By Jason Jourdan
In 1885, the birthday of President George Washington became a national holiday in the United States. The event later became known as Presidents' Day in 1971 after the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which cemented three-day weekends for the nation’s workers and a day to celebrate all US presidents, past and present. In observance of the holiday, it seems appropriate to examine international travel through the history of the American presidency.
International travel for a US President was once considered "taboo" and frowned upon by the American populace. The public was not keen on their president mingling with royalty, visiting grand palaces, or exchanging bows with kings and queens. The prevailing opinion was that this would diminish the office and the reputation of citizen-government and American freedom principles. According to an article published by History, Ulysses S. Grant believed international travel was unlawful and never left the United States during his presidency.
Policymakers at the federal level began to reevaluate the nation's role in international affairs as Theodore Roosevelt made the first international presidential trip to Panama in 1906. Documented as the first “diplomatic trip to another country,” Roosevelt’s travel redefined the role of the presidency on the world stage. It began a new era in diplomatic relations with other countries. The next four of Roosevelt’s successors to the office made at least one international trip each, cementing the acceptability of presidential global travel.
Advancements in transportation technology would further alter the patterns of presidential travel as US presidents would travel to nearly every geopolitical region of the globe, except for Central Asia; a sitting US president has never visited this region.
Who logged the most international travel miles while in office? In the column of most-traveled US presidents, the number spot goes to George W. Bush with 140 international visits. Bush visited 73 different countries during his presidency, including Albania, Austria, Chile, Croatia, Egypt, and South Korea. Bush’s most memorable trip was to Mongolia in 2005. Recognized as a post-Cold War diplomacy milestone, the visit set the groundwork for advancing relations between America and the Mongolians.
Bill Clinton comes in second with 133 international trips, including a six-nation tour of Africa in response to Rwanda's government-ordered genocide of Tutsi people. Clinton issued an apology to the Rwandan population for not acting sooner.
Barack Obama is in third place with 120 international trips. President Obama conducted 13 trips to Southeast Asia, strengthening relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2016, he made a historic visit to Cuba to underscore the thawing of Cuba–United States relations following a 54-year rift.
Rounding out the Top Five, George H.W. is fourth with 60, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's 52 international visits net him the number five position. FDR visited the Bahamas five separate times; four were fishing trips, but who’s counting?
Other notable traveling presidents are Ronald Reagan, who made 25 international trips to 26 countries during his presidency, including his famous speech at the Berlin Wall. Lyndon B. Johnson made the first round-the-world presidential trip in 1967. Gerald Ford was the first sitting president to visit Japan. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president to visit Vatican City in Rome, and Dwight Eisenhower made a trip to South Korea as the president-elect. Donald Trump's ninth-place finish establishes him as the first American president to cross over the Korean Demilitarized Zone to enter North Korea.
According to Newsweek, since taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden has only managed six international trips to five countries. So much for those airline points! President Biden has some catching up if he wants a shot at the top five, but he still has the advantage over Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who logged only one international visit each!
George W. Bush may hold the record for the most-traveled president, Barack Obama handily edges out all other presidents for most destinations traveled during the first year of his presidency. According to the Wandering RV, the top 10 countries for Presidential Travel include:
- United Kingdom
- Vatican City
The countries least frequented by US presidents are Switzerland, Spain, the Philippines, and Ireland.
Since the dawning of the 20th Century, American presidents' policy has been to engage in international travel for purposes of diplomacy and trade. Each administration approaches this responsibility differently, much like how there are differences in travel insurance coverage. The first line of defense isn't always the Secret Service. Protection abroad comes in the ease, speed, and affordability of Point Comfort Travel Insurance.
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