Brian Major | July 21, 2016 2:32 PM ET
US Presidents Abroad: Far More Than a Vacation
The current presidential season may be the strangest in the country’s history, in that, among other aspects, it pits the first female major-party candidate against a controversial businessman who is undoubtedly the first reality-TV host to become a major-party nominee. The pair couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Except when it comes to travel that is, as both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can claim international travel experience. Having previously served as U.S. Secretary of State, a U.S. senator and First Lady, Hillary Clinton has traveled abroad extensively. Donald Trump has at least traveled to Scotland, which I know because his widely covered trip coincided with the U.K. Brexit.
Otherwise, despite traveling the equivalent of 20 times around the world over the past five years, I've found no evidence the wealthy Republican nominee has recently visited any other countries. Which I think says a lot.
Still, Trump DID make that Scotland trip, which technically means both candidates have traveled beyond U.S. borders, something that’s now common and expected for a U.S. president. It wasn’t always this way.
Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 visit to Panama broke a long tradition of U.S. presidents avoiding international travel in keeping with 19th century conventions that viewed discourse with kings and queens unseemly for an American executive-in-chief.
Although some U.S. presidents previously traveled outside the U.S., often in diplomatic capacities, before or after serving as president, Roosevelt’s trip was the first official state visit by a sitting U.S. president.
Today that trip is remembered for its impact on Roosevelt’s pet project, the Panama Canal, and now-iconic photographs of tough-guy Teddy operating a steam shovel. Indeed, while at the site Roosevelt pressed for improvements in health care and better working conditions, which were soon implemented. His changes are today credited with rescuing the faltering Canal project.
Many have forgotten that Roosevelt’s 17-day excursion also visited Puerto Rico. A U.S. protectorate in 1900 following the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley had promised Puerto Rico's leaders the U.S. would help the territory establish a civilian government.
But a year later McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, placing Roosevelt, then vice president, into the hot seat. Roosevelt re-visited the sovereignty issue during the 1906 trip, recommending Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens while also advising the island should retain a level of autonomy and not become a U.S. state. That status became official in 1916 and remains in place today.
The baby boomer generation brought a new willingness among U.S. presidents to travel internationally, just as the country’s role in global affairs expanded exponentially.
President John F. Kennedy traveled to Europe in the summer of 1963, only a few months before, like McKinley, he was killed by an assassin. In just over two years as president Kennedy managed to visit 12 countries, including Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, France, Germany and Mexico.
A contemporaneous Columbus Dispatch account described Kennedy as “a likeable young man with immature judgment who talks well but hasn't the will to follow through on the vital decision." But a June 30, 1963 New York Times account reports he was greeted by millions of cheering citizens in Berlin, Cologne and other German cities, who saw the youthful leader as a symbol of post-World War II progress and alliance with expressed U.S. democratic values.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 17-day trip to Manila, New Zealand and Australia in 1966 reflected the fraught times and tensions under which he governed. He was heckled by anti-war demonstrators in Melbourne. In Manila he met with Allied military leaders who together agreed to join a tentative agreement to negotiate “a peaceful settlement of the war in Vietnam,” a goal which would outlast Johnson’s tenure.
Asia was also a favorite of Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, whose 1972 trip to China restored diplomatic relations with the world’s most populous state and is today recalled by many as among the few positive aspects of his two presidential terms.
President Jimmy Carter traveled frequently to the Middle East, including Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and made the first U.S. presidential visit to Africa, visiting Liberia and Nigeria. His Middle East travels coupled with more than a year of diplomatic negotiations led to the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Last year President Obama visited Jamaica, where he discussed “bilateral discussions on a range of issues of mutual interest,” with Portia Simpson Miller, then Jamaica’s prime minister. The talks focused primarily on Issues surrounding energy production, climate change and entrepreneurship, significant issues for the country’s economy including tourism stakeholders.
International travel by the next U.S. President will take on even greater significance as the world comes to grips with pressing global issues including terrorism, climate change and growing economic inequality.
To what countries will the next U.S. president travel and what will be the impact of those visits? I don’t know about you but the suspense is killing me.
More by Brian Major
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Airlines & Airports
Airlines & Airports
Hotel & Resort
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship