On The Guns of August

I recently finished reading The Guns of August, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic about the Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Wilson, facing this group of “ignorant men,” as he called them, and accompanied by his fellow officer and future chief, Sir John French, “who knows nothing at all about the subject,” pinned up his great map of Belgium on the wall and lectured for two hours. He swept away many illusions when he explained how Germany, counting on Russia’s slow mobilization, would send the bulk of her forces against the French, achieving superiority of numbers over them. He correctly predicated the German plan of attack upon a right-wing envelopment but, schooled in the French theories, estimated the force that would come down west of the Meuse at no more than four divisions. He stated that, if all six British divisions were sent immediately upon the outbreak of war to the extreme left of the French line, the chances of stopping the Germans would be favorable.

Coming from Haldane this conclusion had a profound effect upon Liberal thinking and planning. The first result was a naval pact with France by which the British undertook at threat of war to safeguard the Channel and French coasts from enemy attack, leaving the French fleet free to concentrate in the Mediterranean. As this disposed the French fleet where it would not otherwise be, except by virtue of the agreement, it left a distinct obligation upon Britain…This curious document managed to satisfy everybody: the French because the whole British Cabinet Government had now officially acknowledged the existence of the joint plans, the antiwar group because it said England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a formula that both saved the plans and quieted their opponents. To have substituted a definite alliance with France, as he was urged in some quarters, would “break up the Cabinet,” he said.

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments Struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.

How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liege, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and how this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or “peace without victory” and would prolong the war for four more years.

At the time of the disaster General Marquis de Laguiche, the French military attache came to express his condolences to the Commander • in Chief. ‘We are happy to have made such sacrifices for our Allies,” the Grand Duke replied gallantly. Equanimity in the face of catastrophe was his code, and Russians, in the knowledge of inexhaustible supplies of manpower, are accustomed to accepting gigantic fatalities with comparative calm. The Russian steam roller in which the Western Allies placed such hopes, which after their debacle on the Western Front was awaited even more anxiously, had fallen apart on the road as if it had been put together with pins. In its premature start and early demise it had been. Just as the Grand Duke said, a sacrifice for an ally. Whatever it cost the Russians, the sacrifice accomplished what the French wanted: withdrawal of German strength from the Western Front. The two corps that came too late for Tannenberg were to be absent from the Mame.

But Francois faced battle, whereas Kluck, thinking he faced only pursuit and mopping up, ignored the precaution. He believed the French incapable, after ten days of retreat, of the morale and energy required to turn around at the sound of the bugle and fight again. Nor was he worried about his flank. “The General fears nothing from the direction of Paris,” recorded an officer on September 4. “After we have destroyed the remains of the Franco-British Army he will return to Paris and give the IVth Reserve the honor of leading the entry into the French capital.”

In conclusion:

After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Mame was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

A recommended read in the areas of history and military conflicts.

On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.




On Thomas Jefferson

I recently finished reading Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power – by Pulitzer Prize Winner Jon Meacham.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

He had a defining vision, a compelling goal—the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of m educated, enlightened majority should prevail. His opponents had less faith in the people, worrying that the broad American public might be unequal to self-government. Jefferson thought that same public was the salvation of liberty, the soul of the nation, and the hope of the republic. In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised. The willingness to do what he needed to do in a given moment makes him an elusive historical figure. Yet in the real world, in real time, when he was charged with the safety of the country, his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader. America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. More than any of the other early presidents—more than Washington, more than Adams—Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes. Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking. holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded,” Jefferson once said…Jefferson was always asking questions. With “the mechanic as well as the man of science,” a descendant recalled, Jefferson learned all he could, “whether it was the construction of a wheel or the anatomy of an extinct species of animals,” and then went home to transcribe what he had heard. He would soon be known as a “walking encyclopedia.”

Jefferson and his fellow American Revolutionaries took the positions they did—positions that led to war in 1776 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776—partly because they saw themselves as Englishmen who were being denied a full share of the benefits of the lessons of English life.

For the colonists, the decision to revolt was not solely economic, but it was surely informed by concerns over money. In Virginia the impetus to rebel came from the propertied elements of society; the middle and lower classes were slower to follow the lead of men such as Jefferson. It was a rich man’s revolution, and Jefferson was a rich man. It was a philosophical revolution, and Jefferson was a philosophical man.

He had the best of editors in private: “self-evident” was Benjamin Franklin’s, In sum, Jefferson’s draft was a political undertaking with a philosophical frame. It was produced in a particular moment by a politician to satisfy particular concerns for a particular complex of audiences: undecided Americans, soldiers in arms, and potential global allies.

Boldness and decisiveness were sometimes virtues in a leader. Having failed to be either bold or decisive during the invasions of Virginia, he gained valuable experience about the price of waiting. At the time, however, he could not have known that one day he would owe something of his presidential success to his failures of 1781.

Like poetry, politics was partly inspiration, but it was, as Izard said and Jefferson knew, a craft that required relentless practice. It was a lesson Jefferson had learned in Williamsburg, and which now served him well an ocean away.

Liberty, he was saying, requires patience, forbearance, and fortitude. Republics were not for the fainthearted. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told Madison, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

For Jefferson, the images of monarchy swirled. The rhetoric of the American Revolution—Jefferson’s rhetoric, the product of his own pen—seemed fainter in the clatter of a capital that he believed was beginning to feel more like a king’s court than the seat of a republic.

He understood the country was open to—even eager for—a government that seemed less intrusive and overbearing than the one Washington and Adams had created…Jefferson had long cared about two things: American liberty and American strength. For eight years he summoned all the power he believed he required to make America more like what he thought it should be.

The America of Jefferson was neither wholly Federal nor wholly Republican. It was, rather, a marbled blend of the two, confected by a practical man of affairs. The significance of the case of Louisiana in shaping the destinies of the country and in illuminating Jefferson’s political leadership cannot be overstated. He believed, for instance, in a limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one. It was a moment to savor success.

Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform. “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” he wrote in 1814, but that was not true. He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability.

A Decalogue of canons for observation in practical life. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. 2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself 3. Never spend your money before you have it. 4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold. 6. We never repent of having eaten too little. 7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. 8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. 9. Take things always by their smooth handle. 10. when angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.

On a beautiful day in Boston, with President Adams in the hall, Webster painted an indelible portrait of Jefferson’s and Adam’s ascent to the American pantheon: “On our fiftieth anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”

Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then. His circumstances were particular, yet the general issues that consumed him are constant: liberty and power, rights and responsibilities, the keeping of peace and the waging of war. He was a politician, a public man, in a nation in which politics and public life became—and remain—central. As Jefferson wrote, “Man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.”

He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience—the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.

We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life. Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most. George Washington inspires awe; John Adams respect. With his grace and hospitality his sense of taste and love of beautiful things—of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine—Jefferson is more alive, more convivial.

A highly recommended read on a defining figure of modern history.



On Washington

I recently finished reading the masterpiece, Washington – A Life, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, by acclaimed author Ron Chernow. As Ron states in the introduction: “The goal of the present biography is to create a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way that he was perceived by his contemporaries. By gleaning anecdotes and quotes from myriad sources, especially from hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have tried to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans, and thereby elucidate the secrets of his uncanny ability to lead a nation.”

Below are selected excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had “the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself…Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man.

What strikes one most about the twenty-year-old George Washington was that his sudden remarkable standing in the world was the result not so much of a slow. agonizing progress as of a series of rapid, abrupt leaps that thrust him into the topmost echelons of Virginia society. The deaths of those he loved most dearly had. ironically, brightened his prospects the most. Quite contrary to his own wishes, the untimely deaths of his father and his half-brother had endowed him with extraordinary advantages in the form of land, slaves, and social status. Every misfortune only pushed him further along his desired path. Most providential of all for him was that Lawrence Washington had expired on the eve of the French and Indian War, a conflict in which George’s newfound status as district adjutant would place him squarely at the forefront of a thunderous global confrontation.

Beneath the hard rind, Washington was far more sensitive than he appeared. and this heartfelt message from his men “affected him exceedingly,” he admitted. He had a fine sense of occasion, displayed in this early response to his men. Already adept at tearful farewells, he exhibited the succinct eloquence that came to define his speaking style. He began by calling the officers’ approval of his conduct “an honor that will constitute the greatest happiness of my fife and afford in my latest hours the most pleasing reflections.” Unable to avoid a youthful dig at Dinwiddle and Forbes, he hinted at the “uncommon difficulties” under which he had labored. But it was the palpable affection he summoned up for his men that made the statement noteworthy. Washington thanked his officers “with uncommon sincerity and true affection for the honor you have done me, for if I have acquired any reputation, it is from you I derive it. I thank you also for the love and regard you have all along shown me. It is in this I am rewarded. It is herein I glory.”

One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations—he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups—he issued eloquent statements on rel i tolerance. He was so devoid of spiritual bias that his tolerance even embraced atheism.

For all the many virtues he had shown in his life, nothing quite foreshadowed the wisdom, courage, fortitude, and resolution that George Washington had just exhibited. Adversity had brought his best traits to the surface and even ennobled him. Sensing it, Abigail Adams told her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I am apt to think that our later misfortunes have called out the hidden excellencies of our commander-in-chief.” She quoted a line from the English poet Edward Young: “‘Affliction is the good man’s shining time.'” One consistent thread from his earlier life had prefigured these events: Washington’s tenacity of purpose, his singular ability to stalk a goal with all the resources at his disposal.

Instead of elevating himself above his men, Washington portrayed himself as their friend and peer. Having softened them up with personal history, he delivered an impassioned appeal to their deep-seated patriotism.

The man who had pulled off the exemplary feat of humbling the most powerful military on earth had not been corrupted by fame. Though quietly elated and relieved, he was neither intoxicated by power nor puffed up with a sense of his own genius.

As Benjamin Franklin told an English friend after the war, “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops and continued during the whole war. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.”

Historians often quote a September 1786 letter from Washington to John Francis Mercer as signaling a major forward stride in his thinking on slavery: “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” But this noble statement then took a harsh turn. Washington mentioned being hard pressed by two debts—to retire one of which, “if there is no other resource, I must sell land or Negroes to discharge.” In other words. in a pinch, Washington would trade slaves to settle debts. Clearly, the abolition of slavery would have exacted too steep an economic price for Washington to contemplate serious action.

Washington was a perceptive man who, behind his polite facade, was unmatched at taking the measure of people. People did not always realize how observant he was.

The gist of many of Washington’s remarks was that French actions toward America had been motivated by self-interest, not ideological solidarity, and flouted American neutrality in seeking to enlist the United States in the war against England. The imbroglio with Monroe signaled the demise of yet another Washington friendship with a prominent Virginian, a list that now encompassed George Mason, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph.

The presidential legacy he left behind in Philadelphia was a towering one. As Gordon Wood has observed, “The presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior.” Washington had forged the executive branch of the federal government, appointed outstanding department heads, and set a benchmark for fairness, efficiency, and integrity that future administrations would aspire to match.

Washington never achieved the national unity he desired and, by the end, presided over a deeply riven country…But whatever his or clamp down on his shrill opponents in the press who had hounded him mercilessly. To his everlasting credit, he showed that the American political system could manage tensions without abridging civil liberties. His most flagrant failings remained those of the country as a whole—the inability to deal forthrightly with the injustice of slavery or to figure out an equitable solution in the ongoing clashes with Native Americans.

Washington died in a manner that befit his life: with grace, dignity, self-possession, and a manifest regard for others. He never yielded to shrieks, hysteria. or unseemly complaints.

George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him. Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest. As sensitive to criticism as any other man, he never allowed personal attacks or threats to distract him, following an inner compass that charted the way ahead. For a quarter century, he had stuck to an undeviating path that led straight to the creation of an independent republic, the enactment of the Constitution, and the formation of the federal government. History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene. Again and again the American people had entrusted him with power, secure in the knowledge that he would exercise it fairly and ably and surrender it when his term of office was up. He had shown that the president and commander-in-chief of a republic could possess a grandeur surpassing that of all the crowned heads of Europe. He brought maturity, sobriety, judgment, and integrity to a political experiment that could easily have grown giddy with its own vaunted success, and he avoided the backbiting, envy, and intrigue that detracted from the achievements of other founders. He had indeed been the indispensable man of the American Revolution.

A must read book about a key historical figure, not only for the US but for the world at large.

On The Path Between The Seas

I first heard about The Path Between The Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 – by acclaimed historian author David McCullough, when Bill Gates recommended it on his reading list.

As the title indicates, this book is about the colossal that was the undertaking of the Panama Canal construction, between the years of 1870 to 1914:

The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering. It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war. Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth. It held the world’s attention over a span of forty years. It affected the lives of tens of thousands of people at every level of society and of virtually every race and nationality. Great reputations were made and destroyed. For numbers of men and women it was the adventure of a lifetime. Because of it one nation, France, was rocked to its foundations. Another, Colombia, lost its most prized possession, the Isthmus of Panama. Nicaragua, on the verge of becoming a world crossroads, was left to wait for some future chance. The Republic of Panama was born. The United States was embarked on a role of global involvement. In the history of finance capitalism, in the history of medicine, it was an event of signal consequence. It marked a score of advances in engineering, government planning, labor relations. It was a response to Sedan, a response to the idea of sea power. It was both the crowning constructive effort, “The Great Enterprise,” of the Victorian Era and the first grandiose and assertive show of American power at the dawn of the new century. And yet the passage of the first ship through the canal in the summer of 1914—the first voyage through the American land mass—marked the resolution of a dream as old as the voyages of Columbus.

It all started with a letter from the Secretary of the Navy back in the 1870:

The letter, several pages in length and signed by Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, was addressed to Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. It was an eminently clear, altogether formal document, as expected, and had a certain majesty of tone that Commander Self ridge thought quite fitting…Navy Department Washington, January 10, 1870 Sir: Sir: You are appointed to the command of an expedition to make a survey of the Isthmus of Darien, to ascertain the point at which to cut a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The steam-sloop Nipsic and the store-ship Guard will be under your Command…

President Grant was the first one to have the vision on the value of such a canal, particularly to the US:

The President of the United States at this juncture was Ulysses S. Grant and it was he, the year before, who had instructed Admiral Ammen to organize the series of expeditions-“practicaI investigations,” he called them. Grant, despite his subsequent reputation as a President of little vision or initiative, was more keenly interested in an isthmian canal than any of his predecessors had been. He was indeed the first President to address himself seriously to the subject. If there was to be a water corridor, he wanted it in the proper place—as determined by civil engineers and naval authorities-and he wanted it under American control. “To Europeans the benefits of and advantages of the proposed canal are great,” he was to write, “to Americans they are incalculable.”

The first part of the history of the canal was dominated by one man – Ferdinand de Lesseps:

Viewed in retrospect, de Lesseps’ life stands out as one of the most extraordinary of the nineteenth century, even without the Panama venture. That he of all men of his time should have been the one to make “the miracle” happen at Suez is in itself miraculous. Suddenly there he was. Known after 1869 as “The Great Engineer,” he was no such thing. He had no technical background, no experience in finance. His skills as an administrator were modest. Routine of any kind bored him quickly.

His ambitions were altruistic:

“At any time he could have sold his precious concession and realized a fortune, but this he never did; his driving ambition throughout was to build the canal, ”pour le bien de l’humanite.”

However, neither he nor the people around him listened to the contrarian opinions who had valid concerns:

It was later that same day that another of the French delegates, one who had had nothing to say thus far, came to the front of the auditorium to deliver the most extraordinary pronouncement of the entire congress. A man of genius stepped forward then and there, in fact. although no one, not even de Lesseps, perceived this. He was Baron Godin de Lepinay—Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lepinay, Baron de Brusly—a small, bearded aristocrat who was a chief engineer with the Corps des Ponts et Chaussees…His solution was what Philippe Bunau-Varilla would call the “Idea of the artificial Nicaragua.” Incredibly and tragically, the delegates paid him no attention. The Americans dismissed the plan as ridiculous. Menocal could hardly bring himself to mention de Lepninay’s name in his report on the congress. Ammen referred only to the “plan,” in quotes, as an illustration of the extremes some of the French had gone to in an effort to rescue the Panama route. Had the delegates reacted differently, had they taken de Lepinay seriously, the story of the canal could have turned out quite differently.

One of the major challenges with the work at Panama and differences between it and the work at the Suez:

The point he does seem to have stressed—the great lesson to be learned from his experience—was that everything, every them, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.

And to some extent that past experience seemed to hurt the French more than it benefited them:

But at Panama the French had to improvise—or rather they had to go by. Virtually everything had to be learned by trial and error, and their chief difficulty as time went on was the fearful cost of their errors. The experience at Suez was little help. Probably they would have been better off in the long run had there been no Suez Canal in their past. For despite all de Lesseps told the press and his public, Panama had only one advantage over Suez: the distance to be covered. Everything else at Panama was infinitely more difficult. Panama was an immeasurably larger and more baffling task than Suez, just as Godin de Lepinay had warned.

Tropical diseases that was affecting workers was one of the most difficult challenges that the construction team had to deal with:

The toll in human lives was growing ever more ghastly, unlike anything anyone had foreseen, except possibly Godin de Lepinay. Eighteen eighty-five was to be the worst year. Probably more people died then than at any other time during the French regime. In the years to follow, the ravages of yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia, dysentery, beriberi, food poisoning, snakebite, sunstroke, were only a shade less appalling. Ordinarily on the Isthmus, yellow fever came and went in cycles of two to three years. Now, unaccountably, it never went away and there was not a thing anyone could do. Malaria, ever present as always, remained the deadliest killer.

The difficulties drew insurmountable and brought the French operations to its knees:

It was a reporter for Le Figaro, arriving at de Lesseps’ home just ten minutes after the vote in the Chamber, who told him how the vote had gone. De Lesseps turned dreadfully pale, the man wrote afterward, and could only whisper, “It is impossible! It is shameful!” The pallor and the loss of words were but momentary, however. Instinctively the old reflexes responded. He was in motion again. issuing statements, talking of new schemes. The company was in wreckage, the government had turned its back-, the long battle was ended and he had been crushed. It was Sedan again for France, yet he refused to accept that—he was incapable of accepting that…The official end came on February 4, 1889. In accordance with a desire formally expressed by shareholders in the original company. the Tribunal Civil appointed a liquidator. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique was no more.

What followed is one of the largest scandals to rock the French society:

It was nearly three years later when the Panama scandal broke wide open, rocking France to its foundations. Between times, the great Universal Exposition of 1889 had been staged beneath Gustave Eiffel’s gargantuan tower, and French political life went along little changed from year to year, one ministry succeeding another, despite the flaming oratory, despite the Boulanger crisis. General Boulanger, “the strong man,” having sat out his chance to seize power, having escaped to Brussels with his adored mistress, Madame de Bonnemains, had also, soon after her death, shot himself at her graveside. Panama, to be sure, had remained a major topic. Some 800,000 French men and women had been directly affected, the savings of entire families had utterly vanished. People who could ill afford to lose anything had lost everything. Still, no panic had been touched off when the company went under. There were no demonstrations in the streets May 15, 1889, the day the liquidator ordered that the work be halted on the Isthmus. Instead, shareholders submitted their grievances by formal petition, in polite, written pleas for redress through government action. Tempers cooled; rumors of fraud and political payoffs were denied or discounted or simply grew stale. When the liquidator established a special committee to go to Panama and estimate the cost of finishing the canal, many shareholders actually took heart, convinced that the government was about to rescue them.

It was a bitter ending for the de Lesseps family as well:

With family and friends and in all the remaining years of his life, Charles refused to speak of Panama. “He would not talk about it,” recalled an adoring nephew, “never, never, never, never.” And in the view of those who knew him best, he was regarded no less than ever as the most honest and admirable of men. The Suez company had kept him on its hoard of directors even during his time in prison. “He was a very honorable man, you know, the old-fashioned sort of thing,” the nephew would say…Charles had been with his father at the end. It happened the year following Charles’s release from the hospital. Madame de Lesseps and the rest of the family were also present and death came very quietly for the old adventurer. He died at La Chesnaye, in his second-fl-floor bedroom facing south, late in the afternoon on December 7, 1894, three weeks after his eighty-ninth birthday. The body was taken up to Paris by train for burial in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There was no grand funeral procession; there were no crowds at the graveside services, only the family, a representative of the Societe de Geographic, one very old boyhood friend, and the directors of the Suez Canal Company. The Suez company paid all the funeral expenses. In the eulogies the word “Panama” was never mentioned.

In retrospect, the root causes of failure for de Lesseps was as follows:

The root sources of his downfall had been apparent since the Paris congress of 1879: the insistence on a sea-level passage through country he knew nothing about, the total disinterest in conceptions other than his own, the refusal to heed voices of experience, the disregard for all data that either conflicted with or that appeared to vitiate his own cherished vision; but none of these would have mattered greatly had it not been for that extraordinary ability to inspire the loyalty and affection of individual human beings at every social and intellectual level. From the technical standpoint the tragedy hung on the decision to cut through at sea level, to make another Suez Canal. Such a task at Panama was simply too overwhelming, if not impossible. The strategy did not suit the battleground. The handwriting had been on the wall a good three to four years before the money was gone. With the equipment then available, even a lock canal of modest dimensions would have been an enormously difficult and costly task. But had he and his technical advisers decided to make it a lock canal even as late as 1886. at the time of his second tour of the Isthmus, there probably would have been a French canal at  Panama, death, disease, jungle, geology, costs, and de Lesseps’ advanced age all notwithstanding. The size of the locks being contemplated would have made the canal obsolete in relatively little time, but the canal would have been built. As for any possible complicity on his part in the less-than-noble practices that went on behind the scenes, there is no real mystery. He was neither innocent nor a simpleton. He was involved in bribing the press, in the Herz compact, indeed he was the one who crossed that line at the very beginning at the time of the first successful stock issue.

However, he laid a foundation and the needed infrastructure for the future work:

It can also be said, and with certainty, that nothing whatever would have been attempted or accomplished at Panama had it not been for Ferdinand de Lesseps, a point missing from the postmortems of the 1890’s, largely since the actual work itself had been either forgotten or was assumed to be utterly without value. In France, as Andre Siegfried observed, no one seemed to recall that Panama had had anything to do with the building of a canal. “In the end one almost believed that The many had hardly done anything at all in the isthmus . .” The money, declared The Times of London, was “as clean gone” as if it had been sunk in the North Atlantic. Nobody talked of the hospitals that had been built, the offices, storehouses, and dock facilities, the living quarters and machine shops; the maps, plans, surveys, and hydrographic data that had been assembled; the land that had been acquired or the Panama Railroad. And the fact that more than 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been removed from the path of the canal, an amount equal to two-thirds of the total excavation at Suez, was virtually forgotten. All had been in vain was the prevailing, unchallenged attitude; the defeat of the old pioneer had been total.

It was then up to Roosevelt to provide his vision for the Panama canal:

Roosevelt, however, looked upon the canal quite differently than de Lesseps had, differently, in fact, than nearly everyone. It was very well for others to talk of it as the dream of Columbus, to call it a giant step in the march of civilization, or to picture as de Lesseps so often had its immeasurable value to world commerce. Roosevelt was promoting neither a commercial venture nor a universal utility. To him, first, last, and always, the canal was the vital-the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as the commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy at sea.

His approach nevertheless was not without controversy:

And Roosevelt’s ultimate response to the Panama situation was to become the most disputed act of his career largely because it appeared to be an act of such violent impulse, an expression of what even many of his strongest admirers saw as an arrogant, nearly infantile insistence on having things his way and plunging ahead heedless of obstacles or consequences. To some observers there seemed something unpleasantly appropriate about the fact that his recreational passion at Sagamore Hill that summer of 1903 was the so-called point-to-point “obstacle walk,” the one rule, the only rule, being that the participant must go up and over, or through, every obstacle, never around it. He was invariably the leader on such escapades, followed by a band of excited children, perhaps a stout-hearted guest or two.

On the role of the US, in Panama’s independence:

Without the military presence of the United States—had there been no American gunboats standing off shore at Colon and Panama City— the Republic of Panama probably would not have lasted a week. Rear Admiral Henry Glass, for example, would conclude after a careful appraisal of the republic’s capacity to defend itself that at the very most six hundred men might have been furnished with adequate arms. Taft, on his first visit to Panama a year later, would describe its army as “not much larger than the army on an opera stage.” Colombia, had it had free access from the sea, could have landed several thousand veteran troops on both sides of the Isthmus, just as the conspirators themselves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian selves had appreciated from the beginning. As it was, a Colombian through the Darien wilderness, but ravaged by fever, they gave up and turned back.

This intervention in international affairs did not come without some long-term impact:

The damage done to American relations with Colombia, indeed with all of Latin America, was enormous, just as John Tyler Morgan had prophesied. As an American minister at Bogota, James T. Du Bois, would write in 1912, the breach worsened as time passed: By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared, the indignation of every Colombian, and millions of other Latin-Americans, was aroused and is still most intensely active. The confidence and trust in the justice and fairness of the United States, so long manifested, has completely vanished, and the maleficent influence of this condition is permeating public opinion in all Latin-American countries, a condition which, if remedial measures are not invoked, will work inestimable harm throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The handover of the project between the French and the US was uneventful:

In the morning of May 4, 1904, and to the Panamanians, who adored ceremony and celebration, who remembered Cathedral Plaza festooned with palm branches and French flags, who remembered parades and banquets and Ferdinand de Lesseps prancing on horseback, it was a terrible disappointment and most unbecoming to the occasion. At 7:30 A.M. Lieutenant Mark Brooke met with half a dozen American officials and a duly authorized representative of the Compagnie Nouvelle at the company headquarters on the plaza, the old Grand Hotel…The transaction occupied no more than a few minutes. Scarcely anyone other than those present was aware of the event. Lieutenant Brooke had not even thought to invite President Amador. Having shaken hands with the Panamanians and the French officials, the young officer raised the Stars and Stripes to the top of the hotel flagpole.

A key for success for the US was the progress they made in combating the tropical diseases:

But while a drastic reduction of all disease was considered essential in the long run, yellow fever had to be the immediate objective. To rid the Isthmus of yellow fever, Gorgas remarked, would be to rid it of fear.

Also their approach to this engineering challenge was a paradigm shift to that of the French:

In more abstract terms, in terms of pure professional problem solving, Stevens’ greatest contribution was the basic vision of the excavation of the canal as a large-scale problem in railroad freight. As conceived by Stevens, the Panama project was simply one of moving unprecedented tonnage—dirt—by railroad with the least possible wasted motion.

Despite it having been completed after his era, Roosevelt is still credited as being the one the one behind its establishment:

None of this made much difference, however. Nor ought there ever be any question as to the legitimacy of the Roosevelt stamp on the canal. His own emphatic position was that it would never have been built but for him and it was a position no one tried to dispute. To Goethals, “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt.” It could not have been more Roosevelt’s triumph, Goethals wrote, “if he had personally lifted every shovelful of earth in its construction.

The advancement in hydraulics through the Panama Canal were equally as impressive:

The fundamental element to be reckoned with and utilized in the locks—the vital factor in the whole plan and all its structural, mechanical, and electrical components—was water. Water would lift and lower the ships. The buoyancy of water would make the tremendous lock gates, gates two to three times heavier than any ever built before. virtually weightless. The power of falling water at the Gatun spillway would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate would generate the electrical current to run all the motors to operate canal, in other words, would supply its own energy needs. No force would be required to raise or lower the level of water in the locks (and thus to raise or lower a ship in transit) other than the force of gravity. The water would simply flow into the locks from above—from Gatun Lake or Miraflores Lake—or flow out into the sea-level channels. The water would be admitted or released through giant tunnels, or culverts, running lengthwise within the center and side walls of the locks, culverts eighteen feet in diameter, as large nearly as the Pennsylvania Railroad tubes under the Hudson River.

The historical accomplishment was short-lived due to the start of World War I:

There were editorials hailing the victory of the canal builders, but the great crescendo of popular interest had passed; a new heroic effort commanded world attention. The triumph at Panama suddenly belonged to another and very different era.

On a concluding and inspirational note:

Once, in a paper addressed “To the Young Engineers Who Must Carry On,” Stevens said something with which all of these remarkable men would assuredly have agreed-for all that had happened to the world since Panama. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote. The great works had still to come. “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean. . . .”

If you are interested to see the Panama Canal in action, here is an excellent time lapse video on it.

A highly recommended read, whether your interests are in the area of history, politics, engineering, medicine or project management.