Theodore Roosevelt Travels to Panama: On This Day, November 9

Theodore Roosevelt visiting the Panama Canal construction site in 1904In 1904, the US took over a massive overseas building project—a ship canal in Panama that would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This wasn’t a new idea. In his first message to Congress as president in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant had called for the construction of a canal connecting the Pacific and Caribbean.

On November 9, 1906, with the Panama Canal project finally realized and underway, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first US president to make an overseas diplomatic visit while in office when he journeyed to Panama to inspect construction of the canal. In a letter to his son Ted, Roosevelt remarked on the hardworking laborers building the canal:

[I]t is a tremendous sight to see the work on the canal going on. From the chief engineer and the chief sanitary officer down to the last arrived machinist or time-keeper, the five thousand Americans at work on the Isthmus seemed to me an exceptionally able, energetic lot, some of them grumbling, of course, but on the whole a mighty good lot of men.

President Roosevelts trip to Panama was well timed. The project had suffered many setbacks, including outbreaks of disease among workers and fatal accidents. Roosevelt pushed for better working conditions and improvements in health care for canal workers, and worker morale was almost certainly boosted by the Presidents visit. The Panama Canal project was completed eight years later, in 1914.

After his time in Panama, President Roosevelt went to the recently acquired Puerto Rico. Roosevelt’s 17-day trip to Panama and Puerto Rico signaled a new era of presidental diplomacy, encouraging future presidents to engage in expanded foreign relations.