White House

When Presidents Feared Setting Foot on Foreign Soil

With one fishy exception, none dared to set foot outside the country prior to 1906.

Woodrow Wilson spent far too much time in Europe.

Photographer: Flickr/Creative Commons/Tim Evanson

Donald Trump has always prided himself on thinking big, and his first trip abroad as president is no exception. Instead of a modest foray to a single country as many presidents have done, he’s stopping in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Sicily, and Brussels. It’s a lot for a provincial president to endure, but his hosts at his first stop, according to the A.P., will try to make him feel at home with steak with ketchup.

His staff is hoping -- praying, really -- that the trip will serve as a distraction from the scandals that now embroil his administration.   Perhaps. But given the tortured history of president travel to foreign countries, Trump may want to stay home, or at least hand over future traveling duties to Vice President Pence.

Here’s a quiz: How many countries did American presidents visit prior to the twentieth century? The answer is zero. None. Nada. With one fishy exception, no president of the U.S. dared to set foot outside the country prior to 1906.

The origins of this “ironclad taboo” date back to the very beginning of the nation, according to historian Richard Ellis. The founders of the country counted themselves republicans, meaning they self-consciously created a government that rejected both monarchy and aristocracy. For a president to go abroad and consort with kings and nobles was to invite corruption and foreign meddling in our affairs. Presidents might find themselves in compromising situations, betray vital intelligence, and invite what George Washington liked to call “entangling alliances.”

Presidents observed the prohibition at all costs, taking it to the most literal extremes. In a visit to Niagara Falls, New York, Andrew Johnson’s traveling party walked across a suspension bridge to Canada. He and his secretary of state stopped at the invisible line dividing the two countries; the rest of the delegation kept going.

The travel ban remained in place for his successor, Ulysses S. Grant.  When the Canadians invited him to the opening of a railroad in New Brunswick, it was a hard pass. “It has never been the custom for the President to leave the United States during his term in office,” he declared. He even believed that there may have been some “statute, or provision” guarding against the practice. In any case, he refused to “be the one to establish the precedent of an Executive going beyond the limits of his country.”

The only president who ventured over the border was Chester Arthur, who went fishing on the St. Lawrence River in 1883. At the beginning of his trip, Arthur instructed his guides to keep him in American waters, but the fish weren’t biting. Eventually, and a bit surreptitiously, Arthur permitted himself to be taken into Canadian waters, where he had better luck, though he didn’t technically set foot on foreign soil.

As the U.S. gradually transformed into one of the dominant players in world affairs, the pressure for presidents to maybe, just maybe, cross national borders began to build. William McKinley, who presided over the Spanish American War in 1898, was the first to seriously contemplate the idea during a visit to El Paso, Texas in 1901. “I cannot go over there,” he said, gesturing toward Mexico. “There is something in the traditions of this Republic, something in its precedents that does not permit the President to go outside the United States during his term in office.” The Americans in the audience applauded -- their president was safe from corruption.

1885:  Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822 - 1885), the General-in-Chief of the Union Armies during the American Civil War and later the 18th president of the United States.  Published by Currier & Ives.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

“It has never been the custom for the President to leave the United States."

Photographer: MPI/Getty Images

Teddy Roosevelt, who broke many presidential taboos, was first to break this one in order to review the work underway to build the Panama Canal. This was technically American territory, but he then crossed the line into Panama City for a brief visit. His successor, William Howard Taft, also visited the canal -- and even ventured two hundred yards over the border into Mexico on one much-celebrated occasion.

But the belief that the president must stick close to home did not die. When Woodrow Wilson decided to visit Europe to help negotiate a peace treaty at the end of World War I, his secretary of state warned him in no uncertain terms: “The president’s place is here in America.”

Wilson was undeterred, taking two lengthy trips to Europe between December 1918 and July 1919 totaling six months. In his absence, much of the business of government went into a state of suspended animation, though he continued to conduct business via telegraph. But his detachment from the ordinary business of government damaged his standing. His reputation never recovered even among his fellow Democrats, contributing to the rejection in Congress of his much-beloved League of Nations.

Republicans used the foreign adventures to wrest back the presidency. In 1920, the Republican party wove together the longstanding suspicion of foreign travel to pillory the Democrats, claiming that Wilson had been corrupted by his exposure to foreign powers. Was it any wonder, a campaign pamphlet proclaimed, that Wilson had “returned home to the plain American people with the arrogance of an autocrat, assuming to set up a one-man government?”

No president left the Western Hemisphere again until 1943, when Roosevelt attended the “Big Three” conference in Casablanca. And no president has ever ventured out of the country for anywhere near the length of time that Wilson did.

Fears that travel corrupts presidents have all but disappeared, but other criticisms have emerged.

When Richard Nixon went abroad in June 1974 on yet another trip overseas, the Christian Science Monitor dryly observed that “it is hard to escape the unsettling conclusion that as the Watergate impeachment inquiry inexorably moves forward, Mr. Nixon’s strategy is to keep the public spotlight focused on the indisputable strength of his presidency -- foreign policy.”

Trump hasn’t had enough time in office to develop any particular presidential strength, but his team certainly hopes for a respite. But the turmoil seems intent on following him all the way there. As he boarded Air Force One on Friday evening, there was a blitzkrieg of bad news for his administration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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