Reading Group Guide
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough
Reader's Group Guide
1. The relations between Panamanians and the canal builders progressively worsened during the construction period. An American journalist noted, "In temperament and tradition, we are miles away from the Panamanians...the age-old hostility to the 'Gringo' is deep-rooted. Differences in language, customs and religious practices kept the breach wide." What (if anything) do you think that the canal leaders could have done to improve relations with local people? In your opinion, should that have been a priority or were there too many other pressing issues?
2. The International Congress on the Study of an Interoceanic Canal of 1879 in Paris was ostensibly an international gathering of knowledgeable delegates who would arrive at an "impartial, scientific, international sanction" about the location and type of interoceanic canal. Instead it had been conceived to "provide an inaugural ceremony for a decision already made by...Ferdinand de Lesseps. American delegate A.G. Menocal was very disappointed that the Congress lacked "serious people, professionals of proven competence" and people who "would make their decision in a spirit of reason and impartiality." Was Menocal's expectation a naïve one? Do you believe that the 1879 Congress is representative of most international congresses or was it the exception?
3. Boasting about the U.S.' involvement in aiding the Panama Revolution, Theodore Roosevelt states in a 1911 speech, "Accordingly I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me." Years later, the United States would pay an indemnity of $25,000,000 to Colombia under President Wilson. Do you feel that this was sufficient? Were you surprised by the extent of the U.S.' involvement in the Panama Revolution? Do you believe that the U.S. government today would offer the same type of assistance to a group of revolutionaries if it were advantageous to U.S. interests?
4. The completion of the Panama Canal, "a masterpiece in design and construction," is considered one of the most important engineering triumphs of all time. Even more impressive, is that the canal was built despite the persistence of torrential rains, unbearable heat, disease and colossal mudslides. As a result, the last chapter of the book is appropriately titled "Triumph." What do you believe was the biggest triumph of the canal?
5. Unquestionably the "unskilled" West Indian labor force was as essential to building the Panama Canal as the American engineers. However, there was a vastly different approach to the treatment of these two populations during the canal-building period. Did the U.S. have an obligation (moral or otherwise) to provide better housing and disease prevention to these workers, although they were not American citizens? Why or why not?
6. With the collapse of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son, Charles, both lost everything that they had invested in the company, along with scores of French investors. Does this somehow make the de Lesseps' deceitful actions seem less malicious? Compare and contrast the de Lesseps with corporate leaders of today charged with deceiving investors.
7. The collapse of the French canal-building company revealed an enormous level of corruption in French society. By the time Edouard Dumont began pointing fingers in La Libre Parole, "a government had fallen; three former premiers had been named in the plot, along with two former ministers and two prominent senators; more than a hundred deputies or former deputies stood accused of taking payoffs..." Were you surprised at just how pervasive corruption surrounding the French efforts at Panama was? Why do you think that the U.S. effort at Panama was free of corruption?
8. McCullough describes Ferdinand de Lesseps as complex and ambivalent man, with a personality filled with many contradictions. He was " both the most daring of dreamers and the cleverest of back-room manipulators. He was the indestructible optimist...and he was perfectly capable of deceit and of playing to the vanity and greed in other men." What do you think were Ferdinand de Lesseps greatest attributes and worst faults? What was the principal reason for the collapse of his French canal company? Do you think he was most guilty of self-deception? Explain.
9. Theodore Roosevelt insisted that he was not an imperialist. "It was inconceivable to him that Americans could ever be viewed as imperialistic...Expansion was different; it was growth; it was progress, it was in the American grain. He was striving to lead his generation toward some larger, more noble objective than mere moneymaking." Is there validity in this statement or is this a matter of semantics? Was the building of the Panama Canal an imperialistic effort on the part of the U.S. government?
10. Harry Franck, a canal employee who wrote a book about his experiences in Panama, likened the society within the Canal Zone to the caste society of India. Franck says, "The Brahmins are the gold employees, white American citizens with all the advantages and privileges thereto appertaining." Do you agree with this description of the gold-silver system in the Canal? Explain.
11. Phillipe Banau-Varilla's actions following Panama's revolution are considered nothing short of betrayal by Panamanians. With respect to the treaty negotiated by the U.S. and this Frenchman, U.S. Secretary Hays confided that the treaty was "very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the U.S....and not so advantageous to Panama...You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object." What do you believer was the principal motivation for Banau-Varilla's treachery? Was it greed, paternalism, egotism or something else? Explain.
12. Although there were several popular explanations for the causes of transmission of malaria and yellow fever, many believed that morality was a factor. Similarly, morality was thought to play a part in becoming infected with HIV/AIDS early on. Why do you think there is a tendency for people to correlate infectious diseases with morality?
13. One of the recurring themes of this book is the incredibly paralyzing effect that ideology can have on its adherents, even when facing irrefutable facts to the contrary. Two examples of this were the insistence on building a sea level canal although it was impossible given the geography of Panama and the dismissal of the scientific progress made by Dr. Gorgas in the study of the mosquito's role in disease transmission. Were you surprised at how much ideology played a part in practically every facet of the building of the canal? Explain.