The Panama Canal turns 100

Watch an early 60 Minutes report on the story behind the U.S. possession of a vital waterway, and Panama's struggle to gain control

When Morley Safer visited Panama in 1974, what he found was a fence separating a tiny American suburban community from Panamanian slums.

That suburb, known as the Panama Canal Zone, was a U.S. government-run enclave complete with its own police force, schools, hospitals and courts. Safer deemed the 10-mile zone, which was built to oversee the canal, the "Yankee dream of international suburbia."


On the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, such a community no longer exists, but back when the 60 Minutes team visited, America maintained sovereignty over the canal and the canal zone.

As Morley Safer reported, the strange divide in Panama was a product of a 1903 treaty in which President Theodore Roosevelt pressured the newly independent Panama into giving the U.S. control over its new vital waterway.

By 1974, Americans were still a major presence in Panama and in an interview with Safer, one of Panama's treaty negotiators said it was time for the U.S. to hand over control of the canal to Panama.

"We are not completely independent, because a foreign government has been established in the canal zone against our will, and that is the main irritant," he told Safer.

It would take more than 80 years before the Panamanians officially won control over the canal. In 1999, the U.S. handed over sovereignty of the canal to Panama.