This paper endeavors to expose the mechanics of U.S. empire building through the battle between one forgotten man and his superior over how the construction of the Panama Canal should be remembered. The essay explores the previously unexamined diaries and photographs of Aurin Bugbee (A.B.) Nichols, an Office Engineer who worked for the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) from 1904–1915. In his archive of over a thousand pages, Nichols catalogued the smallest details of the canal’s construction. However, within the reams of meticulous scientific analysis, Nichols also questioned the triumphalist narrative of Panama, written by his boss at the ICC, its official Secretary and unofficial propagandist, Joseph Buck-lin Bishop. Nichols felt particularly compelled to protest when Bishop – a man appointed by President Roosevelt and later endorsed President Taft — privileged a flattering, rather than factual, depiction of the Zone. Nichols even created a minority report to counter Bishop’s authoritative valuation of the canal; whereas Bishop wished to present America’s purchase favorably, Nichols’s assessment revealed that the U.S. had slightly overpaid for the land. In his various publications, Bishop suppressed the engineer’s dissenting opinion, suggesting how creators of the official narrative must quiet opposing voices in order to present a uniformly powerful version of national acquisition. Still, Nichols continued to resist in subtle ways, even though he confined his grievances to fastidious letters and private fulminations. Given his career and his temperament, Nichols largely remained the dutiful bureaucrat. Moreover, his preference for detailed accuracy over narrative flourish rendered him incapable of producing a cohesive or sustained history of Panama. Still, his forgotten journals suggest that history is not a monolith. Even though Nichols’s precise calculations helped to construct the canal, his complicated story dismantled Bishop’s version of America’s imperial perfection.


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pp. 55-83
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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