Keeping in Touch with a Traveling President, 1940

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In today’s world, a President of the United States travelling anywhere in the World is constantly in touch with the White House and government agencies through sophisticated and secure means of communications.  The President is literally never out of touch.  This has not always been true.

While Presidents have always left Washington, DC, to travel around the country, the first sitting President or President-elect to leave the United States was Theodore Roosevelt.  In November 1906, he went to Panama while visiting the Panama Canal Zone to inspect construction of the Panama Canal.  He was out of the country for more than 2 weeks.  Subsequent to that, William Howard Taft went overseas two times (once as President-elect); Woodrow Wilson made three trips (once as President-elect and both as President to multiple countries), the longest of which took him out of the country for more than 4 months; Warren G. Harding made two trips (one as President-elect); and Calvin Coolidge made one overseas visit.  See this earlier post about Coolidge’s trip to Cuba. Herbert Hoover made no overseas trips as President but did visit 10 countries on a good-will trip through Central and South America as President-elect.

Then came Franklin D. Roosevelt, who set a new pattern for Presidential travel.  During his 12 years in the White House, he made 22 trips out of the United States (one as President-elect), most to multiple countries.  Most famously he visited Casablanca, Cairo, Tehran, and Yalta for high-level meetings during World War II.

FDR standing with sunglasses on, 2 men on either side of him, one is the ship captain in dress whites uniform
President Roosevelt on the USS Tuscaloosa cruise to the Canal Zone, Feb 15, 1940 (NAID 195423)

In December 1940, FDR made a voyage aboard the USS Tuscaloosa.  President Roosevelt left Washington on December 2, taking the train to Miami where he boarded the Tuscaloosa for a base inspection cruise through the Caribbean.  The goal was to inspect U.S. bases and also take a vacation.  During the trip he visited the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Martinique and Antigua and met with a number of local dignitaries, including the Duke of Windsor.  He returned to Washington through Charleston, SC, and Warm Springs, GA, and was back in the White House on December 16.

While aboard the Tuscaloosa, the President was in limited communication with the seat of government in Washington.  The White House established the following procedures for government agencies to communicate with FDR on “an absolute ‘must’ basis.”

Letter from Stephen Early, Secretary to the President, Dec 2, 1940 (NAID 302021)

You will find more information about overseas travel of Presidents in the website Travels Abroad of the President maintained by the Office of the Historian in the Department of State.

Source: Stephen Early, Secretary to the President, to the Heads of the Executive Departments and Agencies of the Government, December 2, 1940, file 811.001 Roosevelt Visits/491, 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

3 thoughts on “Keeping in Touch with a Traveling President, 1940

  1. This post provides a fascinating look at the evolution of Presidential travel and communication throughout history. It’s interesting to see how the ability for a President to stay connected to the White House and government agencies has changed over time, with Theodore Roosevelt being the first President to leave the country while in office. It’s also noteworthy how Franklin D. Roosevelt set a new pattern for Presidential travel with his numerous trips abroad. The excerpt from the letter from Stephen Early, Secretary to the President, detailing the communication procedures while President Roosevelt was on his trip, provides a glimpse into the logistics of Presidential travel and communication at the time. Overall, this post serves as a reminder of how technology and communication have played a crucial role in shaping the way Presidents conduct their duties while away from the White House.

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