On this day in 1906, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt embarks on a 17-day trip to Panama and Puerto Rico, becoming the first president to make an official diplomatic tour outside of the continental United States.
Roosevelt entered office in 1901 with the firm intention of asserting American influence over Central and South American politics, partly as a result of his own past experiences in the area. In 1897, he became secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley, whose administration worked to secure access to ports and industries in countries with close proximity to the U.S. At the time of Roosevelt’s appointment to the Navy’s highest civilian office, American sea power was on the rise, enabling the U.S. to become a greater influence in world affairs.
Five years later, now-President Roosevelt visited Panama to check on the progress of the Panama Canal, the construction of which had suffered many setbacks, including worker accidents and disease outbreaks. Roosevelt’s tenacious demands for improvements in health care and better working conditions pushed the canal project forward just when it appeared doomed to failure. His trip to the construction site in 1906 –which included the taking of a November 15 photo of the president himself working the controls of a large steam shovel—helped to boost flagging morale.
Roosevelt’s next stop was Puerto Rico, which had become a U.S. protectorate after the Spanish-American War of 1898. In 1900, President William McKinley promised to help establish a civilian government there without becoming an occupying power. McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and Roosevelt, who was then serving as McKinley’s vice president became president, inheriting the stewardship of Puerto Rico. In 1906, he traveled to the country to recommend that Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens. He stopped short of suggesting Puerto Rico become another U.S. state, however, and vowed to allow the island a certain amount of autonomy. (It was not until 1916, under President Woodrow Wilson, that the Jones Act was passed, extending the option of U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans while preserving Puerto Rico’s autonomy.)
Although presidents before Roosevelt had traveled outside the U.S. in other diplomatic capacities prior to or after serving as president, Roosevelt was the first to make a “state” visit while in office. His trip to Panama and Puerto Rico signaled a new era in how presidents conducted diplomatic relations with other countries.