Let’s Misremember

Reporter William Douglas‘s article on the trouble President Bush enountered in his trip to the Summit of the Americas had a decided lack of historical perspective, not to mention a curious omission (emphasis added):

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina – Troubles at home followed President Bush to Latin America on Friday as thousands of protesters and Venezuela’s defiant left-wing leader got his trip to the Summit of the Americas off to a rocky start.

Enduring the lowest public-approval ratings of his presidency, Bush followed a path well-trod by previous presidents in trouble at home who sought relief abroad. But if he expected to get a break during his talks with 33 other leaders at a seaside resort, he was sorely disappointed.

. . .

His inability to find public approval even far from home is somewhat unusual for U.S. presidents who are mired in domestic trouble. Even at the height of the Watergate controversy, for example, Richard Nixon basked in adoration from foreign crowds, who never quite understood what Watergate was about.

Bush has been unpopular abroad since his election and far more so since he began saber-rattling for the Iraq War. His approval numbers overseas have been bad all along, there have been protests in virtually every country he’s visited, and the common assumption that US interests were involved in the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez haven’t increased his popularity in South America which has a long experience with US meddling in their governments.

The idea that “troubles at home” and “domestic trouble” are at the root of the protests is ridiculous. Perceived US imperialism, seen through the lenses of the free trade agreement and the Iraq War are primary motivators for the protests.

Finally, the idea that top US officials — including Nixon — have always gotten good receptions overseas is just ignorant of history. Nor are protests against US leaders anything new. This is from the Senate Historical Office’s Vice Presidents of the United States 1789-1993, discussing then-Vice President Nixon’s 1958 tour of South America:

When he set off for South America in 1958, he anticipated an uneventful tour that would merely distract him from his attempts to talk the administration into cutting taxes at home. He was unprepared for the vehemence of the anti-American demonstrations he would encounter from those opposing U.S. policy toward Latin America. In Peru, Nixon was blocked from visiting San Marcos University by a crowd of demonstrators chanting “Go Home Nixon!” He was met in Venezuela by hostile crowds that spat at him as he left his plane. In the capital, Caracas, the scene turned violent. A mob surrounded his car and began rocking it back and forth, trying to turn it over and chanting “Death to Nixon.” Protected by only twelve Secret Service agents, the procession was forced to wait for the Venezuelan military to clear a path of escape. But by that time, the car had been nearly demolished and the vice president had seen his fill of South America. President Eisenhower sent a naval squadron to the Venezuelan coast in case they needed to rescue the vice president, but Nixon quietly left the country the next day.

Nixon did meet non-violent crowds in other countries — like China — but that’s hardly surprising considering that China was less inclined to allow protests in 1971 than they are now. As President, Nixon met demonstrators throughout his 1969 trip to Rome, Berlin, and Paris. I wasn’t there — I was a bit young to go dashing off to Europe in the late ’60s — but I do know about it.