Book Review: George W. Goethals and the Army: Change and Continuity in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


by Rory McGovern

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019. Pp. xx, 296. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700627707

The Man Who Built the Panama Canal

Surprisingly, until this book appeared, George W. Goethals (1858-1928), famed as the builder of the Panama Canal, had never been the subject of a scholarly biography. Dr. McGovern, an Army major and sometime professor of History at West Point, has done an excellent job of fitting Goethals into his times, touching on civil and military life during the Progressive era, warts and all, and, of course engineering.

The son of immigrants from Belgium, Brooklyn-born Goethals attended the City College of New York, leaving in his third year to enter West Point. McGovern gives us a good look at the life of a cadet in the period, as Goethals excellent in his studies, graduating in 1880, second in his class, and being promptly retained for a year as an assistant instructor in engineering and astronomy. After completing the course at the Engineering School, Goethals was assigned to various posts and projects, and McGovern gives us a look at some of his often highly innovative work as a civil engineer across the nation, as well as his service in the Puerto Rican campaign during the Spanish-American War. McGovern also covers Goethals’s work as what he calls “a pragmatic advocate of military reform”, which culminated in a tour on the army’s first general staff.

All this was background for Goethals’ most famous assignment, his appointment as Chief Engineer on the Panama Canal project (1907-1914). Despite his achievement in completing the canal, which takes up proportionately more of the book than any other period in his life, Goethals later rendered perhaps even greater service as Quartermaster General of the Army (Dec 1917-May 1918). During First World War, his organizational abilities brought order out of the chaos plaguing the Army’s procurement and distribution of matériel as a result of its rapid expansion from a minuscule force into a host several million strong.

George W. Goethals and the Army is a very good work about a man now largely forgotten.


Note: George W. Goethals and the Army is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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