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Theodore Roosevelt’s secret weapon

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis

Theodore Roosevelt had a dream, a dream shaped by the time in which he lived. This was a heady time for the United States. It fairly quickly won its attack against Spain in 1898, which enriched it with new colonies stretching from Cuba to the Philippines. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay, rejected Roosevelt’s belief in “manifest destiny” and rejected colonialism in favor of promoting economic and commercial relationship with other nations, using military force only when necessary.  However, their philosophical differences worked to make developing the Panama Canal a reality. 

Roosevelt was titillated by the opportunity to succeed where France had failed. Hay was excited about the commercial benefits of the proposed canal. A ship traveling from Seattle to Florida could cut travel time by 8000 miles, an incredible time and cost saving opportunity. The long-sought shortcut to Asia would finally become a reality, and the Suez Canal would become largely redundant. Obviously, toll income would be an additional boon to the U.S. Treasury. It would make Roosevelt look good as he could boast a higher goal, that of uniting all nations by connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Roosevelt’s research showed that the French failed because they could not keep men on the job. Living conditions in the canal zone were unbearable. In the intense heat and humidity, diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, pneumonia and even the Bubonic plague were rampant. There was inadequate housing, mosquitos, poor and expensive food and no amusements or diversions. Most of all, the men suffered from homesickness, and as the work was dangerous, some feared the next time they went home, it would be in a coffin.

Roosevelt was determined to civilize the jungle. He imagined a decent city, with a hospital, a commissary and social activities for its inhabitants, who would include women, not just the hospital nurses, but also the wives and daughters of the workers. This was a tall order, but Roosevelt never honored the words “can’t do.” He knew it took a woman to make a home, so he asked his more progressive corporate leaders to recommend someone to help him establish a city that would be a home away from home for American, Central American and European workers and their families.

He was directed to Miss Gertrude Beeks, a pioneer in corporate welfare activity. She was born in Tennessee but grew up in Indiana and Chicago. She worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was president of the National Association of Women Stenographers in 1901. International Harvester hired her as its first welfare secretary, requesting that she develop policies to enhance the comfort of female employees. She made a name for herself by creating a lunchroom, where women would enjoy healthy meals, and installed mirrors in the washroom. Her employers made a startling discovery, these changes increased efficiency!

She went on to develop policies to improve health and sanitation for male as well as female employees and organized weekend boat trips and baseball games for the “labor element” plus more elaborate trips to resorts for foremen and white-collar workers. She became a nationally visible leader in the corporate welfare movement, which was merit based. The highest achievers received the highest rewards, because she did not believe in rewarding people for doing nothing. She had been recommended to the president by his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft.

This was appropriate because Miss Beeks declared war on everything she saw as less than desirable in the Canal Zone. She assessed labor conditions, wages, hours, holidays and vacations, sanitary arrangements, water supply, food, commodities for purchase, medical policies, conditions for women and children, rest and recreation. She asked hard questions e.g. “How can the laborers be happy in dormitories of 60-84 cots and less air space than our tenement laws require?” A journalist for the New York Times observed, “Miss Beeks does not mince her words and she seems to see clearly and sanely.”

Even with the improvements she recommended and installed, life in the Canal Zone remained difficult and dangerous, especially for the male workers. There was far less domestic violence tolerated, however, as it was considered a barrier to full labor productivity.

Unlike the French, Americans remained in Panama until the work was finished. The Canal was a huge success, hailed as “the 8th wonder of the world and America’s greatest engineering achievement, the dream of the ancient navigators fulfilled.”  

There is a joke that says: “Behind every successful man is a woman who made it necessary.” Theodore Roosevelt could more accurately have said, “Behind every successful man is a woman who made it possible.”

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