Cultural imperialism and the development of the Panama Canal Zone, 1912-1960

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Western


Panama Canal Zone, Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty, Social construction, Panama, Cultural imperialism

Subject Categories



The dissertation examines and interprets the development of the Panama Canal Zone, an American administrative and suburban enclave built alongside the Panama Canal.

Coincident with Panama's 1903 secession from Colombia, American politicians negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty. The treaty mandated that a strip of land five miles wide on both sides of the proposed Panama Canal be placed under exclusive jurisdiction of the United States. As the Canal completion neared, the United States began developing this "Zone" as a North American island in Latin America. Panama City's old cathedrals, visible poverty, and open air markets stood in contrast to the American Canal Zone. Physically separate, the Zone became a landscape reminiscent of an American suburb, with cream and gray stucco houses, green manicured lawns, YMCAs, high schools, and station wagons.

It is my contention that American attitudes towards "Panama" generated a recognizable Panama Canal Zone landscape. Although Panama was of course a real place with very real attributes--a certain climate, population, and spatial location--Panama was also a social construction. Preconceptions, prejudices, and ideological blinders created a veritable mental geography in American minds called "Panama." Thus, Panama was strange, different, unpleasant, and foreign in comparison to the familiar United States. Responding to an Other climate--the tropics; an Other, darker skinned people--Panamanians and West Indians; an Other culture--Latin America, negative responses ("lazy natives," "lousy climate," "dangerous tropical diseases," etc.) reinforced a geographical and social distance from the United States.

These American representations of Panama will then be interpreted in light of certain ideals and prejudices, particularly racism, environmental determinism, manifest destiny, and imperialism. Not only will I show how such "ruling" ideas influenced the construction of the landscape, but also how they reinforced the creation of the "Zonian"--the long term American resident of the Canal Zone. By employing a sequence of interrelated interpretations at different contextual and theoretical levels, I will explore the self-conscious construction of a landscape of American imperialism, linking it to an idealized American way of thinking.


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