From Cherry Trees to Giant Pandas: Gifts to the United States

Giving and receiving gifts has long been a common practice in foreign affairs. Gifts are given as symbolic gestures of friendship and used to solidify relationships—not just between heads of state or government officials, but also from the people of one country to the people of another. America’s Founding Fathers tried to ban the practice of accepting gifts from foreign entities, viewing them as a corrupting influence on diplomacy. The Articles of Incorporation strictly prohibited gifts from being accepted by government representatives, while the U.S. Constitution states that gifts can be received so long as Congress approves:

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

In fact, the above language failed to curb the centuries-old tradition of exchanging gifts. In some ways, this is a good thing. The U.S. has received wonderful, long-lasting gifts from many foreign nations. In this post, we’ll discuss a few of our favorites that are located right here in the Washington, D.C. area.

The Cherry Blossom Trees

This blog post was inspired by the cherry blossom trees that line D.C.’s Tidal Basin. Locals and tourists alike look forward to the beautiful pink and white flowers that bloom each year in early spring. This year will be no exception, especially considering that winter has only recently begun to loosen its cold, snowy grip on the area. The trees were given to the people of the United States by the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, on behalf of the people of Japan in 1912. But others from that time also deserve credit for bringing the trees to D.C., including Eliza Scidmore, a journalist and traveler, David Fairchild, a botanist, plant explorer and Department of Agriculture employee, and First Lady Helen “Nellie” Taft. To mark the 100th anniversary of the original cherry blossom planting, First Lady Michelle Obama and Yoriko Fujisaki, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., planted a new tree in on the banks of the Potomac River in 2012. Additionally, 3,000 American dogwood trees were sent to Japan as a reciprocal gift, honoring the continued friendship between the two nations.

For more information, read The Washington Post’s recent article and The National Park Service’s history of the cherry blossom trees in D.C.

Netherlands Carillon

In 1954, the U.S. accepted the Netherlands Carillon, a 127-foot-tall bell tower, from the people of the Netherlands to show gratitude for American aid given both during and after World War II. The carillon was first displayed in Washington’s West Potomac Park and consisted of 49 small bells. In the words of the Netherlands’ Queen Juliana, the bells represented the “small and tiny” unheard voices of the world. G.L. Verheul, a Dutch government official who worked in The Hague, came up with the idea of the tower, which was built by Dutch architect Joost W.C. Boks. The bell tower was officially dedicated on May 5, 1960 after it was installed near the Iwo Jima Memorial (United States Marine Corps Memorial) in Northern Virginia’s Rosslyn neighborhood. The date was significant, as it marked the 15th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis. In 1995, the Netherlands Carillon underwent a major renovation and an extra bell was added to mark the 50th anniversary of the Netherlands’ liberation. The bells can be heard every day at noon and 6:00pm. Live concerts are held on Saturdays and public holidays between May and September.

“The Arts of War” and “The Arts of Peace”

The beautiful gilded bronze statues located within Lincoln Memorial Circle in West Potomac Park were a gift from the people of Italy to the people of the United States. The statues were designed by two prominent American sculptors and were originally commissioned in 1925 as part of the larger bridge project, which was designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. “The Arts of War” by Leo Friedlander consists of two equestrian statues, “Valor” and “Sacrifice.” The statues adorn the entrance to Arlington Memorial Bridge“The Arts of Peace” stand at the entrance to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. It consists of two statues featuring Pegasus by James Earle Fraser entitled “Music and Harvest” and “Aspiration and Literature.” All four statues are 17-feet-tall and weigh approximately 80,000 pounds. The statues were not immediately cast due to funding difficulties during The Great Depression and then World War II. But, in 1949 the Italian government decided to use funds from the Marshall Plan to cast the statues to show appreciation for the American aid given to Italy after the war. In 1950, casting was completed in Milan and the statues were officially dedicated in Washington in September, 1951.

Bartholdi Fountain and Park

The Statue of Liberty—or, as it is officially titled, “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World”—is arguably the most famous gift given to the United States by a foreign nation. The gift from France was intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United States, but it was not dedicated until 1886. The statue was modeled after Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and built by French architect Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. By now you might be wondering what this gift has to do with Washington, D.C.? Well, around the same time that he was working on the Statue of Liberty, Bartholdi was also building a 30-foot-tall, 40 ton cast iron fountain featuring small animals, cherubs, and three large sea nymphs. The fountain was built for the 1876 International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, but was later purchased by the U.S. government on the advice of famed landscape designer Frederic Law Olmsted. The fountain was the first monument in D.C. to be illuminated at night. Since 1985 it has stood in Bartholdi Park, which is located southwest of the US Capitol building between Independence Avenue, First Street and Washington Avenue.

Giant Pandas at the National Zoo

In 1972, China gifted two giant pandas to Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo. The pandas were a goodwill offering, sent after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country. The U.S. hadn’t recognized the People’s Republic of China since the Communists took over the country in 1949 led by Chairman Mao Zedong. Nixon was the first U.S. President to visit the country, and according to First Lady Michelle Obama’s travel journal, it was on that visit that Mrs. Pat Nixon mentioned how much she enjoyed seeing pandas at a Chinese zoo. The pandas sent to the National Zoo were named Ling-Ling (Darling Little Girl) and Hsing-Hsing (Shining Star). They were immediate stars when they arrived, attracting 8,000 visitors during their opening ceremony and giant pandas have been exhibited at the zoo ever since. But Ling-ling and Hsing-Hsing weren’t the first pandas doled out by China to foster relationships with foreign countries. “Panda Diplomacy” (as it’s been called) has been going on since the seventh century and re-emerged again in the 1950s under Mao. It’s still being practiced today. In 2011, China loaned two pandas to Scotland and just a few days ago Chinese President Xi Jinping loaned two more to Brussels.

As residents of the Washington, D.C. area, we feel pretty lucky to have such long-lasting gifts in our own backyard. We’re thankful that the Founding Fathers didn’t include a complete ban on the practice of accepting gifts in the Constitution. What would spring in D.C. be like without all those gorgeous cherry blossom trees to marvel at? Who doesn’t look forward to seeing the cute black and white furry pandas while visiting the zoo? We know we only touched on a few gifts located in D.C., but there are many more. Share your favorites with us!