Nathaniel Larson, who just finished 8th grade at Lake Harriet Community School, has taken top honors at National History Day in College Park, MD.
His website, “Debate and Diplomacy: The Panama Canal Treaties” follows the history of the canal and the historic political battle over the US decision to turn the waterway over to Panama in 1977.
Reaction to the treaty and its approval in the U.S. is widely credited with helping launch Ronald Reagan’s presidency and bolster what was then called the New Right.
“I’m interested in history,” Larson said in an interview Monday night — after a day of summer study at Macalester College, no less. “Things like foreign policy, different countries working together diplomatically, especially the relationship between a small country and a superpower.”
Larson built a website outlining the history of the canal, starting with the 1903 treaty giving the U.S. control of the canal zone, through the 1964 riots in Panama started by a sovereignty dispute along the canal and into the roiling debate that continued even past the 1980 election.
Larson also interviewed then Vice President Walter Mondale, and included a personal letter from former President Jimmy Carter – the president who pushed the treaty through.
Disco-era Central American history might seem a little obscure for an 8th grader. But the competition focused on diplomacy and debate this year, and the Panama Canal was one of the issues organizers suggested as a topic.
“At first I thought I was going to focus on Theodore Roosevelt and building the canal,” Larson said. “Then I realized it actually started this 60 year relationship.” He said the 1977 treaty fit better into the contest’s parameters.
Minnesota’s History Day activities are sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota.
“You know, the Panama Canal treaties isn’t necessarily a sexy topic for, you know, a 14 year old kid,” said Tim Hoogland the Minnesota History Day coordinator for the society. “But i think what stands out is the kids take something and get into a layer of depth. Plus, if they don’t take a topic that’s one of the usual things that kids do – that really stands out.”
Larson’s parents are Karin Larson and Douglas Erickson, and they live in the Linden Hills neighborhood. Nathaniel won $1,000 and a medal for topping the Junior Individual Website category at National History Day. He says he’ll put the money in his college fund and hopes to become an engineer some day.