FACT CHECK: Is Joe Biden The Only President To Visit An Active War Zone?

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter
The HuffPost reported that President Joe Biden is the only president to visit an active war zone.

Verdict: False

Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Madison came under enemy fire, according to The Washington Post. Biden is the only U.S. president to visit war zones that do not have an active U.S. military presence.

Fact Check:

Biden visited Tel Aviv Oct. 18, as Hamas launched rockets into Israel and Israeli airstrikes pounded Gaza, according to the Associated Press. There, he pledged humanitarian aid for Gaza and asked Israel not to be consumed by rage after Hamas killed over 1,000 Israelis, mostly civilians, in a surprise Oct. 7 assault, the outlet reported.

The HuffPost reported, “Mocked as old, feeble and bumbling by Republicans, Democratic President Joe Biden has now visited two active war zones in eight months ― two more than all the previous presidents combined.”

The claim that Biden is the only president to visit a war zone, however, is false. Lincoln, the 16th president of the U.S. who guided the country through the American Civil War, came under enemy fire while at Fort Stevens, according to the National Parks Service (NPS).

“On July 12, 1864, President Lincoln stood atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle and came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters. It is the only time in American history in which a sitting president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant,” the NPS wrote.

A 2014 History Channel article stated that “a shot rang out and three feet to the right of Lincoln a Union surgeon crumbled to the ground with a severe wound to his leg.” This is repeated by an article published on President Lincoln’s Cottage website and a 2022 blog post on the Jack Miller Center’s website. (RELATED: Video Claiming Showing Israeli Missile Attack On Gaza Predates The Current Conflict)

“Meanwhile, the persistence of the Union Commander-in-Chief’s desire to view the skirmishing from atop Fort Stevens’s parapet nearly achieved unexpected consequences for Early and the Confederacy.  When a surgeon nearby went down with a sharpshooter’s bullet, Union commanders realized this nonsense of a president being shot at had to stop,” an article from the American Battlefield Trust states.

While some say that Lincoln is thought to have been the only president to come under enemy fire, Madison, the 4th president of the U.S., also came under enemy fire, according to The Washington Post. Michael Beschloss, an American presidential historian, told The Washington Post that Madison came under fire during the Battle of Bladensburg, though it is unlikely the British knew the president was there.

The White House Historical Association says that on the “afternoon of August 24, 1814, President James Madison was on the field of battle at Bladensburg, Maryland, when British troops overran American militia forces.”

Biden visited Kyiv in February 2023, making him the first president to visit a war zone that did not have an active U.S. military presence, according to the Military Times. While Kyiv has not been on the frontlines since the Russians retreated from Kyiv Oblast in April 2022, Kyiv has been hit with numerous missile and drone strikes over the course of the war. His visit to Tel Aviv was also the second time he visited war zone that was not controlled by the U.S., according to the Washington Post.

There are also presidential visits to war zones, though these were to U.S. bases. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited an Allied installation in Sicily in 1943 and U.S. troops in Morocco. Roosevelt also flew over “an active war zone” during his trans-Atlantic trip to the Casablanca conference, according to the White House Historical Association.

“The Dixie Clipper made pit stops in Trinidad; Belem, Brazil; and Bathurst, Gambia. At Bathurst, the president switched aircraft per the recommendation of Air Transport Command deputy commander and Brigadier General Cyrus R. Smith, who had procured two Douglas C-54 Army transport airplanes for the last leg of the trip to protect the president as he flew over an active war zone,” the White House Historical Association wrote.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum also stated “[n]president had ever left the United States during wartime, or ever visited Africa, or even ever traveled in an airplane. No president since Lincoln had visited an active battlefield. And FDR did all of those things without the press finding out.” It also said that Roosevelt’s visit to Morocco was the “first time since the Civil War that an American president had been in a battle zone.”

“This was the first time since the Civil War that an American president had been in a battle zone and FDR was determined to review the troops, despite the objections of the Secret Service. The battle of Morocco had ended just two months earlier, and hundreds of thousands of American troops were now coming ashore and heading into battle in Tunisia. But none of them knew their Commander in Chief was in their midst,” it wrote.

President-elect Dwight E. Eisenhower visited U.S. troops on the frontlines in Korea December 1952 before he took the presidency. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon visited U.S. troops in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, while Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump visited U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Washington Post.

Jeffrey Engel, Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, told Check Your Fact that there is no “universally recognized definition” for “active war zone.”

“Completely depends on what one defines as an ‘active war zone.’ There is no universally recognized definition. FDR went overseas for conferences and visited with troops during WWII.  Ike went to Korea when he was president-elect.  George H.W. Bush went to Saudi Arabia in the build-up to hostilities for the Gulf War (had thanksgiving with the troops, if I recall), and both Obama and George W. Bush went to visit troops in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, both during the period that we would consider a war underway in those countries,” Engel said.

He also said that “I would sure think so” when asked  by Check Your Fact about if Lincoln’s visit to Fort Stevens would constitute a visit to an active war zone.

A Buzzfeed spokesperson (Buzzfeed owns HuffPost) told Check Your Fact that the instances of Lincoln and Madison coming under fire are because “the war actually came to the president.”

“In both those instances, the war actually came to the president. In 1812, following that battle, the British burned down the WH, among other buildings in DC. And Fort Stevens is actually in DC. Furthermore, at the time both went to those forts, they were under the control of the US military, which makes their visits more analogous to Roosevelt, Johnson, etc. than Biden. Neither Kiev nor Tel Aviv was under US military control at the time of Biden’s visits,” the spokesperson said.

Lincoln and Madison both visited active war zones on their own volition. From the American Battlefield Trust:

Union lines appeared strong but feebly manned. All that Confederate officers could discern through binoculars were citizens and militia manning the ramparts. Still, a headlong rush seemed inopportune in the heat, so the raiders resorted to skirmishing while the defenders remained content to await reinforcements. It was a curious standoff in retrospect. Perhaps by this stage in the war nobody wanted to take chances. Certainly the soldiers were in no particular mood to sacrifice themselves. One who was, however, appears to be President Lincoln, who arrived by carriage with an official party and a host of curious. From the Potomac east to the rail tracks to Baltimore, the line of Washington’s forts became the battle sector. Sharpshooters peppered ramparts, Lincoln and his wife Mary ostensibly visited the wounded in the fort’s hospital but nobody made a move toward pitched battle on July 11.” (Emphasis added by Check Your Fact)

The Washington Post reported, “On Aug. 24, 1814, Madison traveled from the White House to the Battle of Bladensburg a few miles east, brandishing two pistols and a spyglass. Though it is extremely unlikely the British knew Madison was there, he nonetheless came under enemy fire.” (Emphasis added by Check Your Fact).

Biden said during an Oct. 19 speech that he was “told” that he “was the first American [president] to enter a war zone not controlled by the United States military since President Lincoln.”

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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