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The Big Ditch

How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal

Noel Maurer

Publication Year: 2010

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal officially opened for business, forever changing the face of global trade and military power, as well as the role of the United States on the world stage. The Canal's creation is often seen as an example of U.S. triumphalism, but Noel Maurer and Carlos Yu reveal a more complex story. Examining the Canal's influence on Panama, the United States, and the world, The Big Ditch deftly chronicles the economic and political history of the Canal, from Spain's earliest proposals in 1529 through the final handover of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999, to the present day.

The authors show that the Canal produced great economic dividends for the first quarter-century following its opening, despite massive cost overruns and delays. Relying on geographical advantage and military might, the United States captured most of these benefits. By the 1970s, however, when the Carter administration negotiated the eventual turnover of the Canal back to Panama, the strategic and economic value of the Canal had disappeared. And yet, contrary to skeptics who believed it was impossible for a fledgling nation plagued by corruption to manage the Canal, when the Panamanians finally had control, they switched the Canal from a public utility to a for-profit corporation, ultimately running it better than their northern patrons.

A remarkable tale, The Big Ditch offers vital lessons about the impact of large-scale infrastructure projects, American overseas interventions on institutional development, and the ability of governments to run companies effectively.

Published by: Princeton University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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p. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xv

One of the best things about having great colleagues is that they recognize implications of your work in ways that had never occurred to you. This book began as a short social savings exercise. After we presented our preliminary results, Gavin Wright...

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ONE: Introduction to the Ditch

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pp. 1-12

From a distance, in North America, the Panama Canal seems like an imperialist anachronism, a historical leftover from a discreditable and nearly forgotten chapter of U.S. history. Up close, however, it is immediately apparent that the Panama Canal is one...

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TWO: Before the Ditch

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pp. 13-54

Centuries before the Panama Canal was built, commercial traffic used the Isthmus of Panama to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In fact, Panama experienced two economic booms in the pre-canal era. The first economic boom occurred...

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THREE: Preparing the Ditch

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pp. 55-96

From the perspective of the early Twenty-First Century, the Panama Canal stands as a singular accomplishment, a triumph of smokestack technology and muscular diplomacy. To its contemporaries, however, the Panama Canal as we know it...

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FOUR: Digging the Ditch

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pp. 97-138

The construction of the Panama Canal was a very large project in a very small economy. It created a management nightmare. It ran significantly over budget by any standard. It generated interest groups that captured canal policies to their own ends. It...

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FIVE: Crossing the Ditch

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pp. 139-188

The Panama Canal was an engineering marvel. Many people also predicted the Panama Canal would be an economic marvel. Nearly all the early boosters and promoters of an isthmian canal believed that a canal would be a godsend for world commerce...

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SIX: Passed by the Ditch

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pp. 189-211

BEFORE the opening of the Panama Canal, it was widely believed that a canal across the Panamanian isthmus would transform Panama into one of the great commercial centers of the world. Bolívar compared Panama to Corinth, which owed its success in...

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SEVEN: Sliding into Irrelevancy

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pp. 212-263

In 1939, ownership over the Panama Canal seemed to be a cornerstone of national security and economic prosperity for the United States. Six years later, by 1945, that characterization was no longer as clear—in the aftermath of World War II, the canal appeared...

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EIGHT: Ditching the Ditch

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pp. 264-312

The year 1978 was a watershed year for the Panama Canal. On March 16, the U.S. Senate ratified the Neutrality Treaty. A month later, on April 18, it ratified the parallel Panama Canal Treaty. Under the terms of the treaties, the Canal Zone would disappear...

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NINE: Concluding the Ditch

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pp. 313-332

On May 3, 2009, Panamanian supermarket magnate and New York Yankees fan Ricardo Martinelli defeated former Panamanian housing minister Balbina Herrera of the incumbent Partido Revolucionario Democrático by 22 points. By Latin American...


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pp. 333-399


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pp. 401-420

E-ISBN-13: 9781400836284
E-ISBN-10: 140083628X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780691147383
Print-ISBN-10: 0691147388

Page Count: 438
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: Course Book

OCLC Number: 677982566
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Big Ditch

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Panama Canal (Panama) -- History.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Panama.
  • Panama -- Foreign relations -- United States.
  • Imperialism -- Economic aspects.
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