Strategy and Commerce…The Panama Canal


Today in History, August 15: 1914 – The Panama Canal opens for business as the cargo ship Ancon becomes the first ship to transit the series of locks. A long and complex history led to the canal’s opening. The French tried first, but failed after malaria and the huge cost ended their venture. The Canal was important to the US. After the Spanish-American War, the US had interests in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and they had always needed a faster, less dangerous route to the nation’s coasts for shipping than the Strait of Magellan at South America’s Southern tip. President Theodore Roosevelt ramrodded the building of the canal. When a treaty with Columbia fell through, the Panamanians, who wanted the canal, declared their independence from Columbia and TR sent the US Navy to support their efforts. After they won their independence they signed the Hay-Bunua-Varilla Treaty, giving American ownership of the canal in exchange for rent.  John Hay was the Secretary of State for the US, who had been a secretary to President Lincoln many years before.  Was their some skullduggery involved in these dealings? Of course. For years after it’s opening, the Canal served it’s purpose…commerce between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and a quick route for American warships (in the photo, the USS Missouri transits the Canal in 1945) to defend the country in both oceans (WWII was known as the Two Ocean War). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty giving away the Canal to the Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos. Today, the Chinese are bankrolling the expansion of the Canal. Which means the nation that we are likely to have conflict with in the next century has control of the route our Navy would need to defend our country. So. Who do you favor? President Theodore Roosevelt? Or President Jimmy Carter? I vote for Teddy. Would love to see them in a debate, or in a ring together.

In Harm’s Way


Today in History, July 18: 1792 – “”I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” John Paul Jones dies in Paris, France. John Paul was born in Scotland and went to sea with British merchant ships at 13. In the West Indies he killed another sailor whom he said was a mutineer and had to flee. He settled in the American colonies and changed his name to John Paul Jones. He joined the Continental Navy when the Revolution began and became famous for his daring and courage; capturing several ships as prizes, raiding the English coast and fighting a horrific battle with his ship “Bonhomme Richard” (French for Poor Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin) during which he responded to a demand for surrender with “I have not yet begun to fight!” After the war he served briefly in the Russian Navy as an admiral, but wanted to return to American service. The “Father of the US Navy” died without fanfare in Paris and was buried in an unmarked grave. Over 100 years later, in 1905, US Ambassador to France Gen. Horace Porter led the search to find Jones’ body, and with the help of the French, succeeded. Jones was taken back to America aboard the cruiser USS Brooklyn and was escorted into port by 7 battleships and 2 other cruisers. President Theodore Roosevelt, a naval power and history enthusiast, spoke at a ceremony at the US Naval Academy honoring Jones. Jones was eventually moved to his current tomb in the chapel at the Academy. An interesting aside; Gen. Porter had quite a history of his own. He was a Medal of Honor recipient for valor during the Civil War, was aide-de-camp to Gen. US Grant, was present in the room at Appomattox when Lee surrendered, and was Grant’s personal secretary during his Presidency.

Today in History, July 14: 1918 – US Airman Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, dies when he is shot down over France in WWI.   The German military returned his affects to President Roosevelt, and the French wanted to erect a monument to Quentin. He and his brothers, who all served in WWI were very competitive in the voracity of their service, trying to live up to their father’s exploits…Rough Rider, etc. 

The back story is interesting. TR had been a sickly child who nobody expected to become much. But he was a fighter. He forced himself to exercise through severe pain until he became “barrel chested” and strong. He led an incredibly busy life, full speed throughout. His youngest son Quentin struggled with some of the same challenges. 

After TR’s presidency, TR went on an treacherous exploring expedition in South America, putting the dangerous “River of Doubt” on the map. Quentin went with him, aiding his father through deprivations that nearly killed the elder Roosevelt. 

 TR wanted to go to war for his country when WW1 began, but President Wilson, of the opposite political party, would not allow it, afraid TR would gain favor and face him in the next election.

TR wouldn’t live that long…and he spent the intervening time heartbroken over the loss of his youngest son.

All of the boys had served on the front lines in France. And 26 years later General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr had to pull strings so he would be allowed to go ashore with the unit he commanded at Normandy on D-Day. Within days he was dead of a heart attack.

A Day of Battles

Today in History, July 1: A day for important battles. 

 1863 – The Union and the Confederates first clash at The Battle of Gettysburg, and both send reinforcements. The first day went badly for the Union, but the largest battle in North America had three more days to go, and would become a major turning point in the Civil War. 

 1898 – The Battle of San Juan Hill becomes a major victory for the US in the Spanish-American War as the US Army’s Fifth Corps takes the heights over Santiago de Cuba. It also set the stage for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt to become President as he became famous for leading his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill (not San Juan). 

 1916 – The Battle of the Somme in France; after a week’s bombardment with over 250,000 shells, the British launch an attack into no-man’s land. The Germans had retained many machine guns despite the bombardment, and the British soldiers were slaughtered. With 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded in one day, it was one of the worst defeats for the British military’s history. 

 1942 – The Battle of El Alamein; In North Africa Erwin Rommel’s army had routed the British and their allies, driving them back so quickly that they had to leave much of their equipment behind. But on today’s date the British Army, resupplied by Americans and reorganized, turned the tide back on Rommel at El Alamein.

Thank you, Henry James Hungerford…


Today in History, June 27: 1829 – Strange that we should be thankful that Henry James Hungerford died childless in 1835. On this date in 1829 a British scientist who had never set foot on American soil died in Genoa, Italy. James Smithson was a wealthy man. He wrote in his will, “In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”.

So thanks to James Smithson’s eccentricity, which he never explained, and the untimely death of his nephew, the US came into possession of over $500,000.00 in funds dedicated to research and learning. President Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to receive the funds, President James K. Polk signed the bill creating the Smithsonian Institute once Congress agreed how to use the money. President Theodore Roosevelt saw to the movement of Smithson’s body from Italy to “The Castle” of the Institute in 1904. Smithson was escorted from Genoa to Washington by none other than Institute regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. Today the Smithsonian has 19 museums and the national zoo, including the National Aeronautics and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world. Thank you, Mr. Smithson.

The Antiquities Act

Today in History, June 8: 1906 – The Antiquities Act of 1906 is signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt after being passed by Congress. In the preceding years historic sites had been discovered in the west, and of course, they were soon raided by thieves, vandals and historians from other countries. The Act was designed to protect these places as National Monuments, preserve them for future generations,  to be named either by the President or Congress. Roosevelt, a historian, quickly took advantage of the new power, naming 18 Monuments before his Presidency ended, including (first) Devil’s Tower, Muir Woods, The Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon and the Petrified Forest. The Act has become more controversial in the years since FDR named The Grand Teton National Monument (near Jackson Hole, Wyoming) in 1943.  In recent years the subject has become even more volatile as some Westerners believe their land rights are being encroached upon. The current administration is revisiting several sites, raising alarm amongst defenders of National Parks and Monuments. 

The Crusading Commissioner

Today in History, May 6: 1895 – A former New York State Assembleyman who had been serving in DC of late is sworn in as a NYC Police Commissioner; one of several on the board. He would quickly be voted to be the President of the Police Commission.  Notably, he served on the commission with Frederick Dent Grant, son of former General and President US Grant. 

Theodore Roosevelt was out to make a name for himself, but also do some good; reform minded in light of recent events in the NYPD. 

He soon became a scourge for the officers as he began to conduct frequent walks through the streets at night, finding officers asleep or spending their time in bars rather than on patrol.  He also worked to weed out corruption, finding himself at odds with those that padded their salaries with bribe money. 

Roosevelt also found allies amongst those who appreciated his efforts not only for reform, but also to provide much needed training and equipment for the officers who wanted a more professional agency to emerge. 

He made a huge mistake in attempting to enforce a law in which bars must be closed on Sundays. Immigrants in the city worked 6 days a week, with only Sunday off to socialize and drink. The backlash cost TR’s Republican party in the next elections. 

Roosevelt would also be shaped during his midnight patrols and other tours. He would see the squalor that many lower income families endured, which would help drive his battles for better working conditions as President. 

Roosevelt would spend two years as NYPD Police Commissioner. The whirlwind that was his life would continue.  Back to DC as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he would drive the building of a 20th Century force, the Rough Riders and Cuba, Governor of NY, Vice President, then President…all by Sept 1901. 

The First “Fireside” Chat

Today in History, March 12: 1933 – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt holds his first “Fireside Chat” with the American public. We must set the historical stage to begin with. Get rid of your cell phone; you don’t have a computer, nor a television. Chances are, you don’t have a telephone at all. You have, however, scrimped, and saved so that you could buy a radio for your family. Each evening you and your family huddled close to the large box that conveyed sound from all over the country. Last week the President unilaterally closed every bank in the country because people were panicking and making “runs” on the banks during the Great Depression. Today, after the panic had calmed down, he re-opened the banks. And tonight, he spoke to his “friends”, as if he were sitting in their living rooms by the fire, to explain his actions with his calming, melodious voice. He was the first President that was able to do so…and FDR was a master politician, a master at making his listeners believe that he was actually sitting next to his fire in a rocker chatting with his friends.  Although he was certainly upper class, he spoke in common language so he could relate to all walks of life. In reality he was sitting at his desk in the oval office, speaking into several microphones, surrounded by wires. He calmed the American citizens, as he did 31 more times in “fireside” chats until 1944 through financial strife and World War. I wonder what his cousin TR would have done with this medium; I also wonder what it would be like to live in a “simpler” time…I say that because our values were more focused then, not because our parents and grandparents dealt with less complicated problems…that is certainly not the case. Some reading this could school us on their feelings as children during those times. The rest of us can only imagine that it was new and amazing for the President to speak to you directly.

“Now look! That damned cowboy is President of the United States!” -Sen. Mark Hanna

Today in History, September 14:  1901 – About a year earlier, Senator Mark Hanna had been discussing with other high-powered Republican leaders whether or not to enlist New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to be the Vice-Presidential nominee for President William McKinley’s second term.  Hanna made no bones about his opposition, “Don’t any of you realize there’s only one life between this madman and the presidency?”  But, other political leaders from New York state wanted the head-strong reformer out of their governor’s office, and most felt he would be rendered harmless as VP.  However this former NYC Police Commissioner, Under Secretary of the Navy, Colonel of the Rough Riders and yes, Cowboy, was wildly popular and would be a boon for the ticket.  When named, TR set records on the campaign trail.

On today’s date in 1901 President McKinley succumbed to infection from his wounds from being shot by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  McKinley had prided himself on shaking as many hands as possible, and was prepared to shake his assassin’s hand when shot by a concealed .32 revolver.

It initially looked as if President McKinley would recover, so Roosevelt left his side in Buffalo and joined his family mountain climbing in the Adirondacks.  When the first messenger ran up the mountain to inform TR that the President had taken a turn for the worse, he decided to stay with his family.  When the second messenger came up the mountain to say the President was dying, Roosevelt left immediately.  He once gain set records in wild wagon rides to make it to the nearest train station and return to McKinley’s side.  It was not to be….WM had passed while TR was on his wild ride down the mountain.

Theodore Roosevelt paid his respects at the residence where McKinley’s body laid, then was sworn in as the youngest President at a friends home in Buffalo in a small ceremony.

When TR asked Mark Hanna for his support, Hanna had two conditions…that Roosevelt would continue McKinley’s policies (sort of did) and…if Roosevelt would stop calling Hanna the “old man”, Hanna would stop referring to TR by the nickname he hated, “Teddy.”  Hanna gave his support, but the nicknames continued.