Presidents throughout history have sought battlefield visits to better grasp conditions, reverse public doubt and signal to both U.S. and enemy forces that the country took war efforts seriously. Veterans have split on the value of such visits, with some suggesting “dog and pony” shows obscure realities of close fighting and drain resources like aircraft and security details.
President Trump has been different in his approach. Increasing public scrutiny of Trump’s rocky military relations has fueled criticism about the fact that he has not yet visited a war zone during his administration, at a time when American troops have been killed fighting in seven countries.
Now, he has suggested a willingness to do so, according to a report in The Washington Post that also said he has been concerned over his own safety and does not want to legitimize wars that he believes should have not been waged.
On Thanksgiving, the president, who is spending the holiday at Mar-a-Lago, planned to speak with troops around the world by teleconference.
Trump’s reluctance to go to a combat zone is a departure from that of a number of commanders in chief throughout history, including some who have exposed themselves to danger, said historian and “Presidents of War” author Michael Beschloss.
“In modern times, we expect presidents to do that much more than in the old days when travel was more difficult,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “When Trump doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the expectation, it makes people wonder why.”
Here are two centuries of presidents visiting fields of battle.
Madison wields pistols, and Lincoln meets commanders in the field
President Madison, upon visiting troops standing to defend Washington from British regulars, had delivered good news and bad to first lady Dolley Madison in Aug. 1814.
The troops were in good spirits, he said.
But the British were a far greater and closer threat than he had previously understood, Beschloss wrote, and warned she “should be ready at a moment’s warning” to flee the capital before the British arrived “with intention to destroy it.”
Soon after, Madison holstered two dueling pistols and rode to survey the battle at Bladensburg, Md., and watched through a spyglass as his forces retreated from the last defensive position protecting Washington, Beschloss wrote, hastening his grim prediction.
British Congreve rockets arced and screeched during the battle, marking the first time a sitting U.S. president was in the line of enemy fire.
The second time was Lincoln’s presence at Fort Stevens. But that was not his first visit to battlefields to study conditions, raise the spirits of men in brutal combat and meet with commanders to discuss strategic and resource issues.
Lincoln visited Antietam in Maryland two weeks after the Union’s quasi-victory in 1862, and did the same after the Battle of Gettysburg the following year. And his visits to wounded troops and junior soldiers in the field earned a high degree of respect in the ranks, historians have noted.
Dwight Eisenhower confirms doubts over the Korean War
Eisenhower, the former supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, made a bold campaign promise days before he won the 1952 presidential election.
“I shall go to Korea,” Eisenhower said of the conflict spinning out of control, and promised to “review every factor — military, political and psychological — to be mobilized in speeding a just peace.”
Eisenhower made good on his promise. As president-elect the next month, he met commanders and surveyed Chinese and North Korean positions from an artillery spotter aircraft. In a thick parka, he squatted on an ammunition crate and ate lunch shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers.
The visit confirmed his belief the war had become a stalemate. “We could not stand forever on a static front and continue to accept casualties without any visible results,” he later said. Eisenhower brokered an armistice later that July.
Johnson, Bush and Obama: A modern expectation for presidential wartime visits
Speedy and reliable air travel after the 1950s coupled with a string of presidential visits set a modern benchmark for the American public, Beschloss said.
President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived in a surprise visit to South Vietnam in October 1966. The presidential trip to the battlefield morphed into a campaign to blunt negative public opinion of an increasingly unpopular war.
Johnson stood in a jeep at Cam Ranh Bay to address troops gathered around him, and while not under direct fire, moved closer to the front than any president since Lincoln at Fort Stevens, Beschloss wrote.
He hollered in thick Texas twang, and may have been speaking at once to the troops and midterm election voters angered over Vietnam: “Chin up, chest out — we’re gonna get out of this yet,” Beschloss wrote.
Johnson’s self-aware swagger created the modern expectation that presidents would visit troops in the field, Beschloss said. President Richard Nixon also visited Vietnam three years later.
The ghosts of Vietnam reemerged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both visited those conflicts numerous times during their two terms, partly to blunt souring public opinion.
Bush met with troops for Thanksgiving months after Baghdad fell in 2003, as the insurgency there picked up momentum and questions swirled over the decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Years later, Obama visited troops there following his election and campaign promises to bring the war to a close. In 2010, in the middle of Obama’s own troop surge Afghanistan, he visited Bagram Air Field as the spring fighting season kicked off.
Those and other visits made Trump’s reluctance puzzling to Beschloss. Madison, Lincoln and Johnson moved closer to danger. And Obama made his trips even as he publicly doubted the so-called war on terror was necessary, he noted.
Trump’s concerns over personal safety and legitimizing unpopular wars has been an aberration.
“Both of the things are a direct rebuke to history,” Beschloss said.