighty-year-old man of intense pride can be difficult to handle in shaping a broadcast.

My nervousness increased when a new cable arrived —"Cut the broadcast down to four minutes.” I broke this news to him, and a deep frown appeared between the steady, penetrating eyes. But he eventually agreed, and the pleasant manner instantly returned.

Another cable arrived—"Cut it to three minutes.” I was panic-stricken and cabled back to New York begging them to leave it at four minutes. The program producer refused; it was three or nothing. The traditional blind rage of the foreign correspondent toward the home office possessed me. My hand was literally shaking when I next pushed the doorbell at the old Colonel’s apartment, and I could scarcely get the words out as I relayed this latest necessity. He exploded. He hopped up and down on his wooden leg and shouted, “Three minutesl To tell the story of the Panama Canall No, no! Impossible! I cannot do it!”

I could only stand there mute and paralyzed through the outburst, which seemed to last an eternity. He sat down, the color of excitement slowly leaving the sharp old face. Then, as suddenly as he had exploded, he said, in a normal voice, “All right. I will do it.” The dream of speaking once more to the American people proved stronger than his sense of humiliation; and, I think, the spectacle of the stricken young man before him, about to fail on an assignment, also had something to do with his reconsideration.

We made all radio broadcasts “live” in those days—recordings were not allowed. The broadcast was scheduled for four in the morning, Paris time, and since my apartment was directly across the street from the French studios, the Colonel would come to me around midnight for a light meal and a rest before going on the air.

In the intervening days I could not help thinking how badly we instruct our young. In school I had specialized in American history and politics, and yet the name of the man who had played an extremely critical role in one of the great episodes of my country’s past was totally unknown to me until the first cable of inquiry had come from New York. So far as I had been aware, Teddy Roosevelt and Goethals had built the Canal between them, taking turns with the shovel, one gathered.

Philippe Bunau-Varilla had been dedicated to the idea of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama from the age of ten, when the immortal Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps had completed the Suez Canal and talk of Panama began to be heard at Paris dinner tables. In 1884, six years after graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique, Bunau-Varilla was hired by De Lesseps for the great enterprise at Panama, just then beginning under French control. So many of his colleagues were being felled by yellow fever, so rapidly, that Bunau-Varilla became chief engineer for the entire project at the age of twenty-six. Morale was sagging, and Bunau-Varilla fired the doubters one after another—simply because of their doubts. To his fiery spirit, doubt was treason. He, too, came within an eyelash of succumbing to the fever, but simply refused to die. In spite of his determination, the French project withered away under the debilitating effects of Paris politics, financial chicanery, and the unsnarlable red tape peculiar to France. Besides, the powers-that-were refused to follow Bunau-Varilla’s repeated suggestions that the canal be made by constructing provisional locks (as American engineers would later do) instead of trying for a sea-level waterway at the start.

The French company failed in 1889, and nearly everyone involved gave up—except Bunau-Varilla. He wrote some twenty books. He travelled all over the world trying to find private backing for a resumption of the effort. He had Czarist Russia committed, as a partner with France, when the French government collapsed and Czar Alexander III was assassinated. England was too busy with the Boer War. The United States was his only hope, but there public opinion favored Nicaragua as the canal site. The Americans wanted to disassociate their effort completely from the French failure at Panama.

Bunau-Varilla argued the case for Panama, speaking in major cities throughout the United States. He argued with President McKinley; he won the powerful support of Senator Mark Hanna and of Charles G. Dawes, Comptroller of the Currency; and finally he won over the commission Congress had created to decide between Panama and Nicaragua. But on January 7, 1902, the House of Representatives voted almost unanimously in favor of Nicaragua, and the desperate, last-inning fight was on, with the Senate the chief target. Bunau-Varilla worked so feverishly that at one juncture the French foreign minister, who happened to be in Washington, wired Bunau-Varilla’s brother in Paris, saying that his activities were highly embarrassing and that his mind was probably unbalanced. The brother, a part owner of Le Matin , rushed to Washington in alarm but soon discovered that the only thing peculiar about Bunau-Varilla was that he fought all the harder when the game seemed lost.

On May 9, 1902, a volcano on the West Indian island of Saint Vincent erupted and killed several thousand people. Two days before, the supposedly dead volcano of Mount Pelée had erupted on the island of Martinique, and thirty thousand people perished (see “Prelude to Doomsday” in the August, 1961, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). This, Bunau-Varilla later wrote in his autobiography, “was the sensational fact which, in the last quarter hour of the battle, won me the laurels of victory.” For Nicaragua had a history of volcanic disturbances; Panama did not. The Senate vote was coming up, and the cloakroom lobbying became intense.

In spite of the eruptions, all private soundings showed that a majority were still for Nicaragua. Then Bunau-Varilla remembered something. He rushed to a stamp store and found a five-peso Nicaraguan stamp that depicted the smoking volcano of Momotombo. He bought ninety of these, affixed them to letterheads, and typed out above each stamp these words: “An official witness of the volcanic activity of the isthmus of Nicaragua.” A copy of this letter, with the stamp, went to each senator three days before the ballot. The Senate declared for Panama with only eight dissenting votes. There was more jockeying between House and Senate, but by this time the Frenchman had bought up more volcano stamps, and the House was swung over.

Troubles arose in a new quarter. The Isthmus was then part of Colombia, and Colombia changed her mind about ceding a right of way. Under Bunau-Varilla’s pressure, Colombia changed her mind back again, and a treaty was signed. More trouble: the Colombian senate in August of 1903 refused to ratify the treaty, even under private warnings, chiefly from the Frenchman, that the Panamanians might simply secede from Colombia. The legislature would not bow to threats. There was only one play Bunau-Varilla had left in his bag of tricks—to carry out the threats. So he applied himself to fomenting Panama’s revolution.

First he had to be sure that if the revolt came off successfully, the United States would give her protection to the new nation. In his autobiography, Bunau-Varilla says that he discovered from friends of President Theodore Roosevelt that the U.S. would do so. But to me, as I sat one day in the old Colonel’s apartment, he told this story, as closely as my memory retains it: I called on Mr. Roosevelt and asked him point blank if, when the revolt broke out, an American war ship would be sent to Panama to “protect American lives and interests.” The President just looked at me; he said nothing. Of course, a President of the United States could not give such a commitment, especially to a foreigner and private citizen like me. But his look was enough for me. I took the gamble.∗

∗ “He is a very able fellow,” Roosevelt later wrote about the encounter, “and it was his business to find out what he thought our Government would do. I have no doubts that he was able to make a very accurate guess, and to advise his people accordingly. In fact, he would have been a very dull man if he had been unable to make such a guess.”

Not that a single man can produce a rebellion; there were plenty of disgruntled Panamanians ready to help, and various meetings with their representatives took place at Bunau-Varilla’s Waldorf-Astoria suite. They wanted six million dollars, chiefly to pay their ragged guerrilla force. Bunau-Varilla got the price down, he said, to 1100,000, and paid it out of his own pocket. Next he busied himself drafting a Panamanian declaration of independence and a constitution. He even bought silk at Macy’s for a Panamanian flag, which he designed and which his wife and a family friend stitched together at a Westchester County estate.

Alarming telegrams arrived from the conspirators in Colon—a Colombian armed force was about to land. A few soldiers did arrive, but the American warship, the cruiser Nashville , was already there. Its presence so bolstered the population that the soldiers threw down their arms. Bunau-Varilla, a French citizen, was named first minister plenipotentiary of the new republic. He helped draft an instrument giving the United States perpetual use and control of a specified strip across the Isthmus, and on November 18, 1903, he and Secretary of State John Hay signed the treaty that bears their names.

The great work could begin again, under American auspices. Still, the Frenchman left nothing to chance. He had enemies in Panama and in the United States who wanted the treaty revised or rejected by the Senate. To neutralize them he leaked its contents to the New York Sun, almost the only American newspaper that had favored the Panama location. A highhanded action, no doubt, for a foreign guest, but those were rougher days, and Bunau-Varilla gave no quarter in a fight. The treaty was finally ratified by the Senate the following February.

Did he gain financially from his immense labors of plotting and persuasion? If he did, he does not mention it in his autobiography, and he did not mention it to me in our talks.

When I knew him he was a man of immense pride and vanity. Perhaps he exaggerated his own role in the story of the Panama Canal, but certainly not by very much. And perhaps he exaggerated, in his memories, his role in the Dreyfus case; yet it was surely a substantial one.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew, an artillery officer assigned to the Ministry of War. In 1894 he was convicted of treason for offering to supply the Germans with French military secrets. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was sent to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the coast of South America.

The case rocked France to its political foundations with its ultimate revelations of anti-Semitism and corruption in the French Army. Bunau-Varilla had been a classmate of Dreyfus at the Ecole Polytechnique, but had known him only slightly. Two years after Dreyfus’ conviction, Bunau-Varilla and his brother published in Le Matin a photostat of the incriminating letter Dreyfus was supposed to have written to the German military attaché in Paris, together with a photostat of a letter Dreyfus had written Bunau-Varilla a few years before. Since the two showed little resemblance in the handwriting, this helped to reopen the disputed case; it was one of the important steps that led, years later, to the pardon and rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus and the political cleansing of the French Army, just in time for its great trial of World War I.

In the conferences I had with him as the broadcast date approached, I learned more about his extraordinary career. The day the Great War began, in August of 1914, Philippe Bunau-Varilla was on the first great steamer that sailed through the Panama Canal. A year later, he was on the Champagne front with the French Second Army when lack of a water supply threatened to cripple a planned September offensive. On the spot, Bunau-Varilla devised a purification system which he called “Verdunization,” since it was used during the great Battle of Verdun; later he referred to the incident as “the most extraordinary adventure of my life.” (His latest adventure was always his best.) On the Verdun front he lost his leg in a bomb explosion. That, one would think, would have been his most memorable and critical adventure, but he gave it less than a page in his autobiography and devoted a whole chapter to “Verdunization.” His historical perspective was good, for his water purifying system was adopted by cities all over the world.

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