For the fi rst half of the twentieth century, the Panama Canal Zone was argu-
ably the most important overseas possession of the United States. In addi-
tion to its geostrategic and economic value, the Canal held a symbolic pri-
macy in the minds of many Americans as a mark of their technological and
national superiority. But the establishment of the territorial enclave around
the Canal under the 1903 Hay– Bunau- Varilla Treaty had other consequences.
It forged an imperial borderland across the isthmus of Panama that would
have profound ramifi cations for all of its inhabitants, from a wide variety of
backgrounds and walks of life. The interactions, confl icts, and accommo-
dations among the various peoples who strove for survival and ascendance
within the vortex of this borderland, from World War II until the Carter-
Torrijos treaties, form the subject of this study.
The American inhabitants of the enclave, the Zonians, established their
dominance early in the century, as did their coequal partners in the Canal
project, the U.S. military. But throughout this process, these groups expe-
rienced friction, resistance, and troubles from the host nation of Panama
and the various subaltern peoples drawn to the excavation. The gargantuan
size of the project attracted workers from all over the world, especially a
large contingent of West Indian laborers who formed the backbone of the
workforce. The racial discrimination that these workers endured, combined
with the national chauvinism that Panamanians and other Latinos experi-
enced from American borderlanders, quickly ignited confl icts over race and
identity along the Zone boundaries that would intensify in the decades after
World War II.
In July 1939, two months before the war, the U.S. Senate fi nally ratifi ed
the 1936 Hull- Alfaro Treaty that ended the offi cial U.S. protectorate over
Panama, which included the right to eminent domain and unilateral inter-
vention practiced by Washington for thirty- six years. This accord proved a
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