James Holmes

America’s Southward-Looking Mental Map

How an artificial waterway reoriented a nation’s worldview, foreign policy, and maritime strategy.

I saw a parasol on the rocks in Bristol Harbor last Sunday. It was teal, painted, the sort of thing you find in most any gift shop in East Asia or any Chinatown here stateside. Chances are, it came from one of our local bric-a-brac merchants and was tossed there by the stiff south wind blowing into the Narragansett Bay. (Foul words were spoken as I beat into that headwind on my trusty Cannondale.) Still, that bit of flotsam (or was it jetsam?) set me to thinking of Asia, and of the fact that the sea puts New England villages like Bristol in real if circuitous contact with places like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore. It could have drifted here from some exotic locale, though the odds are against it.

How’s that for an excursion into stream-of-consciousness thinking? And there’s more: when I think of shipping out for Asia, I look south toward Central America rather than east or west.  It seems natural to do so now. It wasn’t natural at all before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, culminating decades of on-again, off-again construction efforts by British, French, and American engineers. Writing during World War II, Yale professor Nicholas Spykman maintained that opening an aperture between Atlantic and Pacific swiveled Americans’ mental map of the world 90 degrees southward. Observes Spykman, that “cut through Central America had the effect of turning the whole of the United States around on its axis and giving it direct access to the Pacific Ocean” for the first time.

Nor was this just a revolution in geospatial perspectives. It had far-reaching operational consequences. In a real sense, the canal moved east-coast seaports closer to faraway ports of call. For instance, New York now found itself closer to Shanghai in terms of sailing distance than were British ports like Liverpool. Shorter voyages benefited American industry and shipping interests immensely. By the late 19th century, naval enthusiasts like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Alfred Thayer Mahan—all sons of northeastern states—became obsessed with controlling the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and thereby assuring free passage for shipping bound to or from the Isthmus. When these scholar-practitioners thought about U.S. maritime supremacy, they were thinking mainly about commanding the Caribbean and Gulf.

For my next trick, I will analyze the strategic importance of…lint!!