Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History

Larry Holzwarth - November 6, 2019

Camp David, near the small town of Thurmont in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, has been the primary presidential retreat since World War II. Officially it is operated as Naval Support Facility (NSF) Thurmont. How the navy came to be responsible for a land-based presidential camp is part of its story. The first president to use it was Franklin Roosevelt, when it was far less well-equipped than it is today. Each president since has used the facility, some more than others, and all have left their mark behind when their administrations’ came to an end. It was Eisenhower who gave it its name, Roosevelt had whimsically called the place Shangri La.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
A US Marine stands guard at the entrance to the presidential retreat during the FDR administration, when it was known as Shangri La. US Navy

Roosevelt was in his third term as president when the camp was created following America’s entry into the Second World War. Before the war was over the camp hosted its first foreign leader, Winston Churchill, who made himself into something of a local legend in the town of Thurmont. Since then the camp was been the site of numerous visits by foreign dignitaries and leaders, some of them hostile to each other, brought together at the rustic site to negotiate treaties and discuss other international issues. Camp David came to be as well known to Americans – at least in name – as Air Force One and the White House itself. Here is its story.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Lou and Herbert Hoover relaxing at Camp Rapidan, Virginia. Hoover Presidential Library

1. Before Camp David, there was Camp Rapidan in the Blue Ridge of Virginia

Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer by profession, and in that occupation learned to enjoy living in rustic settings. As president Hoover and his wife Lou wanted a resort where the president could escape the heat and humidity of summertime Washington, yet be near enough to the Capital to remain in control of the government. The site selected was where smaller streams join to form the Rapidan River, which offered excellent trout fishing, one of Hoover’s favorite means of relaxation. The camp was purchased by the Hoover’s, as were the materials for the construction of the camp buildings and most of its furnishings. The camp was built by US Marines.

The Hoovers loved the camp and entertaining guests there, which included Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Edsel Ford, and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, with whom Hoover discussed the Washington Naval Treaty. Hoover owned the land on which the camp was based (though the federal government owned the improvements) and when the president was preparing to leave office he donated the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia, with the expressed hope that it would be used as a presidential retreat. Many of the furnishings which he had purchased were donated as well.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
FDR found the Rapidan Camp’s terrain impassable for his wheelchair. National Archives

2. Roosevelt found Camp Rapidan to be impassable due to his wheelchair

Franklin Roosevelt visited Camp Rapidan, entranced by Hoover’s reports of the excellent trout fishing to be had there. FDR was a devoted fisherman as well, but his visit to the camp left him disappointed. It was simply too rustic, and moving about the trails and pathways in the Virginia hemlock forest in which the camp was built was impossible for the wheelchair-bound president. Roosevelt put the idea of a presidential camp aside, and instead took longer breaks from his routine by traveling by train to his estate at Hyde Park in New York. For shorter breaks, and to enjoy some fishing, he preferred to use the presidential yacht, USS Potomac.

Potomac was a converted Coast Guard cutter, commissioned by the navy in 1936. The navy was responsible for its operation, and for taking care of the president when he was aboard. The ship was modified to accommodate the president’s disabilities, with ramps and elevators installed with his wheelchair in mind. FDR loved the yacht and resorted to it frequently, cruising along the Potomac, Chesapeake Bay, and in the Atlantic. It provided him with sufficient relaxation to ignore the absence of a presidential retreat ashore, and navy communications systems kept him in touch with Washington as needed.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
World War II made FDR’s continued use of USS Potomac unthinkable. White House

3. Potomac became hazardous when the United States entered World War II

As soon as Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, German U-boats appeared in frightening quantity along the North American coast. For the US Navy, the thought of the president cruising in his yacht unescorted was out of the question. Insufficient escort ships to protect needed convoys were available, none could be detailed to escort the president. FDR reluctantly agreed, and a search for a site for a new and secure presidential retreat began. There was at the time a camp which had been under construction by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), called Hi-Catoctin, near Thurmont, Maryland.

FDR personally visited the site in 1942, and decided that it was suitable. Several buildings had already been completed, and FDR took a personal interest in their conversion and the construction of others. Roosevelt had informed the press that the Doolittle Raiders who bombed Japan in early 1942 had taken off from Shangri La, a fictional utopia in the novel and film Lost Horizons. He returned to the theme when he christened the new presidential retreat with the same name. FDR used his winter vacation house in Warm Springs, Georgia, as the model for the new main lodge at Shangri La, and used the camp as often as he could.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Winston Churchill visited the presidential retreat during a vist to Washington in 1943. White House

4. Winston Churchill visited Shangri La in the spring of 1943

When Camp David opened for presidential use, the crew of the disused USS Potomac were transferred to the camp, supplemented by US Marines. Later, units from the Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees) were assigned, to complete modifications and new construction at the camp. The US Navy has operated the camp ever since, which it officially designates Naval Support Facility Thurmont. Additional security is provided today by the Secret Service, but in Roosevelt’s day, the president’s Secret Service detail was only on-site when the president was visiting. FDR found the site a fine place to fish, and to work on his beloved stamp collection.

He also conducted business there. During the Trident Conference in May, 1943, Churchill stayed at the White House as the two leaders and their staffs discussed the invasion of Europe set for the following spring. On one weekend Roosevelt went to Shangri La, taking Churchill with him. During the weekend both men enjoyed a little fishing, and Churchill is alleged to have visited a local restaurant in Thurmont on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying both a libation and the establishment’s jukebox. The visit to Thurmont is unsubstantiated by anything other than local lore, but the visit to Camp David is historical fact, as is Churchill’s fondness for both drink and music.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Harry Truman preferred to use the Little White House in Key West, Florida. Wikimedia

5. Truman was not overly fond of the camp and preferred another presidential retreat

Since the advent of the automobile, several presidents have expressed that one of the activities they missed the most while in office was the ability to drive their own car. FDR was one such, and at Camp David, a specially modified automobile was kept which allowed the president to drive himself along the logging and fire control roads which crisscross the area. He allowed himself to “get lost” more than once. His successor as president, Harry Truman, was another driving enthusiast, and is known to have taken the wheel on at least two automobile trips as president, once to Washington from Charlottesville, Virginia, and once to Shangri La on an official visit to the site.

Truman was not particularly fond of the Catoctin camp, probably because his wife, Bess, found the camp boring. Truman also found the secluded feeling of the camp, enclosed by thick woods with limited views, to be unsettling. He had woods around the camp cut down to open the view somewhat, but he quickly came to prefer taking his rest at the Little White House in Key West, Florida, accompanied by the presidential yacht USS Williamsburg. Like Shangri La, the Little White House was operated by the US Navy, as was Williamsburg, which Truman used for deep sea fishing, poker, and sharing bourbon with cronies and friends, as well as conducting official business.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Eisenhower decommissioned the presidential yacht Williamsburg, seen here in 1946. Wikimedia

6. Eisenhower considered closing Shangri La as an unnecessary expense

President Eisenhower used the presidential yacht Williamsburg once early in his administration before ordering the vessel decommissioned in 1953. He was also not fond of Sequoia, a smaller presidential yacht. He was, after all, an army man. Shangri La, which was still operated as an extension of USS Sequoia when Ike took office, was also a perquisite with which he was less than enthralled at first, especially when he considered that his Gettysburg farm, which he purchased in 1950, was less than an hour’s drive away, and wasn’t crawling with sailors. Gradually though, the camp won him over, though not its name.

Ike found the name Shangri La distasteful, calling it “a bit too fancy” and renamed the presidential retreat Camp David, for both his father and grandson. He learned to use the camp to relax with family and friends and often grilled steaks for the entourage staying at the retreat with him. He used it for business too, conducting the first full cabinet meeting held at the facility, and hosting British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, as well as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, for both of whom he demonstrated his skill with a barbecue.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
The Khrushchevs and Eisenhowers at a state dinner in the Soviet leader’s honor in 1959. National Archives

7. Eisenhower and Khrushchev arranged for two summits while meeting at Camp David

In 1959, near the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, Soviet Premier Khrushchev took a twelve-day tour of the United States (including Disneyland, where he was denied entry, much to his chagrin). The trip culminated with two days of meetings with the American President, held at Camp David rather than in Washington, in part to elude the scrutiny of the press. They found, in a press statement released following their talks, “these discussions have been useful in clarifying each other’s position on a number of subjects”. They also announced two pending summits, one in Paris, followed by another in Moscow.

When he returned to the Soviet Union Khrushchev faced a hostile Politburo distrustful of the Americans. He looked to the summits to enhance his prestige within his own government. On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 over Soviet airspace, and the summits were quickly canceled after Eisenhower’s denials of American culpability in espionage were debunked. The promise which arose from the first meeting of the leaders of nations’ mutually hostile to each other to be held at Camp David was quickly lost. That fall Eisenhower made his last visit to Camp David as president before retiring to his farm. He would return to the presidential retreat at the behest of another president.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Under Kennedy, stables were installed to house horses for the president’s use, as well as Caroline’s pony. National Archives

8. Recreational activities available at the camp expanded over time

When Camp David opened as Shangri La in late 1942, the facilities available for the use of the president and his guests were limited. There was a camp swimming pool, which was used by all; walking trails, riding trails, and little else. For the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt, it was fine, he used the facility primarily to fish and work on his stamp collection. By the time of Eisenhower’s administration, a bowling alley had been installed. When Khrushchev visited in 1959 he was awestruck by the automatic pin-setting machines which were featured. A skeet and trap shooting range were also available for presidents and guests.

Although Eisenhower is indelibly linked to golf as his favorite form of recreation, he preferred while at Camp David to indulge his other muses, fishing and playing bridge. Often Ike’s guests at the camp were selected for their ability to ensure a challenging game to entertain the president. Movies were available at the camp from the beginning, as they were at nearly all US Navy facilities of suitable size, and different presidents treated them accordingly. Some preferred to select films to be shown themselves, others simply wanted to know what was to be shown and when, and still others ignored them entirely.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Eisenhower enjoyed grilling steaks at the White House and at Camp David. Wikimedia

9. Ike and his steaks were both a show and a feast

When President Eisenhower grilled steaks for his guests at Camp David he foreshadowed the cooking shows and demonstrations which would later command entire networks on cable television. Ike liked steaks that were thick. Very thick. He would have the navy staff prepare cuts of prime beef four or more inches thick, and then show his guests the slabs of beef, pointing out the marbling and explaining why it was necessary. He would then season them in front of his guests, discussing all the while the need for the coals to be just the right temperature. Ike then threw the steaks directly on the coals (no grate), no doubt startling guests witnessing the performance for the first time.

Eisenhower preferred sirloins for his monster steaks, which emerged from the presidential grill crusty and charred on the outside, rare and juicy on the inside, and cemented the president’s cherished reputation as an expert with barbecue. One wonders how the president would have regarded the propane grills which gained popularity in American suburbs following his administration. It should be noted however that as President, Eisenhower suffered several heart attacks, as well as digestive tract disorders and other illnesses linked today to immoderate diet, so following his lead on the Camp David grill may not be in the best interests of anyone.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
The president’s cabin at Camp David as it appeared during the Kennedy Administration. US Navy

10. The Kennedy’s found Camp David to their liking due to its privacy

Like Hoover before him, John Kennedy came to the White House a wealthy man, and could easily have purchased his own presidential retreat. As a matter of fact, he did, though it was more of a retreat for Jackie, a house and farm in Virginia’s horse country near Middleburg. Jackie was an enthusiastic equestrian of renown, and loved the Middleburg property, but both she and the president came to enjoy Camp David too. The biggest attraction for the Kennedy’s was the privacy. John Kennedy allowed members of his cabinet and White House staff to use the facility even when he was not present, a first for the presidential retreat.

Jackie Kennedy was fiercely protective of her children’s privacy, as well as her own, and found in Camp David a place where they could indulge in recreation free from the pursuit of cameras and reporters. The Kennedys enjoyed horseback riding and hiking at the facility, and strange as it may seem both Jack and Jackie enjoyed relaxing on the skeet range, often taking turns while passing a shotgun back and forth between them. Other members of the extended Kennedy clan were frequently found at Camp David, where the trails offered extensive hiking, the press was kept away, and the family could relax free from the criticism which often followed them to Kennedy compounds in New England and Florida.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Transportation throughout the camp is primarily by walking or golf cart. National Archives

11. Golf carts provide the primary means of transportation around the camp

One of the few charms Camp David (then still known as Shangri La) held for Harry Truman was its meandering trails through the woods, which allowed the president the opportunity to take long walks in peaceful solitude. Truman was renowned for his enjoyment of brisk walks – he usually moved along at a marching clip – and Camp David’s paths beckoned during his visits. Other presidents since him have enjoyed the trails for the same reason. But for more routine moving about the camp, between cabins and recreational facilities, the president and his guest are assigned golf carts.

The president’s cart is designated Golf Cart One, unsurprisingly. Nearly all of the presidents have preferred to drive their own golf cart, enjoying the temporary freedom of being behind the wheel themselves. The paths are, for the most part, wide enough for a single cart, with little room to pass on either side, except in the area immediately surrounding most of the cabins. The president’s residence in camp is a cabin called Aspen, behind which is an area for cart parking, the heated swimming pool installed by President Nixon, and the area where Truman had the trees removed to create a vista of the surrounding Catoctin Mountains.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Laurel Lodge houses an office for the use of the president while at the camp. National Archives

12. The cabins are all named for indigenous trees

Two cabins are set in shaded spots the same distance away from the president’s Aspen, named Dogwood and Birch. They are traditionally the temporary residences of senior guests of the president, such as foreign leaders who have been invited to the camp. Further down the road, away from Aspen, Holly cabin is located. Holly was the meeting place of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, on its porch, which remains as it was. It is where the two World War II leaders came to an agreement over the time and place for the invasion of France in 1944. They also used the porch to relax over drinks and FDR’s stamp collection.

The pool table inside the Holly cabin wasn’t there when Churchill stayed at the camp, which is too bad because Churchill was known to enjoy the game of billiards, as well as a British version of the pool called snooker. President Carter added the pool table years later. Holly is the site of one of the camp’s motion picture projectors, in the cabin’s large meeting room, where much of the discussions which led to the Camp David Accords took place. As presidents and their guests move about the camp and between the cabins they are always under the watchful eyes of US Marines, who remain as unobtrusive as possible, rather than impose on the guests’ sense of freedom and relaxation.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
President Bush and his daughter enjoyed the snow while visiting the camp in winter. National Archives

13. Winter sports are available for the president and guests

It is not unusual for mountain site of the camp to be covered in deep snow while the town below receives little or none, and the camp is equipped with snowmobiles to deal with such a contingency. Such vehicles are not the only winter sport available. Skiing, that is cross-country skiing, is common along the camp’s trails, and the lawn cleared by President Truman to improve his view down the mountain became a favorite spot for wintertime sledding and snow-dishing down the slope. President Carter broke his collarbone sledding with his wife. Barbara Bush broke a leg when she collided with a tree.

It was President Carter who led the Secret Service to equip the site with snowmobiles. Carter found cross-country skiing to be both relaxing and good physical exercise, and the Secret Service acquired the snowmobiles to keep up with the president as he navigated the trails of the camp. They became motorized St. Bernards of a sort, rushing to the rescue when adventurers in the snow ran into inevitable mishaps which required medical attention both major and minor. George W. Bush refused to allow the snow on the mountain from deterring him from riding his mountain bike, and US Marines cleared the trails of snow and ice, allowing him to get in his favorite exercise despite the weather.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
The Fords engaged in family play in the presidential cabin, Aspen. National Archives

14. Aspen is a little more than a simple cabin

The president’s residence at Camp David is Aspen, which is a large and spacious lodge, used by presidents since FDR. Each president has left behind changes to the lodge and its environs for his successors. Truman had the lawn created. Nixon installed a heated swimming pool outside the lodge, which appears to be in-ground, but isn’t. Instead the ground was terraced around an above-ground pool. Eisenhower installed a golf green on the lawn, which can be approached via several tees around the area. The green is protected by two bunkers on either side, and natural terrain behind.

The president’s residence has several bedrooms for family members or close friends as guests, two outdoor terraces, and an outdoor planting area. On the upper terrace a barbecue pit was installed, where Ike liked to expound upon the proper method of grilling steaks. The kitchen can be manned by navy stewards if desired, or the president’s family can prepare their own meals if they so desire. Aspen is connected via a trail to Hickory Lodge, a recreation center which wasn’t there in FDR’s day, which houses the bowling alley installed by Eisenhower, a movie theater, a bar, game room, and a gift shop, called the Shangri La.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
The swimming pool installed by Richard Nixon sits above an underground bunker originally built under Eisenhower. National Archives

15. Camp David also contains secure underground situation rooms

When President George W. Bush returned to the White House on the evening of September 11, 2001, it was announced to the world Vice President Dick Cheney had been moved to a “secure location” ensuring that he and the president were not in the same location. It was to Camp David that Cheney went. Although it was a violation of established protocol, Cheney and his entourage moved into the president’s residence in Aspen Lodge, a decision made by Cheney during the helicopter trip to the camp. Bush later expressed his displeasure at the move into Aspen, which was justified by Cheney as his needing access to the underground facilities at the camp so as to continue to monitor events.

During the period when Cheney was said to be at a separate “secure location”, he made near-daily trips to Washington to participate in the meetings and decisions made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, returning to Aspen each day. Among the facilities available to Cheney at Camp David was the underground bomb shelter, originally built by Eisenhower and upgraded over the years, a War Room, and a Command Center. Cheney, according to some disputed reports, also used the secure underground facilities at Raven Rock Mountain about seven miles away from Camp David in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan with President Kennedy in Bermuda in 1961. Wikimedia

16. Eisenhower gave the British Prime Minister a tour of the underground facilities in 1959

When Prime Minister Harold MacMillan visited Camp David with President Eisenhower he was given a personal tour of the underground shelter by the president. Impressed, MacMillan confided to his diary, “It holds fifty of the President’s staff in one place and one hundred and fifty Defence (sic) staff in another. The fortress is underneath the innocent-looking huts in which we lived, hewn out of the rock. It cost 10 million dollars”. MacMillan noted that the underground facility was intended to serve as a “Presidential Command Post in the event of atomic war”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Camp David later that same year, though his visit did not include a tour of the facility beneath the ground upon which he stood. Instead, several steps were taken to conceal its existence from Khrushchev and the staff which accompanied him. A large deck was constructed over the site (which later was covered by the swimming pool installed by Richard Nixon) and a false water tower was built to hide a communications tower which serviced the underground site. The underground facility was the reason Nixon’s pool was built above ground, and the area around it was terraced to hide the fact from prying eyes.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
President Kennedy sought the advice of former president Eisenhower following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961. National Archives

17. Kennedy used Camp David to meet with Eisenhower after the Bay of Pigs

The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April, 1961, had been planned during the Eisenhower Administration, but executed in the early days of the Kennedy Administration. The failure led Kennedy to question his own initiatives, though his closest advisors counseled that Eisenhower’s policies regarding Cuba, indeed all of his foreign policies regarding the Soviet bloc, had been overly complacent. The Bay of Pigs failure and deteriorating relations with Castro’s Cuba encouraged Kennedy to discuss the situation with his predecessor. He invited Ike to join him at Camp David for face-to-face talks, largely with just the two of them present.

Eisenhower complied, traveling to Camp David from his nearby Gettysburg farm. Their conversations were mostly in private, and what guidance Ike offered to the young president is largely unknown, but Kennedy began initiating changes in the White House command structure in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs. He also began to rely less on the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department when making decisions regarding foreign policy, instead heeding the counsel of the Secretary of Defense and his Attorney General, his younger brother Robert Kennedy. Ike’s brief visit in April 1961 was the first of a former president to the retreat at Camp David.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at Camp David in 1973. National Archives

18. President Nixon entertained Leonid Brezhnev at Camp David

In 1973, as the Watergate scandal was unraveling his presidency, Richard Nixon invited Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to visit Camp David. When Brezhnev arrived, Nixon gave him a 1973 Lincoln Continental as a gift. The Soviet leader was thrilled with the car, and asked Nixon to join him in a drive down the camp’s main road, a suggestion with which Nixon readily agreed. Nixon later recounted the story of the drive, writing, “He got behind the wheel and motioned me into the passenger seat”. Nixon claimed that his “Secret Service man went pale” as he got into the passenger seat, and the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States “took off down one of the narrow roads…”

Brezhnev exhibited a penchant for driving at high speed, ignoring Nixon’s pleas to slow down as they approached a tight turn on the wooded road at a speed of “more than fifty miles per hour”. At one point, had Brezhnev not been able to make a turn the car would have tumbled down a steep slope along the side of the road. Brezhnev made the turn, and according to Nixon’s account, the president informed him that he was an excellent driver.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the Camp David Accord negotiations in September, 1978. National Archives

19. Jimmy Carter used Camp David to pursue peace in the Middle East

The Camp David Accords, an agreement between the United States, Egypt, and Israel, came about when Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, accepted President Carter’s invitation to meet at Camp David and negotiate a peace between the two Mideast nations. The negotiations were long, dietary restrictions and requirements strained the camp’s facilities, and several times the effort seemed doomed to fail. Both the Egyptians and the Israelis threatened several times to break off negotiations. Both Begin and Sadat refused to speak to each other, and Carter acted as a go-between, relaying statements by both men.

After ten days the talks were at a standstill, and the coolness between Sadat and Begin had become frigid. Both sides saw no reason to continue. Carter refused to allow either side to quit, insisting that they were near a breakthrough. The American president told both foreign leaders that returning to their country with nothing would be politically disastrous for them. In the end, they agreed, and the Camp David Accords were completed. While many of their provisions have failed, there has been no open hostilities between Egypt and Israel since the Accords were negotiated at Camp David in 1978.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David during her 1986 visit. National Archives

20. Ronald Reagan visited Camp David more than any other president to date

President Reagan visited Camp David for a total of 571 days during his two-term presidency, visiting the camp over 180 separate times. Reagan, unlike most of his predecessors and successors in office, preferred to visit the camp alone, accompanied only by his wife, Nancy. The Reagan’s preferred solitude at the camp, rather than relaxing with friends. A stable at the camp which went back to the Kennedy Administration supported the horses brought by the National Park Service, and the Reagans enjoyed riding on the weekends they visited the camp.

One exception was Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, who visited Camp David just before Christmas, 1984, after she had completed talks with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev. The subject was Reagan’s cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known in popular parlance in the United States as Star Wars. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev were leery of the plan, which Reagan refused to give up as part of negotiations. “He was at his most idealistic”, Thatcher later wrote of the American president, adding, “He reaffirmed his long-term goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely”. Neither that goal nor SDI has yet been achieved.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Twelve-year-old David Eisenhower stands beneath the sign at the entrance to Camp David, a US Naval facility. National Archives

21. Camp David is an operating military facility when the president is there and when he is not.

Naval Support Facility Thurmont is an operating US Naval facility, staffed with Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Most of the maintenance and support operations are performed by the sailors; the Marines are stationed there to provide security. One responsibility for the military personnel stationed at Camp David is to ensure that it is ready, in all aspects, for a presidential visit at any time. Since FDR’s first visit, when the camp was manned by crew from the presidential yacht, supplemented by US Marines and Seabees, the Navy has been tasked with maintaining the property.

Of all the presidents since Camp David opened as Shangri La, only Harry Truman and Gerald Ford exhibited a reluctance to visit the facility (except the current occupant of the Oval Office in 2019). Truman’s objections to the camp have been noted, and Ford preferred other forms of recreation. The other ten availed themselves of the facilities with varying degrees of frequency, and all of their wives praised the camp for its services, its ability to help the president relax, and the performance of the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps who complete their tasks while remaining, as much as possible, in the background.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Camp Rapidan, Virginia, was transferred to the National Parks Service. NPS

22. Camp David is the last presidential retreat operated by the United States government

Several latter-day presidents have held private retreats of their own, such as Nixon’s San Clemente estate, Reagan’s California ranch, the second President Bush’s ranch in Texas, and so on. Most have preferred their own properties for longer vacations, and the public hasn’t seemed to mind. Alternative vacation options for presidents have dwindled since FDR opened Shangri La. No longer can the president enjoy an evening cruise on the Potomac, unless he is the invited guest of a boat owner. Jimmy Carter decommissioned the presidential yacht early in his presidency, and no president since has suggested bringing it back.

The Little White House at Key West, which was Truman’s preferred vacation spot (and which was used by Eisenhower and Kennedy as well) is today a museum, decorated to appear as it did when Truman was in residence. Camp Rapidan, built by Herbert Hoover and donated to the government to provide a vacation site for the president, is open for tours and operated by the National Park Service. It was restored to appear as it did when Lou and Herbert Hoover visited in 1929, the first recreation camp built specifically for the use of the president and his entourage. Today, Camp David is the only site dedicated to presidential recreational use operated and maintained by the government.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
The Israeli delegation arrived at Camp David in September, 1978, to find the camp less than welcoming. National Archives

23. Camp David intimidated the Egyptian and Israeli delegations in 1978

When Jimmy Carter selected Camp David as the site for peace negotiations between the Israelis and Egyptians his primary motive was to isolate Begin and Sadat from their political bases at home. Carter believed that after a few days, the two leaders would recognize the opportunity before them and arrive at a lasting and historic peace. The president also believed that the restful nature of the camp would be conducive to productive discussions as each of the delegations grew more relaxed. Carter ensured that for this reason every conceivable need of the individuals of each delegation were anticipated and met.

What Carter did not anticipate was that the delegations would find the camp a less than welcoming place. One member of the Egyptian delegation found the camp “claustrophobic” and complained of the “gloomy” quality of the light during the daytime hours. Both sides found the informality of the camp – meeting with the opposition without wearing suits and ties, for example – to be disconcerting. Both sides came to believe that President Carter’s position favored the other. In the end, an agreement was reached, though the parties involved chose to return to the White House for its formal signing, rather than remain at Camp David any longer than necessary.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
Blair House is maintained by the government as a guest residence for visiting heads of state. National Archives

24. The government operates a guest house in Washington for presidential guests

When Winston Churchill visited Washington in December of 1941 he stayed in the White House as a guest of the president, rather than at the British Embassy. Since then the US government has used a residence at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue as the official guest house for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. Known as the Blair House, the guest residence is a combination of four townhouses, which collectively are larger than the residence of the White House, totaling over 100 rooms, and comprising more than 70,000 square feet of space. It is operated and maintained by the State Department and the General Services Administration.

Blair House served as the residence of the president during the Truman Administration, when the White House was completely gutted and its interior rebuilt, after the exterior walls were stabilized. Since then it has served as one of the guest houses offered to foreign heads of state visiting Washington. The government also has guest houses in Washington for the use of former presidents when they visit Washington at the behest of the government, including Trowbridge House, which is located adjacent to Blair House. Guests of the president not invited to Camp David are thus accommodated in Washington in a manner convenient to them and to the needs of the president.

Facts about Camp David and Other Presidential Recreational Facilities in History
President Eisenhower’s National Security Council meeting at Camp David in 1955. US Navy

25. Camp David continues to be a site where American history is shaped

Like the presidential perks which preceded it, the retreat at Camp David’s role in an administration is shaped by the president’s desires and tastes. Some have found its rustic setting confining and less than entertaining. Others have learned to love the place. With the notable exception of Bess Truman, all of the First Ladies who resorted to Camp David during their husband’s presidencies valued their time at the retreat, at least through the end of the Obama Administration. Major decisions which altered American history have been made there (including Nixon’s decision to resign the office), and it has offered welcome respite from the pressures of office for more than seventy-five years.

It has been the site of major summits, cabinet meetings, and discussions of global affairs. It has also been the site of pickup basketball games, tennis matches, and other competitions including the president and his guests. Mikhail Gorbachev first encountered the American game of horseshoes while visiting with George H. W. Bush at Camp David. On his first toss, the Soviet leader made a ringer, and Bush had a navy technician mount the shoe on a plaque, which was presented to the pleased Gorbachev that evening at dinner. In such ways, big and small, Camp David has contributed to America’s relationships among the world’s communities and leaders throughout its history.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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