Ferdinand de Lesseps had an immense vision. In the 1880s this flamboyant Frenchman announced a plan to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by a sea-level canal through Panama. He was believable as a developer since he already completed a project for the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869. This skilled and well-connected promoter spoke with great confidence and his style attracted wealth and influence. Through private investment he raised the funds needed to attempt this vast project. He anticipated great success, but his effort would fail miserably leaving corruption and scandal in his wake.
David McCollough, in his history of the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas (1977), describes de Lesseps’ experience as follows:
“The extraordinary venture had lasted more than a decade. It had cost, according to the best estimates, 1,435,000,000 francs – about $287,000,000 – which was 1,000,000,000 francs more than the cost of the Suez Canal, far more in fact than had ever before been spent on any one peaceful undertaking of any kind. The number of lives lost, a subject that had been strangely avoided throughout the Affair, had not been determined, nor was it ever to be with certainty.”
“It had indeed been a blunder on such an inordinate scale, a failure of such overwhelming magnitude, its shock waves extending to so very many levels, that nobody knew quite what to make of it; and as time passed, the inclination was to dismiss it as the folly of one man . . . “ (p. 235)
Many factors were involved in this debacle, but it is clear that de Lesseps’ rhetorical audacity far exceeded his organizational capacity.
In the end the canal was completed by a clear understanding of the true challenges learned through collective experience. First, malaria and yellow fever took the lives of as many as 22,000 in the failed attempt. It was the study of disease and the discovery of mosquito-borne illness by scientists that paved the way for surviving the tropical environment. Second, it was the shared realization that the fundamental engineering challenge was not to build a canal, but a railroad system that would make the construction of a canal possible. Third, a vast infrastructure of support proved to be incredibly important and entire communities were built to sustain the well-being of the workforce for many years. Finally, collective reason prevailed with the acknowledgement that a sea-level waterway was simply not possible. Locks were constructed to lift ships through terrain that could only be mastered through technology. In the end, it would not be the vision of an individual, but the will of a nation, the United States of America, that would build the Panama Canal.
Generations have passed since de Lesseps’ tragic failure, but I wonder if there are still lessons for us today. What was once an issue for an individual or a family is now a question for the community. Local issues become regional issues, regional issues become national issues, and national issues become international issues. Complexity begets complexity.
As we anticipate our individual success, we have also come to understand more clearly in recent years that our experience of success depends on a collective effort – one that is increasingly global in nature. My health has something to do with the health of others around the world. My economic prosperity is coupled to the financial success of others who participate in commerce and trade. My security is closely connected to the security of others. My use of energy affects the environment for all. Increasingly it appears that global challenges will require global solutions.
Failure at the canal was also overcome by the interaction of academic and professional disciplines; science, technology, engineering, medicine, human services, organization and logistics all combined to make the canal project a success.
Perhaps there are clues for us today whenever we seek to recover from failure. The will of a nation animated through a collective effort and informed by a collaboration of ideas can accomplish far more than we might imagine.