Review | The Longest Line on the Map

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When I was a kid going to grade school in California in the 1950s, the Pan-American Highway, and its completion, was a very big deal.  These were the days before our own system of Interstate Freeways had hardly even been conceived of, so the concept of a continuous highway, of being able to drive, from the very top of Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego was awesome.  There just remained that final business of a short stretch to be completed between Panama and Colombia.  Today, more than a half-century later, that uncompleted stretch, the Darien Gap, remains road-less.  This book tells the story of how and why the Pan-American Highway was conceived and, poignantly, the why of that stubborn gap.

Connecting the two Americas together via a transportation link was first envisaged as a rail connection, in the early years after our Civil War, as the brainchild of a sea-sick American returning from several years as the U.S. Consul in Buenos Aires.  Buffeted by storms, prostrate most of the voyage, the ex-Consul, having already been convinced from what he had observed from his time at post of the immense commercial advantages for the United States in secure travel connections with Argentina, had originally proposed subsidized steamer service.  His 98-day nightmare of a return voyage turned his thoughts rather to land travel – a 10,000 mile long hemispheric railroad.  It seemed logical, as much of the American system had either been built or was being planned.  But this post-war period turned out not to be a propitious time to promote increased American ties with the yet newly-independent Latin American states, which were still in the throes of establishing their own regimes and were often at war either internally or with each other, such as the War of the Pacific which broke out in 1879 in precisely those countries through which an Atlantic coastal highway would needs pass.  Still, the Intercontinental Railway Commission was established in 1890 by Secretary of State James G. Blaine.  This was altogether a pioneer organization for international relations between the United States and the other countries of the Western Hemisphere. The ground-level reality, though, as demonstrated by the ‘imagined route’ laid down this same year in a plan drafted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was that, while the American and Mexican routes had been built, of the remaining 4,900 miles between Mexico and Argentina, only 230 miles of railroad were in existence with but a further 1800 miles having been surveyed.  The difficulties of terrain and of climate were formidable.

As were the political difficulties. This book, for good stretches, is far more a political than a technical history, providing a particularly able accounting of the troubled political history of the countries of Central America, their rebellions and dictatorships and civil wars and external wars, and of the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century.  Demonstrated as well is the history of the various shenanigans, political and financial, involved in the building of our own Transcontinental Railroad, corrupt behavior which spilled over into construction of the Mexican system, much of which was built by the same American railway barons.

The book divides neatly into two parts, the first dealing with the proposed hemispheric railway system, the second with the Pan-American Highway itself, with a linking chapter on the tortured history of the very involvement of the U.S. Federal Government in building roads.  Termed ‘internal improvements’ in the early decades of the American Republic, the debate over the Federal role in the construction of roads, canals, and railroads went to the very heart of the Constitutional dispute over the proper division between the powers of the Federal Government and those reserved to the individual states.  The Zero Milestone, set near the Washington Monument as the symbol of a national highway system to be built with Federal Government aid, was not dedicated until 1923.

As the dream of a linking rail system faded – the final kibosh was not put to what was long moribund until the Commission was formally abolished in 1950 – the idea of a highway for cars and trucks gathered steam.  Endorsed at the Fifth Pan-American Conference in Santiago, Chile in 1923, it was rolled into FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy and received U.S. funding, much as though the construction of a hemispheric roadway was part of the New Deal.  World War II raised security concerns over a secure overland route (secure from enemy submarines) to the Panama Canal, as well as to Alaska.  Such concerns were strengthened during the Cold War.

The final chapter deals with the stubborn Darien Gap.  We are given the history of the region from Spanish conquest days on.  The first obstacle to closing this gap was the forbidding terrain but, with but 250 miles left to construct (precisely where the two continents are joined), concerns over foot-and-mouth disease intervened, as did environmental issues raised by the Sierra Club.  Then, with the gap shrunk to 60 miles by the beginning of the 1990s, there were the guerrilla wars in Colombia.  Finally, indigenous rights proved trumps.  The Darien Gap seems destined to remain unclosed.

The author, with a Ph.D. from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, knows his business.  This is first-rate history, fully documented in some 58 pages of end-notes.  A serious failing, however, is the lack of a full bibliography (to be remedied, it would be hoped, in any second edition).  Of particular commendatory note are the illustrations.  Each chapter features, as a frontispiece, a historical map of various continental railroad and motor road systems, such as the 1929 map of the proposed highway route through Central America fronting chapter 5; and the 16 pages of photographs are so well-chosen and annotated that they serve as a summary of the book’s entire narration.  Well done.

In these times when our relationships with our southern neighbors are dominated by strident arguments over the Wall, it is good to be reminded that our first dream was to be connected.

Eric Rutkow The Longest Line on the Map:  The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas (New York: Scribner, 2019), pp. vii, 438 ISBN: 9781501103902  $30

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G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.