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The Pacific's Key to Panama:
Whose Hands Should Hold the Key
to our Canal's Western Gateway
and What Are We Going to Do About It?

G. Charles Hodges

The United States does not own the Pacific's key to Panama.

Yet were this guardian of the western gateway to the Canal to be held by hostile hands, America's grip on Panama would be jeopardized. Today, if the United States were at war with a Power loose upon the seven seas—particularly upon the Pacific—this key to Panama might well be used to deliver our country a staggering blow. Such a blow would be as much the result of national unpreparedness as to have allowed the mailed fist of the Kaiser to grasp the Virgin Islands, off the east gateway to Panama, instead of our nation securing them from Denmark. §

§ The United States purchased the Danish portion of the Virgin Islands in 1917.

That was preparedness on the Atlantic—in the Caribbean sphere. Why not on the Pacific?

What is this Pacific key to Panama? Whose hands hold it? Can this hold maintain?

an insular gibraltar

Lying 580 miles off the South American continent, there is a group of islands owned by the weak Republic of Ecuador.

They are the Galápagos Archipelago. This is the key to Panama from the west—an insular Gibraltar made up of a baker's dozen § of islands, just 1100 miles southwest of the Panama Canal. Do not vision a comic opera setting of sand and palms. The Galápagos Group are no low-lying, palm-covered sand-dunes of the tropics. They are not dots of hurricane-swept sand, engirdled by coral reefs, in the South Pacific's waste of ocean. The Archipelago embraces almost 3000 square miles of terra firma—larger than Delaware—land standing out in volcanic ruggedness against the Pacific skyline from 3000 to 4000 feet high.

§ The author's “Baker's Dozen” (13) islands becomes 15 islands in his next paragraph.

A birds-eye view of the Galápagos Group reveals five large and ten smaller islands, with islets unnamed, covering a sea area of roundly 300 by 200 miles. It is dominated by the main island of Isabel [sic, Isabela], close to 100 miles long—17th century English buccaneers called it Albemarle. Immediately about Isabel is Fernandina on the west; then—reaching toward South America on the east—come San Salvador, Rabida, Pinzon, Santa Cruz, Sante Fé, Floreana, España [sic, Española], and San Cristobal. Eighty miles north-westward are the small islands of Culpepper and Wenman, to let them keep their freebooter names. And similarly to the east are Pinta, Marchena, and Tower Islands.

On Chatham Island, in the Galápagos group. Unless the world of nations is to be made over by the Great War,
can the United States risk the menace of the Galápagos commanding Panama?

Over one-half the area of the Galápagos Group is contained in the great island of Isabel. With its 414 square miles shaped like an inverted “L,” the island's military supremacy lies in mountain bulwarks sheltering a rendezvous for a great fleet. Santa Cruz and the others of dwindling size all are less than 100 square miles in area. The Galápagos are rough and volcanic, at first sight uninviting. But the inhospitality of the lower slopes—barren lava fields, giant cactus, mangroves and scrubby, moss-hung trees—gives way above 500 feet from sea level to almost luxuriant vegetation. However, Fernandina is almost wholly covered with lava, the summit alone boasting of growth.

Even several miles out to sea, the contrast between the parched and barren lower slopes and the living summits of jungle growth can be seen. From July to November, the clouds hang low over the upper parts of the islands. Thus, while the shore line never offers more than a barrier of mangrove thickets, orchilla-hung trees and cactus, the higher elevations boasts of tropic fruits growing wild on many of the islands—“escapes” from civilization, as are the herds of cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, dogs and other animals of a Robinson Crusoe kind, not forgetting great turtles [sic, tortoises], the “native sons.” Though [the] Galápagos Group lies exactly on the equator—Isabel is cut by it—the climate is healthful, being tempered by cooling currents from the Antarctic. The more elevated parts of the Galápagos are not unlike the uplands of the Andes. As in Peru and Ecuador, in the verano there is the summer's mist-drizzle—the garua—freshening the algarrobos and the pampas like the Ecuadoran paramos.

Discovered by the empire-seeking Spanish, the haven of sea rovers, then of whalers, it was not until 1832 that Ecuador—having become free from Spain—occupied the Galápagos.§ A colony was established by General Villamil, called Floreana after President Flores of the Ecuadoran Republic. Now there is also a convict settlement on Cristobal. This offshoot of Ecuador numbers 400 souls in all. Aside from whaling and fishing, guano and orchilla—a moss used in Europe to give a purple dye—are exported. Ecuador now maintains a wireless station on the group.

§ In 1831, Ecuador separated from Gran Colombia, not from Spain, and claimed Galápagos in 1832.

guardian of panama

So much for what the Galápagos Group is: now let us speak in terms of strategy and national preparedness.

This insular Gibraltar—the likeness is more than one of words—commands our western gateway to Panama.

By an admiral's chart, it is but 1100 miles from a base in the Galápagos to the bight of Panama: no further than our newly-acquired Virgin Islands on the east. It is less than 600 miles from the group to the Ecuadoran shoulder of South America. It is but 900 miles north to the coast of Central America—the Galápagos lie straight below Guatemala.

The dominant position of the group is revealed when one sees that the Galápagos form the apex of a strategic triangle. This is because the giant hand of nature has twisted the continental mass so that the shoulder of South America juts out into the Pacific, while North America pinches off southward to connect at Panama with our sister continent. A line dropped from St. Louis through New Orleans would cut the Galápagos Group in two at the southern end—remember, New Orleans is on the Gulf of Mexico and the Galápagos are on the Pacific. Thus, the two continents of the New World lie in a great double circle—which makes the Galápagos the key to Panama.

For if one connects a west coast port of Mexico—Mazatlan, say, or Acapulco—with the South American port of Callao, the Galápagos will just be tipped. It puts all to the eastward into a triangular bag, if you will, tapering toward Panama: it is the Galápagos Archipelago which guards the head—the way out from Panama to the Pacific.

In naval parlance, Panama is covered by the Galápagos Islands. They command all egress from the Gulf of Panama—the western gateway of our world short-cut.

This strategic triangle, so vital to the United States, is not one-half the size of the German war zone about Britain. Every obstacle now militating against Teuton success in the North Sea and the Atlantic with under-sea warface is lacking should hostile hands seize the Galápagos as a base of operations. They offer unlimited protection from the prevailing winds—the southest winds. As one authority says, the Galápagos are “situated in a comparatively calm sea, where storms are of rare occurrence, and even strong winds almost unknown”—within striking distance of Panama.

the key—from 1600 to now

The Galápagos were a strategic thorn in the side of Spain from the first days of freebooting, when the lure of the Don's treasure ships drew swarms of buccaneers into the Pacific to harry the galleons lumbering north to Panama. For a century, the group furnished haven to the highwaymen of the seven seas, making mock of Spain's hold on Panama. Then came Spain's decline and the break-up of her American possessions into a parcel of turbulent republics; the Galápagos no more were visited by the merry gentlemen raiders of Old England, and only whalers chanced there to refit.

But with the reviving interest in the Pacific in the last of the 19th century, the Galápagos have figured more and more in the calculations of statesmen—in the Americas and elsewhere.

Once, when in 1894 Japan waged war on China, the sunrise flag of Nippon flew over the island for a short time—while the niceties of international law were evaded by Chile selling Japan a cruiser with the connivance of Ecuador.§ Several times has Europe been approached on the purchase of the Galápagos—especially France. But the spectre of the Monroe Doctrine has prevented these parlers from going too far. To the south, Chile, too, has been thought until recently to be desirous of possessing the group to realize her naval ambitions in the Ecuatorial Pacific.

§ The “sunrise flag of Nippon” never flew over Galápagos, and this may be a garbled reference to the sale of the Chilean cruiser Esmeralda. To side-step diplomatic complications, Chile sold the ship to Ecuador, which in turn sold it to Japan.

uncle sam rebuffed

The United States has not been blind to these overtures.

Under Harrison, Secretary of State Blaine attempted to get for this country the key to Panama. But Ecuador would have none of it.

Naval authorities long have urged the acquisition of the Galápagos. Ther is no doubt but that the secret files of the government would throw interesting light on why the negotiations of 1909 and 1911 came to nought. Our last attempt was an arrangement attempted between the United States and President Estrada to lease the Galápagos for 99 years, paying Ecuador $15,000,000. But Ecuador refused, the proposal being used by anti-government forces to bring about an upheaval. It is the stormy petrel of Ecuadoran politices—for politics only stand in the way of the settlement. Ecuador has just faced another revolt by men—the “outs”—using the pretext of a purported sale of the islands to the United States to raise trouble.

There is thus a delicate situation to be met—but met it must be, for the safety of the United States and Panama.

acquisition vital

This key to Panama is in the hands of a weak South American republic who cannot either prevent its wrong use or maintain it against attack.

So possessed, the Galápagos are a three-fold menace against Panama. War needs and war deeds well may seize upon this key.

  1. The group can serve as a base for raiders harrying the Pacific.
  2. It can act as a rendezvous for a fleet in force.
  3. It may render Panama useless, preventing all egress from our western gateway—either by a fleet based on the Galápagos commanding the sea, or by under-water warfare such as the Germans are waging.

What can we do? Unless the world of nations is to be made over by the Great War, the United States cannot risk the menace of the Galápagos commanding Panama.

There are four possibilities. First, American possession by outright sale; but this must be willingly acheived, and Ecuador objects. Second, Ecuador could lease us the islands in perpetuity; but this also has failed. Third, Ecuador might let the United States use them as a maneuver base for a short period—yet here again Ecuadoran sentiment has interposed a stumbling block. But the fourth way is to arrange a joint occupation of the Archipelago—Ecuador keeping her sovereignty intact, maintaining her colonial establishment and securing all the commercial advantages that could accrue in time of peace.

These [sic, The] United States would pledge the strong arm of America to maintain the Galápagos inviolable. America would guard—as Ecuador avowedly cannot—this key to Panama. Ecuador would keep this stake in the Pacific, and all the gain that could come from the piping times of peace. But the United States would know that Panama was safe, should peace on the Pacific be broken.