The Panama Canal has served as a strategic maritime shortcut and commercial trade artery since its epic opening in 1914. But beyond cargo and warships, this modern engineering marvel has also hosted quite a few distinguished passengers over the decades – multiple presidents of the United States.
At least five sitting commanders-in-chief have traversed the 50-mile canal route during their terms, continuing an historic presidential tradition. For each, the experience offered unique opportunities to assess canal operations, connect with local populations, and reinforce American interests in this pivotal transoceanic waterway.
Let’s look back on the presidential transits and visits that became an integral part of Panama Canal history and lore:
Theodore Roosevelt’s Post-Presidential Passage
Although Theodore Roosevelt did not transit the canal while in office, it would have been unthinkable for the exuberant former president to pass up that opportunity later in life. Roosevelt had officially launched construction of the canal during his tenure, overseeing the massive project from conception through its monumental realization.
In 1910, Roosevelt embarked on a tropical expedition through South America with his son Kermit. This adventure included Teddy piloting a small boat through the canal zone between oceans, becoming the first former head of state to make the historic crossing. The canal had come to fruition just as Roosevelt dreamed.
Warren G. Harding’s 1920 Goodwill Tour
In the summer of 1920, President Warren G. Harding voyaged to the Alaskan Territory and later embarked on an extended tour of the West Coast and Hawaii. But his return journey included a special highlight – piloting his presidential yacht the USS Henderson through the legendary Panama Canal.
The first sitting president to traverse the canal, Harding used the June 1920 transit to inspect facilities and confer with canal administrators. But the historic visit also provided a public relations opportunity to connect Harding with the marvelous engineering feat accomplished under America’s proud leadership.
Calvin Coolidge Inspires Canal Pride
When President Calvin Coolidge toured South and Central America in January 1927 to promote goodwill and commerce, a Panama Canal visit was naturally top of his itinerary. Coolidge’s canal passage coincided with construction of new fortifications and locks, allowing the president to survey progress firsthand.
As the ship carrying Coolidge entered the canal’s first set of massive lock gates, he stood prominently at the railing with Panama’s president for countless press photos capturing the momentous occasion. Coolidge’s journey cultivated unity and recognized Panama’s essential role supporting canal operations.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Two Transits
Franklin D. Roosevelt appreciates more than most presidents the strategic significance of the Panama Canal for projecting American naval power and facilitating global trade. He visited Panama and toured canal facilities in July 1934 while cruise liners steamed though the locks behind him.
But later in June 1940, Roosevelt became the first president to make a second transit of the canal on the USS Tuscaloosa. This voyage held heightened urgency as WWII geopolitics loomed. FDR used both visits to inspect defenses fortifying America’s vital southern maritime link against the spread of fascism.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Navigates Pre-War Tensions
Fresh off his command of Allied forces in WWII, General Dwight D. Eisenhower paid a presidential visit to the canal zone in 1960 seeking to ease rising tensions over canal control. Just 15 years after overseeing war mobilization through the canal, Eisenhower now advocated for its peaceful role alongside Panama’s interests.
Though failing to resolve divisive issues around Panamanian sovereignty, Eisenhower’s leadership demonstrated how adversaries America and Japan just years earlier now shared a common global trade artery though engineering prowess rather than military might. His transit spoke to changing realities.
Jimmy Carter and Canal Diplomacy
Jimmy Carter deserves special recognition for dramatic efforts to transfer control of canal operations to Panama through contentious but ultimately successful 1977 treaties. During an historic 1978 summit in Panama City, Carter became the first president to ride along the entire canal route from Atlantic to Pacific.
Carter used his visit to praise joint progress and possibilities under the newly created Panama Canal Commission. By subsequently awarding Panama’s leader the Medal of Freedom, Carter affirmed it was cooperation, not conflict, that would fuel the canal’s future – a future finally under Panamanian sovereignty by century’s end.
A Continuing Tradition
From Roosevelt to Carter, U.S. Presidents have embraced opportunities to see firsthand America’s crowning engineering achievement in action, while strengthening relationships with Panama critical to the canal’s upkeep and security. Their visits affirmed American interests without diminishing Panama’s essential role.
No other major trade route or maritime asset has drawn such an array of American leaders to inspect operations and engage local populations. For the American psyche, traversing the canal became akin to driving a new transcontinental highway or boarding a cutting-edge aircraft carrier.
From highlighting geostrategic priorities to furthering diplomacy, presidential Panama Canal transits continue a vibrant tradition interweaving engineering marvels, natural wonders and the pageantry of global leadership. Surely future commanders-in-chief will embark on this time-honored rite of passage.