Commander John T. Kuehn
Recently uncovered documents reveal one of President Theodore Roosevelt's most audacious but calculated foreign policy moves. He dispatched the commandant of the Marine Corps and a brigade of Leathernecks to Panama with orders to invade Colombia in order to preserve Panamanian independence and secure U.S. possession of the future Canal Zone.
On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody summoned the senior U.S. Marine, Brigadier General-Commandant George F. Elliott, to receive an order from his commander-in-chief, President Theodore Roosevelt. According to the order, the commandant was to "proceed in person, taking passage in the USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, to take command of the entire force of United States Marines and Seamen that is or may be landed for service in the State of Panama."
The importance of this order in measuring the magnitude of President Roosevelt's engagement with the issue of Panama and his actions and intentions regarding the country in the immediate wake of its revolution cannot be understated. Just as the movement of Admiral of the Navy George Dewey and Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, to the Caribbean during the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-3 could only have been executed with presidential approval, so too is the case with General Elliott's transfer to Panama. No commandant had directly led Marines in the field since the time of legendary Colonel-Commandant Archibald Henderson in the 1836-37 campaign against the Seminole and Creek Indians in Florida and Georgia, and no commandant since Elliott has repeated the act.
The reason President Roosevelt dispatched Commandant Elliott to Panama is suggested by the President's prior and subsequent reliance on the Navy and Marine Corps in the numerous difficult diplomatic crises that emerged during his administration. Roosevelt's previous academic and administrative immersion in all aspects of naval power gave him a bent toward the twin services of the Department of the Navy, despite his brief personal experience as an Army volunteer during the Spanish-American War. Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, he again instinctively reached for the arms of sea power, except this time it was the land-borne element of the naval services that drew the preponderance of his attention and the responsibility for the mission he had in mind.
The Colombian province of Panama and construction of a canal across its narrow isthmus to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had long been dead center in Roosevelt's foreign policy and military strategy. In early 1903, the United States and Colombia negotiated the Hay-Herran Treaty, which granted Washington a 99-year lease to a canal zone, and Roosevelt's goal seemed tantalizingly close. But the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty in an attempt to force the United States to significantly increase its lease payment. Then on 3 November, Panamanian revolutionaries declared the country's independence; however, Colombia was soon threatening to use force to recover its lost province. Against this backdrop, Commandant Elliott's mission stands out as one of the most strategically audacious moves of the early 20th century because when he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines on the isthmus, he carried with him plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.
Testing the Giant
President Roosevelt had anticipated that Colombia might attempt to regain its lost province. Within a week of the 3 November revolution, Washington forwarded intelligence reports of Colombian troop movements, including estimates of up to 15,000 soldiers on the move, to the U.S. commanders on the scene: Pacific Squadron commander Rear Admiral Henry Glass at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan, head of the Caribbean Squadron, across the isthmus at Colón.3 Believing that the weather and topography of Panama would be their allies and confident in the strength of a battalion of Marines that had landed in early November, the admirals reported to Washington on 6 December that they had "a sufficient number of troops here. No chance of force advancing upon Panama until after dry season."
That air of assurance disappeared a few days later when Admiral Glass learned that an expedition of 1,100 Colombians had tested an overland route into the country, only to be turned back by weather, disease, and the dense jungle.5 Roosevelt himself received a report from a trusted observer in Colombia that an armed expedition was underway to establish a base for future operations at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border.6 Telegrams from American diplomats in Bogotá noted visceral anger there directed at U.S. citizens.7 It was clear that Colombia, despite the odds and obstacles, intended to reclaim its lost province and its honor. With the Panamanian government still consolidating its hold on the country and, in effect, lacking a self-defense force, it was up to the United States to ensure the security of the new nation and ultimately the future canal.
When invasion reports began to surface, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic.8 Since the revolution, the understanding in Panama had been that U.S. forces would defend the country against any foreign invasion. Glass thought that this understanding needed clarification in light of the Colombian movements to the south. On 10 December, in keeping with this policy, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to "establish camps seamen and marine battalions fully equipped at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entrance by land to the State of Panama. Maintain communications between camps and vessels, cut trails, buy or hire pack animals as necessary."
The order, however, was never sent. At the bottom of the typed draft was a handwritten note signed by Admiral Taylor: "The above submitted by Sec Moody to the President who directed it be not sent now but withheld till further considered."
The next day the secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Roosevelt's "further consideration," transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the operational rules of engagement for the U.S. forces in Panama: "Establish strong posts, men and marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better position for observation only and rapid transmission of information but not forcible interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land" (italics added).
A week later, Secretary Moody further restricted the options of American military personnel in Panama, directing them to assume an almost completely defensive role. In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset. According to this clarification, telegrammed in cipher, of Moody's 11 December instructions to Glass, the admiral was to
maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only. Do not have post beyond support from ships or launches. Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked. It is the intention of the Government to continue active defense against hostile operations to the vicinity of the railroad line on the Isthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.
These orders can be interpreted as an indication that the Roosevelt administration's previous hard-line pronouncements to Colombian and Panamanian officials were, in fact, bluffs. Another possibility is that Colombian attempts to recover the renegade province had caused the United States to reconsider its long-term interests in the region. There is also, however, the possibility that Theodore Roosevelt had decided to shift his strategy for dealing with Colombia, and it is this option that the historical record bears out. He had decided to call in the Marines.
The Commandant Takes the Field
General Elliott had assumed his duties as the tenth commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903, only a month before the revolution in Panama. The only commandant to be educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Elliott made the unusual career move of accepting a commission in the Marines in the fall of 1870. Subsequent exemplary duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid rise through the officer ranks.12 Then, in mid-December 1903, the president called on his knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama. After meeting with Secretary Moody on the 18th, the commandant proceeded to the League Island embarkation center outside of Philadelphia to assemble his force.
Elliott took a personal interest in the outfitting and equipage of his command. Drawing on his previous experience, and the expectation that his force would need to be light on its feet, the commandant decreed that each man carry only:
one (1) blanket, two (2) suits underwear, two (2) khaki blouses, two (2) khaki trousers, one (1) pair russet shoes, one (1) blue flannel shirt, three (3) pairs socks, two (2) towels. In addition an extra blue flannel shirt is recommended and the men shall carry such toilet articles as they may desire. Tin cups will be considered a part of heavy marching order. Ponchos will be issued onboard USS Dixie after embarkation.
Elliott made clear that the men needed to be prepared for service in "heavy marching order" as well as for rapid movement and combat.
On 11 December, the auxiliary cruiser USS Prairie had departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas.14 Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his 300 enlisted Marines and 11 officers into camp at Bas Obispo to extend and strengthen the security perimeter around the Panama Railroad.15 At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie, recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune's nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott's two Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole. Loaded with a combined force of 635 Marines and its staff of seven officers and 11 enlisted men, the Dixie departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904.16 Two days later, the Marines began to disembark and board train cars that would transport them to their assigned camps.17 As the two battalions clattered down the rails toward their destinations, their commandant took the formal step of declaring the activation of a provisional Marine brigade in Panama.
Elliott's priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning his command structure to match his force size. The commandant ordered Major Cole's battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there they would take quarters alongside Lejeune's battalion. It had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian battalion into leaving the newly declared republic. Lejeune's men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire. Major Lejeune had already established a reputation that would ultimately lead to his appointment as the 13th commandant of the Marine Corps. His professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company's buildings at Empire. New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid. Only then did Lejeune's Marines move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the next year. Lejeune's and Cole's units became the 1st and 2d Battalions, respectively, of the 1st Marine Regiment, which was commanded by Colonel W. P. Biddle.
Major James Mahoney's battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it quartered alongside Major Lucas' Marines. These two units comprised the 2d Marine Regiment under Colonel L. W. T. Waller. Both regiments, together counting approximately 1,100 men, formed the Marines' 1st Provisional Brigade, Panama, and reported directly to General Elliott.
The Plan to Capture Cartagena
The commandant's priorities on arriving in Panama also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in country to present his orders. He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón. Shortly thereafter he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass. To each he presented a letter from the secretary of the Navy, part of which read: "The Department forwards herewith, in the charge of Brigadier General Elliott, U.S.M.C., a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia. As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation."
The plan in question was almost certainly a modification of numerous ready-made strategies formulated during the late 1890s at the Naval War College by the likes of Lieutenant William Wirt Kimball and then-Captain Henry C. Taylor. The result represented a bold military and diplomatic strategy and indicates a sophistication on the part of the American government that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the 19th century. After nearly five years of frustrating American actions against the jungle-based insurrection in the Philippines and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, Roosevelt recognized the utter futility of defending Panama's numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes. He therefore chose to forgo a defense-centric strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing. Rather than defend Panama in the event of a Colombian attempt to regain its lost province, the president instead planned to embark his brigade of Marines on waiting ships, sail to the Colombian port city of Cartagena, the country's chief source of tariff revenues. The naval force would then capture the port and its defense installations before subduing the city itself, thus placing Roosevelt in position to dictate the terms of a subsequent peace settlement with the Colombian government.
For the time being, Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick "out-'n-back" expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building his understanding of the surrounding countryside.
On 21 January, the commandant reported that he had constructed weapons ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons. "The command is being given complete and thorough instruction . . . in the field," he wrote, "and officers and men, many of the latter being but recruits, are profiting greatly by the experience." Elliott's Marines also trained in assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and construction of obstructions to slow and confuse an attacking enemy force-all skills that would be necessary in the capture and defense of Cartagena-and experimented with using mules to move heavy guns in mountainous terrain. In addition, Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus. The Leathernecks' morale and discipline, meanwhile, remained high, with few regulation infractions.
The only dark cloud on the horizon was the rumor that a group of Colombian insurgents planned to poison the Marines' fresh-water supply. Elliott ordered that any individual attempting to tamper with the water supply should be summarily shot on sight. Admiral Glass quickly responded by reminding his aggressive colleague that "a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama," and perhaps the general should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels.
In the interim, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand. After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him that "If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus." This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his force and turn his attention to another duty that would "be important." If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott's force might take part "in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers." Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and made clear who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be:
Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember the Department is always annoyed by long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President [italics added] every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest. Let your scouting be thorough and extending a long distance, and give us daily accounts of it.
On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting presided over by President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been a classic strategic misdirection. While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama. But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they were sent to fight Colombians in Colombia.
By the end of January 1904, General Elliott's brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, stood ready to invade Colombia to ensure the continued independence of Panama. The invasion, of course, never took place. Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated, but it never tried to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt's dramatic plan.
A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later (Panama had ratified the pact the previous December). According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama, while Panama granted America, in perpetuity, a ten-mile-wide canal zone in exchange for an immediate payment of $10 million and $250,000 annual payments beginning nine years later.
General Rafael Reyes, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country's presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued to the United States. There, he was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama's independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, "that what has been done could not be undone." Reyes came to understand that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt's policy of upholding the revolution in Panama. He continued to press Colombia's case, even going so far as to request that the issue be submitted to a Colombian plebiscite, with an apparently fixed outcome, but to no avail.
Finally, Reyes held out hope that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herran Treaty might still find its way into the country's treasury.32 And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would "sooner or later receive a certain pecuniary consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings" were circulating throughout Washington.33 In effect, that was what happened. By the middle of March, the troops along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn to Colombia's interior, and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory.34 And in 1921, the U.S. Senate would ratify the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.
A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment had been withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in the annual winter maneuvers. General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines. That arrangement lasted until 7 March, when Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original battalion of 400 men to provide security and reconnaissance on the isthmus. Lejeune's command remained for another nine months, when another battalion of Marines reported to relieve them. The U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912, when Captain John F. Hughes finally departed with his force of 389 men.
Assessing Roosevelt's Response
Theodore Roosevelt would later remark that he "took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate," but that was classic Rooseveltian overstatement. It would be more truthful if he had claimed that he used the U.S. naval services to protect Panama against outside aggression and to guarantee its independence. During the Venezuelan Crisis, Roosevelt's earlier use of naval power as an instrument of his particular brand of coercive diplomacy, he had flooded the Caribbean basin with nearly every capital vessel in the Atlantic Fleet. Similarly, during the opening days of the Panamanian independence crisis the president staged cruisers, troop carriers, and battleships on both sides of the isthmus at intervals over the horizon. His secret plan to commit Marines under the command of their commandant to combat in Colombia, however, stands in stark contrast to those efforts and signifies Roosevelt's mental agility and the precision of his political calculations.
The Colombians had, in Roosevelt's mind, betrayed his trust by rejecting the carefully wrought deal encompassed in the Hay-Herran Treaty. He could defeat them in battle if need be. He did not, however, act precipitously by invading Colombia when its troops gathered near the Panamanian border. Roosevelt instead crafted a military response in the form of Commandant Elliott's Marines in Panama, and, by the use of naval force in the region, he created the maneuver space in which to employ them. In the end, of course, he did not need to resort to military force.
Roosevelt remained true to his peaceful inclinations and guaranteed the permanent independence of Panama. The ultimate result was the creation of the Panama Canal, one of the great engineering achievements of modern times and the cornerstone of American naval policy throughout the 20th century. It was an achievement that drew its first breath from a plan that was never executed.
1SECNAV to Commandant George Elliott, 18 Dec. 1903. National Archives (NARA) Record Group (RG) 45, Naval Records Collection, Office of the SECNAV, Confidential Letters Sent, Sep 1893-Oct 1908, vol. 3 of 6. 409. back to article
2Lejeune, John A., The Reminiscences of a Marine (Philadelphia: Dorrance and Company, 1930), p. 161. back to article
3SECNAV to RAdm Glass, 9 Nov 1903, NARA RG 45, Naval Records Collection, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, General Records, Translations of Messages sent in Cipher, vol. 4 of 10, pp. 330, 341. back to article
4RAdm Walker to SECNAV, 6 Dec 1903, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Records, Translations of Messages received in Cipher, vol. 2 of 6, May 1899-Dec 25 1904, p. 355. back to article
5SECNAV to RAdm Glass, 9 Dec 1903, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Records, Translations of Messages sent in Cipher, vol. 4 of 10, p. 343. back to article
6Mr. Edward Garcynski to Secretary of the Navy William Moody, Dec 11, 1903. The Papers of William H. Moody, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Container #17, Folder #1, Correspondence 1896-1903. back to article
7RAdm Glass to SECNAV, 9 Nov 1903, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Records, Translations of Messages received in Cipher, vol. 2 of 6, May 1899-Dec 25 1904, p. 362. back to article
8RAdm Glass to SECNAV, 13 Dec 1903, NARA RG 45, Naval Records Collection, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, General Records 1798-1910, Confidential Letters Sent Sep 1893-Jun 1904, Vol. 3 of 6, p. 407. back to article
9SECNAV to Glass, 10 Dec 1903, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Records, Translations of Messages sent in Cipher, vol. 4 of 10, p. 352. back to article
10SECNAV to Glass, 11 Dec 1903, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Records, Translations of Messages sent in Cipher, vol. 4 of 10, p. 345. back to article
11Ibid. p. 351. back to article
12George F. Elliott Folder, Biographical Files, Reference Section, Marine Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. back to article
13BGen Elliott to Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Washington, DC, 19 Dec. 1903. NARA, RG 127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments Panama, Box 4. back to article
14Ellsworth, Harry A. One Hundred Eighty Landings of United States Marines: 1800-1934 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1974), p. 136. back to article
15Lejeune, Reminiscences, p. 160; Panama Folder, Geographical Files, Reference Section, US Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. p. 123. back to article
16Ibid., Panama; American Intervention Folder, Reference Section, United States Marine Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. back to article
17RAdm Coghlan to SECNAV, 5 Jan. 1904, NARA, RG 127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments Panama, Box 4. back to article
18Ibid., Panama; American Intervention Folder, Reference Section, United States Marine Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. back to article
19BGen G.F. Elliott to Asst. Secretary of the Navy, 11 Jan 1904, NARA RG127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments Panama, Box 4. back to article
20Lejeune, Reminiscences, 159-160. back to article
21Ibid., 124. back to article
22Panama, American Intervention Folder, Reference Section, United States Marine Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. back to article
23G. F. Elliott to Asst SECNAV, 11 Jan 1904. back to article
24SECNAV to Commander, Caribbean Squadron, undated, RG45, Naval Records Collection, Office of the SECNAV, Confidential Letters Sent, Sep 1893-Oct 1908, vol. 3 of 6. p. 410. back to article
25BGen Elliott to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Jan 11, 1904, NARA RG 127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments, Panama, Box 4. back to article
26Annual Reports of the Navy Department: 1904. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904), 1110. back to article
27BGen Elliott to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 21 Jan. 1904, NARA RG 127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments, Panama, Box 4. back to article
28RAdm Glass to BGen Elliott, 23 Jan. 1904, NARA RG 127, United States Marines Overseas Brigades, Battalions, Regiments, Panama, Box 4. back to article
29SECNAV Moody to BGen Elliott, 4 Jan 1904, NARA RG 45, Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Confidential Letters Sent, Sep 1893-Oct 1908, vol. 3 of 6, pp. 419-420. back to article
30"Politics in the Panama Question," Progress of the World, American Review of Reviews (Feb:1904) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Widenor Library, Harvard University, p. 144. back to article
31Ibid., pp. 141-42. back to article
32Lodge, Henry Cabot. Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925). 72. back to article
33"Politics in the Panama Question," p. 142. back to article
34Metcalf, Clyde H., History of the U.S. Marine Corps (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), pp. 295-296. back to article
35Table showing strength, distribution, and commanding officers of Marines in Panama, Panama-American Intervention Folder, U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. back to article
Commander Hendrix is the executive officer of Tactical Air Control Squadron Eleven. He has twice been named the Samuel Eliot Morison Scholar by the Naval Historical Center. He is a former member of the U.S. Naval Institute's Board of Directors and an ex-officio member of its Editorial Board.