7 historic presidential trips abroad (and trivia to impress your friends)

1. Teddy Roosevelt to Panama, 1906 (first presidential trip abroad)

President Roosevelt in Panama

The first ever presidential trip abroad was taken by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, in order to check up on his pet project — the Panama Canal, as well as the new nation he’d basically just created called Panama.

The Colombians had been asking for more money for the rights to dig the canal, so Teddy sent a warship down to the coast of Panama (then part of Colombia) and okay’d a group of rebels to go ahead and, ya know, start their own country. After Panama was formed, the US secured the rights and the rest is history.

2. Woodrow Wilson to Europe, 1918 (first presidential trip to Europe)

President Wilson in Versailles, France

Woodrow Wilson took the first official presidential trip to Europe in 1918. What was so important that he stayed for seven months? How about negotiating the armistice of World War I.

Wilson, who pretty much came up with the idea of a “League of Nations” (precursor to the UN), so as to avoid diplomatic disasters like the war that had just cost 37 million casualties, called for going easy on the losing nations. He did not get his way, and stiff reparations were forced on Germany. How did that work out?

3. FDR to Casablanca, 1943 (first presidential trip in an airplane)

The Boeing 314 FDR flew to Casablanca

The first ever presidential trip by airplane might not have happened as soon as it did if it weren’t for German U-boats wreaking havoc on the open seas during World War II. In 1943, FDR, a frequent traveler by sea, was talked into boarding a Boeing 314 to head to Casablanca to meet Churchill.

Opting for maximum secrecy meant maximum layovers, as the aging President embarked from Miami and flew to Trinidad, then on to Brazil, then a 19-hour flight to Gambia, where he switched planes and headed for Morocco. Dude, FDR would have made a fine Matadorian.

4. Kennedy to West Berlin, 1963 (first trans-oceanic trip in a jet engine plane called Air Force One)

JFK giving his “Berliner” speech

One of the first voyages in an Air Force One was an important one. Delivered at the peak of the Cold War, it’s hard to underestimate Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, as he courageously told the citizens of West Berlin — then a tiny enclave of a free society surrounded on all sides by Soviet territory — that he was, in fact, a jelly doughnut.

Okay, so this debate has pretty much been put to bed (he wasn’t a jelly doughnut). But when Kennedy told Berliners that he himself was a Berliner, he actually had another audience in mind: the Soviets. What was he really saying? How about, “We have Europe’s back.”

5. Nixon to China, 1972 (first presidential trip to China)

President Nixon touring the Great Wall

As I type this blog post out on my MacBook while checking my iPhone for the 100th time, I might take a moment to thank President Richard Nixon. His trip to China in 1972 reinstated diplomatic relations, and both countries have never looked back.

While the visit had massive repercussions, one of the most significant was that it marked China’s shift away from Soviet alignment to the slightly more business-minded USA. And a small repercussion? For the official “Toast of Peace” with Premier Zhou Enlai, Nixon, ever the oenophile, chose a wine from a then little-known valley in California called Napa. Sorry France.

6. Reagan to Berlin, 1987 (first President to travel with full amenities on Air Force One)

President Reagan in Berlin

Historians disagree on whether Ronald Reagan’s trip to Berlin had much impact on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but most are in agreement that he was as charismatic a speaker as they come. Especially when standing at the Brandenburg Gate, ordering Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Reagan’s advisors worried the line could anger the Soviets, who up until then had made good on some commitments to loosen their grip on power via policies of glasnost and perestroika. “The Gipper” delivered the line anyway, and 29 months later the wall came down.

7. Obama to Burma, 2013 (first trip by a US President to Burma)

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton in Yangon

Whenever a sitting President can associate himself with nudging forward the world’s slow march towards democracy by going on a trip, you can bet they will go (and usually end up in the line of sight of a camera).

Was Obama’s trip to Burma historically significant? Time will tell. But what we can be sure of is that “travel” to the office of the US President, whether it’s for good diplomacy or just good PR, is one of the most important and most used tools in the presidential took kit (kind of like Wikipedia was for writing this article).

Happy Presidents Day.

More traveling President facts
  • Richard Nixon was the first President to visit all 50 states.
  • Bill Clinton set the record with the most presidential trips at 133.
  • President Eisenhower flew on the first jet engine aircraft.
  • President Ford was the first US President to visit Japan.
  • While visiting Austria in 1975, President Ford fell down the stairs getting off Air Force One.
  • On a trip to Japan, George HW Bush passed out and vomited on the Prime Minister.

And finally, for the world’s most awkward and hilarious moment in presidential travel history, watch this:

This post was originally published on February 17, 2014.

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