The Panama Canal was first proposed by Spain as early as 1534.
It would save having to sail the long and dangerous trip around South America's Strait of Magellan.
France began building a sea-level canal in 1880, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.
France to abandon the effort because of landslides from heavy seasonal rains and tropical diseases of malaria and yellow fever, which killed 25,000.
After the Spanish-American War, Dr. Walter Reed of the U.S. Army researched in Cuba in 1899 and confirmed the discovery of Dr. Carlos Finlay, that malaria and yellow fever were carried by mosquitoes.
With this knowledge, public sanitation measures were developed which made construction of a canal in Panama more attainable.
In 1903, the United States helped Panama gain its independence from Colombia.
The United States purchased the Canal Zone from Panama for ten million dollars on FEBRUARY 23, 1904, plus annual payments of $250,000.
The Panama Canal was planned by President William McKinley, with the actual construction beginning under President Theodore Roosevelt.
Instead of a straight sea-level canal, Roosevelt favored a key design change: have a set of three locks rise from sea-level to a lake, then on the other side of the lake have three locks going back down to sea level.
On December 17, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed Congress:
"The Isthmus had been a by-word for deadly unhealthfulness.
Now, after two years of our occupation the conditions as regards sickness and the death rate compare ... with reasonably healthy localities in the United States.
Especial care has been devoted to minimizing the risk due to the presence of those species of mosquitoes which have been found to propagate malarial and yellow fevers."
For the construction of the canal, inventions were made, such as:
hydraulic rock crushers,
pneumatic power drills and
This technology, largely developed and built in the United States, was used to create the largest dam and Gatun Lake -- the largest man-made lake in the world at that time.
On December 6, 1912, President William Taft addressed Congress:
"Our defense of the Panama Canal, together with our enormous world trade and our missionary outposts on the frontiers of civilization, require us to recognize our position as one of the foremost in the family of nations,
and to clothe ourselves with sufficient naval power to give force to our reasonable demands, and to give weight to our influence in those directions of progress that a powerful Christian nation should advocate."
On October 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson stated in his Thanksgiving Proclamation:
"We have seen the practical completion of a great work at the Isthmus of Panama which not only exemplifies the nation's abundant capacity of its public servants but also promises the beginning of a new age of co-operation and peace.
'Righteousness exalteth a nation' and 'peace on earth, good will towards men' furnish the only foundation upon which can be built the lasting achievements of the human spirit."
The Panama Canal was opened August 15, 1914, the same year World War I began.
Within 10 years, more than 5,000 ships a year were passing through the Panama Canal.
The largest American engineering project to that date, it had cost the United States $375,000,000 (roughly $10 billion today).
The Panama Canal also cost 5,600 American lives.
On March 31, 1976, California Governor Ronald Reagan stated:
"Well, the Canal Zone is not a colonial possession. It is not a long-term lease. It is sovereign United States Territory every bit the same as Alaska and all the states that were carved from the Louisiana Purchase ...
We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it."
After contentious public debate, Democrat President Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal in 1977.
Concern arose as to what international influences would fill the vacuum once the United States transferred control. Such concern by those opposing the transfer was voiced by Admiral Thomas Moorer, commander of the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic fleets and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974, who stated in The New American, March 29, 1999:
"Chinese are poised to effectively take control of the Panama Canal ... The Panama Canal is very close to home and is one of our most vital commercial and military assets ...
In 1996, while China was illegally pouring millions of dollars into Clinton’s reelection effort, it was also funneling huge amounts of cash to Panamanian politicians to ensure that one of its front companies, Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong, could move in when we vacate.
In 1997, Panama secretly turned over the American-built port facility at Balboa, which controls shipping on the Pacific side, and at Cristobal, which controls shipping on the Atlantic side, to Hutchison ..."
Admiral Moorer continued:
"We are scheduled to turn over Rodman Naval Station, Howard Air Force Base, and other important military facilities to Panama, which has given Hutchison an option on these bases ...
President Clinton may say that they are our friends and allies, but the Chinese military and Communist Party literature refer to the United States as 'the main enemy.'
And despite what ... Henry Kissinger, and the media may tell you about 'reform' in China, it is still run by a brutal, totalitarian, Communist regime that will do us harm if and when it thinks it can get the better of us."
Strategic U.S. built anchor ports at either end of the Panama Canal (Balboa and Cristobal), have been operated by Huchinson Port Holding -- the world's largest seaport operator.
In 2016, the Panama Canal will open a new set of locks allowing for larger ships.
Panama has since become a popular haven for American expats who prefer to not live in the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his Autobiography:
"By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President was related to the Panama Canal."