As most know, a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck the South American coastal nation of Chile last week. Thanks to moderately-strict building codes, many of the towns were not as affected as towns in Haiti had been just over a month ago. Still, the death toll in Chile has reached over 700 and continues to rise.
The Chile earthquake brings to mind the 1970 earthquake in Peru, north of the Chilean quake’s epicenter. To this day, the 7.9 magnitude disaster is known as the Great Peruvian Earthquake. Populated towns as well as remote mountain villages were literally obliterated, only to be covered in tons of rock. The death toll reached over 70,000 and thousands more were critically injured.
First Lady Patricia Nixon read about the disaster in Peru and told her husband, the President of the United States, “I just wish there were something I could do to help.” The President suggested that she fly to Peru to personally deliver relief supplies – and that she did. She coordinated efforts with volunteer organizations to gather food and other supplies to aid the suffering people.
Mrs. Nixon lifted off aboard a presidential jet from El Toro Marine Base, Orange County, with a C-135 cargo plane in tow, carrying nine tons of relief supplies. Upon her arrival at the Lima airport, she was greeted by over 3,000 cheering Peruvians. The First Lady remarked at the airport, “The United States would like you to know … that we will continue to assist you as you complete your reconstruction.”
Mrs. Nixon was joined by Peruvian First Lady Consuelo Velasco as she flew in a small cargo plane deep into the Andes Mountains to witness the destruction and personally deliver supplies to the people. After climbing over rubble to reach the suffering citizens, Mrs. Nixon said, “The destruction was much more incredible than I had read. It is all so saddening. The people are so brave. We are going to try harder to help them.” She distributed blankets and care packages, and comforted hundreds of the over 500,000 displaced refugees in the affected towns. When prompted to rest and relax, she remarked, “I didn’t come here to sit.” Mrs. Velasco commented that Mrs. Nixon “brought a new spirit to the people who have received her with much happiness.”
Never before had a First Lady undertaken a mercy mission that resulted in such diplomatic side effects. Peruvian President Juan Velasco had been leaning toward anti-American, pro-Soviet foreign policies, but his press secretary remarked that the President was “very touched by the gesture of President Nixon in sending his wife. If he could have sent the whole U.S. Air Force, it would not have meant as much as sending his wife.” One Peruvian newspaper, La Prensa, noted that Peru could never forget the “messenger of material aid and support” who was Pat Nixon. It continued: “In her human warmth and identification with the suffering of the Peruvian people, she has gone beyond the norms of international courtesy and has endured fatigue in an example of solidarity and self denial.”
Mrs. Nixon was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun by the Peruvian President, the highest Peruvian honor and the oldest official decoration in the Western Hemisphere.
Upon her return, she worked closely with the Taft Commission for Peruvian Relief and briefed the Peru Earthquake Voluntary Assistance Group in Washington on her encounters and the needs of the Peruvian people. Her mission of goodwill gained widespread recognition.
As President and Mrs. Nixon did, let us help the victims of the Chilean disaster.