Hay-Herrán Treaty: Colombia Misses its Chance

With Britain acceding to American control over the construction of a Central American canal (see Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901), Secretary of State John Hay opened talks with the Colombian chargé in Washington, Tomás Herrán. American hardball tactics, including the threat to build the canal in neighboring Nicaragua rather than in the Colombian province of Panama, pressured Herrán into agreeing to the following terms, which were incorporated into the Hay-Herrán Treaty signed on January 22, 1903:

  • The United States was to have leasehold rights to a strip of land six miles wide to be the site of the transoceanic canal
  • The U.S. was to pay Colombia the sum of $10 million for the lease, plus an annual payment of $250,000 commencing in nine years
  • The lease was to remain in force in perpetuity.

The U.S. Senate acted promptly to ratify the agreement, even though some argued that the United States should receive complete governmental control over the proposed canal zone. However, the Colombian government was outraged by Herrán's capitulation. Pleas were made for a sharply increased payment, but the U.S. held firm. The treaty was eventually defeated in the Colombian Senate, angering President Roosevelt who was anxious to move ahead.

The rejection of the Hay-Herrán Treaty was instrumental in leading the United States to set the wheels of revolution in motion in Panama. An independent Panama would quickly conclude the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, providing Roosevelt with all he needed to press ahead with his pet project.

See other foreign affairs issues under Theodore Roosevelt.

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