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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Canal Transfer Ends American Century




MIRAFLORES LOCKS, Panama -- Millennium celebrations may still be a couple of weeks away, but the American Century symbolically ended here Tuesday with a ceremony marking the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama.


In 1903, nothing compared with Washington's decision to build the canal as a statement of U.S. determination to stand as a world power, even if it meant assisting Panama's secession from Colombia.


And while the phrase American Century was actually coined by Henry Luce in 1941, it could have been the motto of President Theodore Roosevelt, who dominated the organizational, medical and engineering tour de force that connected the Atlantic and Pacific.


Ninety-six years later, Tuesday's ceremony noting the imminent turnover reflects the more patient and, above all, more cooperative role in the world that the United States now says it seeks.


Out of a late 20th-century sense of sovereignty and respect for somebody else's national pride, a great power is in fact voluntarily giving a piece of valuable national property to a tiny nation with no capacity to seize it.


With the end of the Cold War, the venturesome role of presidents like the Theodore Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson seems to have given way, if not fully to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of Woodrow Wilson, then at least to a sense of the importance of consultation and coalition before bombs are dropped. In Korea and Vietnam, the United States acted first, then looked for allies. In the Persian Gulf and Kosovo, it sought allies first.


Even President Bill Clinton's decision to stay away from the ceremony, though it caused disappointment and even criticism in Panama, meant the United States would not dominate the day.


That star role was left to Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, who used the occasion to build political bridges by hailing the Panamanian architect of the turnover, the late General Omar Torrijos, even though he seized power by a coup that ousted her late husband from the presidency.


Tuesday's events went without a hitch, except for a soloist who mangled the words to "The Star Spangled Banner." But these events were entirely symbolic.


The transfer of canal authority has been going on since the treaties were ratified in 1978, and indeed the final step will not be taken until Dec. 31, with far less hoopla.


Moscoso and former President Jimmy Carter, leading the U.S. delegation, signed a piece of paper in essence promising to keep on implementing the transfer treaty. Carter said simply, "It's yours." But the almost casual U.S. approach to giving away the canal that cost it $352 million and 5,609 lives should not obscure the difficulties Carter had in winning Senate ratification, with only one vote to spare f even though then, as now, not a single U.S. aircraft carrier would fit into the canal and nuclear submarines never used it.


Ronald Reagan's rhetoric that "We bought it. We built it. It's ours and we are going to keep it" resonated with Republicans, and fears of Cuban and Soviet aggression made some Senate votes to ratify into tickets to electoral defeat.


On Tuesday, Carter scoffed at treaty opponents as "demagogues" and said, "There are still a few of them in my nation today."


The world was a simpler place for Roosevelt. No one except the Colombians and a few U.S. senators, many of whom favored a different canal route, objected to the U.S. help given the Panamanian revolution.


But some things remain the same. The United States could dream of a canal because it was the world's foremost economic power, and in 1905, settling on a new chief engineer for the canal distracted Roosevelt at least briefly from efforts to mediate the end of the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.


As the American Century ends, Clinton is trying to help Israel and Syria make peace in Washington on Wednesday.