Pat Nixon Brings Relief to Peru
"The Worst Catastrophe Ever Suffered"
Fifty years ago this week, America responded to her neighbor Peru after what President Nixon called “the worst catastrophe ever suffered by a people of the Americas.”
On May 31st, a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake rattled Peru to her core, and killed 70,000, injured 50,000, and left 800,000 homeless. One out of every 12 Peruvians was forced from their homes; food was scarce, and becoming ever scarcer. It was a global humanitarian disaster unlike any in recent memory.
On June 13, President Nixon spoke from the Oval Office to the American people:
“As President of the United States, I appeal to you — as individuals and as a nation — to express our concern and grief through actions that will help to relieve the suffering that tragedy has brought to Peru.”
A First for the First Lady
The Nixon administration organized a whole of government response to the Peruvian catastrophe, coordinating private contributions for a relief mission headed by the First Lady.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970, First Lady Pat Nixon left on her first solo overseas mission as First Lady.
With supplies stacked to the ceiling, she took off on SAM 26000 –the Boeing 707 usually used as Air Force One—for Lima, with nine tons of equipment and materials trailing in a second Air Force jet.
¡ Bienvenidos a Señora Nixon !
Upon landing, Mrs. Nixon was greeted by the wife of the President of Peru, Mrs. Consuelo Velasco, who would accompany her through the mountainous villages. “It was her first foreign trip alone, and from a diplomatic standpoint, a sensitive one,” The New York Times opined. Her visit was tightly coordinated to not only distribute supplies, but bring international attention to this humanitarian crisis.
C-135 Cargo Plane
After touching down, the nine tons of supplies stored on the two air force jets were transferred onto a C-135 cargo plane that could land on a smaller dirt runway 170 miles away in the most mountainous regions.
The nine tons of emergency supplies donated by the American people included, blankets, food, and medical supplies.
A First Lady to First Lady Operation
On the second day the two first ladies flew on a cargo jet to the areas most devastated by the earthquake. “Because the cargo plane was not equipped for passengers, Mrs. Velasco was strapped into the co-pilot’s seat, and [Mrs. Nixon] sat, without a seat belt, on a chrome-and-plastic kitchen chair that had been bolted hurriedly to the floor of the plane,” wrote Julie Nixon Eisenhower in Pat Nixon: The Untold Story. The mountainous Yungay and Huaraz areas of Peru were the most impacted.
Mrs. Nixon, accompanied by Mrs. Velasco took a hair-raising helicopter flight deep into the Andes. The two ladies flew over the highland village of Yungay, a once lively town that had been buried in an avalanche of ice, mud, and boulders. The debris thundered down the north face of Mount Huascarán above the town, quite literally leaving bodies in its wake.
The town of Huaraz crumbled in the aftermath of the earthquake. Adobe churches, houses, buildings, and schools tumbled to the ground.
Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Velasco climbed over the rubble of what were once works of architecture. The Huaraz Cathedral, with its twin bell towers, collapsed during the 45 second long earthquake, leaving only the arched doorway standing upright.
Due to the unprecedented crisis of homelessness caused by the earthquake, over 800,000 people were given temporary shelters. These shelters were constructed miles away from the rubble of destroyed towns, forcing a mass migration of the surviving Yungay and Huaraz populations into the tent cities, many without their belongings.
Showing Her How It's Done
In one of the tent cities, Mrs. Nixon plunged into crowds to meet and speak with the people.
Constance Stuart, Mrs. Nixon’s Press Secretary, later reflected, “Mrs. Velasco went along with Mrs. Nixon and watched for about 20 to 30 minutes as Mrs. Nixon would hug some of the people…or cuddle some of the children or inquire about how they were doing and what they needed…It was a fascinating experience watching one First Lady learn the other First Lady’s techniques.”
A reporter asked Mrs. Nixon how she was able to connect with the people of Peru despite an obvious language barrier. She replied, “Even when people can’t speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart.”
After viewing the devastated areas and distributing emergency supplies, Mrs. Nixon visited the Presidential Palace in Lima. There she was briefed by President Juan Velasco on the affected areas – many of which she had just toured, and the government’s efforts to chart a path forward
According to the US Ambassador to Peru, President Velasco “couldn’t have been more moved by Mrs. Nixon’s visit.”
On the third day, Mrs. Nixon visited a Children’s Hospital to see and comfort orphans of the earthquake. According to the White House, Mrs. Nixon “discovered the damage and cost of human suffering to be greater than she had anticipated.”
Pat Nixon's Homecoming
June 30, 1970
Mrs. Nixon returned to the United States after three trying days.
She said, “I bring grateful thanks from the people of Peru for the generous contributions of the American people…. It was the worst damage I had ever seen or even read about…. but they have a lot of courage and will, and they’re going to recover, I know, with the help of all the people in this country and throughout the world.”
An Historic Honor
On June 29, 1971, on the one year anniversary of Mrs. Nixon’s visit to Peru, the government of Peru awarded her the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun, the oldest decoration in the Americas and the highest honor of the Peruvian government.
Mrs. Nixon was the first North American to receive the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun. Upon accepting the award, Mrs. Nixon declared it was a “signal honor to receive the decoration on behalf of the American people.”