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The Unknown Fraud: The Panama Canal

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Before the Panama Canal was built, and before the country of Panama had its independence from Colombia, there was much debate on where the canal should be placed. A majority of scholars and intellectuals agreed that Nicaragua was the most ideal location because the country negated the need for locks, which would certainly be needed further south in Panama. However, some of the most prominent American figures of the time such as: J.P Morgan and United States President Teddy Roosevelt disagreed. Why? Simply because they had fraud on their minds. Both parties stood to profit greatly because of J.P Morgan owned numerous shares in the De Lesseps Company whom had the building rights to the Canal in Panama. In order to fulfill his own desires J.P Morgan began a smear campaign against Nicaragua claiming that it was too dangerous to build there because of their natural hazards such as Volcanos. One problem stood in Morgan’s way. The Colombian government refused to grant the construction rights of the canal to a United States owned company. This refusal led J.P Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt to devise a plan behind closed doors to use American arms to dismantle Colombia’s grasp on Panama. The plan was enacted and was successful. In the eyes of historians, this act is the greatest example of Gun Boat Policy. Within this paper I will discuss the libel cases that Teddy Roosevelt instigated against Joseph Pulitzer over their writings about Roosevelt, Morgan and the Fraud which was the Panama Canal.

Joseph Pulitzer, a writer for the New York World, became one of the centerpieces of the libel lawsuits after the presidential election of 1908 (Pierce 171). This was simply due to the fact that the articles Pulitzer was writing exposed Roosevelt’s gunboat policy and led to a second congressional investigation of the purchase which infuriated Roosevelt because he was about to be exposed for his wrongdoings. Roosevelt was so concerned with trying to save his own skin that he managed to push the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Before Roosevelt was able to push the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, Roosevelt showed his true character in a letter he wrote to the United States Attorney for New York. Within that letter he wrote “I do not know anything about the law of criminal libel, but I should like to have it invoked against Pulitzer, of the World. Would you have his various utterances looked up?’. As I read this quote, I entirely changed my opinion about Teddy Roosevelt. It showed me that even though he had absolutely no idea how libel worked, he was willing to abusive his status in America to bring unjust charges against an innocent man. To prove even further that Teddy Roosevelt is a crook who was only in it for the money the very next day he gave a statement to the Lakes to the Gulf Waterway Association. Within this statement he said that he was extremely happy of his own accomplishments in Panama especially because they were beyond any reproach and that libel action was possible against those claiming fraud. This further proved that Roosevelt was more than willing to take any unjust legal action against those who dissented against what he and his associates were doing in Panama. As long as Roosevelts pockets were being filled with cash, he was more than willing to take fraudulent legal action against those who were going to lessen his income. Further, he displayed his ludicrous sense of self-righteousness by even believing that he and his associates were not doing anything wrong by overthrowing the Colombian control of Panama to increase profits for himself and J.P Morgan. To further show his true character Roosevelt denounced Pulitzer’s character and stated in a message that Joseph Pulitzer’s news paper is filled with statements that no member of the public would believe and if they did trust his writings that there were extremely misguided. In order to save his skin, Roosevelt preemptively convicted Pulitzer and his associates by stating that there needs to be no investigation into the matter because the statements that were made were wholly and in form libel against the United States. In this scenario, the president of the United States entirely ignored due process and made the statement that these men were guilty of libel and nobody needs to look into it and just believe him. He is completely abusing his power of authority to persuade the public that these men are guilty just because he said so. In the same message, it’s completely ironic that Roosevelt stated that Mr. Pulitzer was blackening the good character and reputation of private citizens and of the United States government, even though that’s exactly what Roosevelt was doing to Pulitzer. Pulitzer was just covering the truth that the Panama Canal was marred in fraud, while Roosevelt was trying to hid his wrong doings so he threw Pulitzer under the bus. Although Pulitzer was fearing arrest, he still published articles denouncing the claims that were made by the president. The major point I feel that needs to be made here is that Teddy Roosevelt went completely against the first amendment. As pointed out in the paper, Roosevelt was attempting to limit the freedom of the press based on the false notion that the government has been libeled, but, most importantly Roosevelt was the government at the time. This story does have some good within it however. When Roosevelt managed to push the case up to the supreme court the court decided that the indictment has no legal basis whatsoever. Further showing how terrible he was, after the trial he was reported to have said that the writer for the World were the lowest of the low and that one of the judges who supported the word was a “jackass and a crook”. These statements are of course ironic because Roosevelt himself is a crook. 

With all of this said I now begin to question the actions of a majority of the United States Presidents and Corporations. Before reading this article, I was under the impression that Roosevelt was a generally good man and that the Panama Canal was a project that was free of scandal and fraud. After finishing Pierce’s paper my opinions now have changed. This paper covered the extent to which Roosevelt was willing to go to slander the good reputation of a few men and more importantly how far he would go to suppress the freedom of the press. Furthering this point, it showed that he was most certainly receiving money off of the “deals” that the large corporations were making. Now I find it hard to believe that many United States citizens adore this man and what he did during his presidency. Personally, I find it difficult to idolize a man who harbored such bitterness because he was being exposed for his wrong doings. Luckily though, Roosevelt’s campaign of slander did not result in a massive decline of Mr. Pulitzer’s career. He was still able to accrue his wealth and live comfortably and eventually had an Award named after him: The Pulitzer Prize. Further showing Roosevelt’s corruption, he was one of the men who orchestrated the plan to disrupt the Columbian control of Panama. In essence he was responsible for the most prominent use of gunboat diplomacy. These actions obviously still happen in the modern day, and as an average citizen, we can only ponder how the levels of corruption and fraud will decrease. I suppose all we can do is to point out the fraud where we see it and have our fingers crossed that the United States justice system will do its job.

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