In taking his first trip abroad as president this week, Donald Trump joins a long tradition. Since Teddy Roosevelt went to Panama in 1906 to inspect construction work on the Panama Canal, U.S. presidents have made 921 visits to foreign places, including the nine on Trump’s itinerary. A new interactive map allows you to explore where the presidents—and their secretaries of state—have gone.
One thing that stands out is the dramatic increase in presidential travel after World War II. The obvious explanation is the advent of jet aircraft, which shortened trips and put the entire globe within reach, says Robert Nelson, director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, which created the map. But the shift also reflects America’s growing global influence and use of soft power—diplomacy rather than military might—in the latter half of the 20th century, Nelson says.
Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who succeeded him, made a combined total of three trips to two places: Panama and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. In contrast, George W. Bush and Barack Obama visited 309 places on six continents (Bush traveled slightly more—168 places to Obama’s 141).
“The first really big presidential trip is Woodrow Wilson’s trip abroad to attend the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War,” Nelson says. Wilson was gone more than six months. “He was traveling by boat, so it was a huge time commitment.”
A few other presidential milestones:
- First trip to Africa: Franklin Delano Roosevelt attended a conference in Casablanca, Morocco, in January 1943
- First trip to Asia: Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Tehran, Iran, in November 1943 to meet with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
- Most travelled president: Bill Clinton visited 195 foreign places
- Least travelled president: Calvin Coolidge took zero trips abroad
Data for the map—drawn from travel records kept by the Office of the Historian at the U.S. State Department—were compiled by University of Richmond students in a class taught by Nelson’s colleague Tim Barney.
Nelson decided to put Washington, D.C., at the centre of the map to highlight the distances to different destinations. Colours correspond to geographic regions on the map and on the ring around it, which indicates the total number of trips within a given time period. The colours around the ring show, for example, that while Latin America and Europe dominated presidential itineraries early in the 20th century, travel to Asia and Africa has increased in recent decades.
U.S. secretaries of state (right) appear to make more trips than presidents to the Middle East (represented by purple in the rings around both maps).
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIGITAL SCHOLARSHIP LAB, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND
The colored rings also suggest that secretaries of state have spent more time in the Middle East than presidents have (see above). Perhaps, Nelson suggests, that’s because presidential visits are more ceremonial, whereas secretaries of state are the ones dispatched to regions where there’s hard diplomatic work to be done.
A hill rising up from the ring means a lot of trips—and many of these appear to coincide with international crises, such as a flurry of trips to the Middle East by Secretary of State George Shultz in the mid-1980s, during an escalation of the conflict in Lebanon.
Trump’s trip follows a tumultuous couple of weeks for his administration at home, and there is a tradition for that as well. Ronald Reagan took a nine-day break from the Iran-Contra scandal with a trip to Europe in 1987. And President Clinton visited Russia and Northern Ireland in 1998, after testifying to the grand jury investigating his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
Each trip, whether it advances the interests of the nation or merely provides a respite for a beleaguered leader, adds another dot to the map.
Header Image: U.S. presidents have made 16 previous trips to Brussels (peach-colored lines), where President Trump is today. PHOTOGRAPH BY DIGITAL SCHOLARSHIP LAB, UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND