No one pays much attention today when a president visits troops overseas or attends a summit meeting in Europe. But a foreign presidential trip was gigantic news in 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt sailed to Panama—the first time a president, while in office, ever left U.S. soil. Americans thought he was inviting danger.
If George Washington had wanted to visit France, he could have spent three months just on the sea voyage. If Abraham Lincoln wanted to visit London, he could have been away for a month. Early presidents were deterred from international travel by more than time out of the office. How would they stay in touch? Communications were non-existent until the first transatlantic telegram in 1858 when Queen Victoria sent a cable to President James Buchanan. That cable took sixteen hours to reach Washington.
By 1906, travel by ship had picked up speed and telegraph technology had improved. Teddy Theodore Roosevelt, eager to check on the progress of the American effort to dig the Panama Canal, planned a visit. He would be gone a mere seventeen days, and his battleship, the SS Louisiana, would be outfitted with the best telegraph apparatus and operators available.
Behind the scenes in Panama, TR’s security detail worried about more than the length of the voyage or the speed of cables. 1906 was in an era of anarchist attacks against leaders. Just five years before, in Buffalo, anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley. In Europe, assassins killed French President Carnot, Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and King Umberto of Italy. Secret service agents and police were on their guard. Today, only Americans old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s trip to Caracas, Venezuela might the anticipate potential danger of a trip abroad. In 1958, Richard Nixon, while still vice president, traveled to Caracas where a mob stoned and rocked his car. You can watch the frightening video on YouTube. Americans are more likely to remember the most famous speech from a presidential trip abroad—Regan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech in Berlin—than Nixon’s rocking limousine.
In my novelist’s imagination, the very first presidential trip outside the United States was rife with hidden dangers. According to the historical record, the trip began placidly, with Teddy Roosevelt and his entourage climbing into open air train cars to travel the rails from Colon to Panama City. Here is one of the best pictures available, courtesy of the Library of Congress.While Teddy toured construction sites, looking happy and relaxed, the local police checked every ship arriving in Panama’s ports for potential assassins, using ethnic profiling (targeting passengers they thought looked Italian). Once they cleared one suspect, they turned their attention to another. This fishing expedition proved challenging because Panama in 1906 served as a magnet for workers from around the world—White engineers from the States, Black laborers from Barbados and Jamaica, skilled laborers from Spain and Greece, assorted salesmen pitching equipment and supplies, as well as men and women who had been disgraced in their own countries and were seeking a new start. Hundreds of newcomers disembarked every day.
Historical archives record no serious threats to TR’s life, but I imagine threats that TR chose to ignore. I follow the practice of most historical novelists in portraying events. We stay with the facts, and when we can’t find facts, we create events that are plausible within the known historical context. In my novel, TR’s trip ends after a terrifying assassination plot in the new Tivoli Hotel near Panama City. Here is a picture of the elegant hotel, again courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Readers with even a modest knowledge of U.S. history know that Teddy Roosevelt was not assassinated. As I wrote this novel, a novel where the end was known, I was inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. All readers of that memorable thriller know that the Jackal failed to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Most of my own readers know TR lived until 1919. Even though the assassins plotting to kill him would not succeed, I want my readers to experience the plausible dangers surrounding an international trip, while they learn about the history of presidential travel, the history of anarchism, and history of the Canal.