World Leaders Meet – Presidential Retreat

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Camp David’s

Unique Role in

American History

It was American involvement in the Second World War which led to the selection of the site known to the world as Camp David as a presidential retreat. President Hoover had established a rustic camp in Virginia during his administration, purchasing it with his own money and donating it to the government, but the camp was too rustic for FDR. Accommodating his wheelchair was impossible. FDR preferred to relax on the presidential yacht during his first two terms, but when German U-boats cozied-up to the American coastline the Navy was horrified of the threat to the president they presented. Another site near Washington for the president to relax away from the White House was needed.

The site, selected by Roosevelt personally after considering several options, was one of a series of camps in the Catoctin Ridge, the northernmost extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Called Hi-Catoctin by the Works Progress Administration that built it, FDR renamed the camp Shangri La. It was initially staffed by officers and crew of the USS Potomac, the presidential yacht, and has been operated by the Navy ever since as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, from the name of the Maryland town near the base of the mountain upon which it sits. Since then it has been updated, modified, and changed to reflect the personalities and needs of the president’s who have resorted to it, and has appeared on the world stage as the site where major decisions affecting world history have been made. Here are just a few of the roles it has assumed in its over 75-year history.

8. Winston Churchill loved the place for the seclusion it afforded

During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made several trips to the United States – the first only weeks after Pearl Harbor – and stayed as a guest at FDR’s White House. In May 1943 the war had progressed to the point that another conference between FDR, Churchill, and their delegations was conducted in Washington. During the meetings at the Washington Conference – code named Trident – FDR invited Churchill to spend a weekend at Shangri La. By accepting, Churchill became the first foreign leader to visit the presidential retreat, where the two leaders went fishing, worked on FDR’s stamp collection, and continued their discussions of the situation in Europe, including plans for the invasions of Sicily, Italy, and across the English Channel. An aide commented they were protected from mosquitoes by cigar and cigarette smoke.

Between planning for the liberation of Europe, and discussing the situation in the Pacific, FDR and Churchill relaxed over the brief visit. A longstanding story in the nearby town of Thurmont is that Churchill visited a local establishment and became intrigued with what Americans call a jukebox, feeding it coins on at least one occasion. Whether true or not (some dispute it, though it would not have been out of character) his visit to Shangri La in the spring of 1943 marked the first time the presidential retreat was the site of discussions between world leaders which led to decisions that altered world history. It was during the Trident Conference the decision to invade France in the spring of 1944 was made.

7. Harry Truman hated it because his wife did

Harry Truman was not fond of Camp David. The views from the mountaintop were not pleasing to the Missouri farmer in him, but the real reason he infrequently used the camp was that his wife, Bess, did not like it. She found it boring and dull. It was Truman, however, who designated the site as an official presidential retreat, on land owned by the National Park Service. He also had the camp winterized by installing steam heat in the cabins, and enlarged its grounds. US Navy Construction Battalions – Seabees – did the bulk of the work. Yet he visited only 10 times during his presidency. He preferred the Little White House at Key West.

Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the camp, it was Truman who made it available for the president’s use year-round, and the improvements led to it playing a much larger role in subsequent presidencies. When he did visit, he used the paths throughout the camp and on the mountains to indulge himself in his favorite form of exercise. He took long walks, enjoying the seclusion. Truman, who supposedly once recommended people get a dog if they wanted a friend, had a dog named Feller which he received as a gift and had kept at the camp. He seldom, if ever, asked to see it during his visits, and when he left the presidency to return to Independence, Missouri, the dog remained behind.

6. Eisenhower gave it the name of Camp David

Initially Eisenhower was not enamored of the expense of maintaining a presidential retreat for infrequent use, especially one so near his Gettysburg farm, only about thirty miles away. He planned to get rid of Shangri La, as well as other presidential “luxuries.” His Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, persuaded him otherwise. It wasn’t long before Eisenhower was using the facility frequently, for both business and relaxation. He expanded the camp, held cabinet meetings and conferences there, and installed a three-hole golf course. He renamed it Camp David (in honor of both his father and grandson), stating that the name bestowed by FDR was a bit “fancy.” Numerous world leaders were brought there as the Cold War grew chillier, including France’s Charles de Gaulle, and Britain’s Harold MacMillan.

He also decided to invite the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Kruschev, to visit the facility in 1959. The word camp carried different connotations in the Soviet Union, and Kruschev was at first reluctant. During his visit, which was the first of any Russian leader to the Western Hemisphere, Kruschev toured the country for nearly two weeks, the last two days being spent in private meetings with Eisenhower at Camp David. In Eisenhower’s view the meeting accomplished little in concrete terms, but the press coined the phrase “the spirit of Camp David” as a result of the outwardly friendly nature of the relationship between the Soviet and American leaders. Eisenhower disliked the phrase.

5. Jackie Kennedy loved it because she could ride horses without photographers stalking her

Eisenhower found himself returning to Camp David early in the administration of his successor, John F. Kennedy. Ike made the brief trip down from his farm to meet with JFK in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion. By the time of JFK’s abbreviated presidency many of the facilities were somewhat run down, and the rustic nature of the site did not seem to mesh with the glamorous nature of the Kennedy’s, especially Jackie. But she quickly came to love the facility. Unlike in Washington, or at some of the various Kennedy compounds, she could do as she wished on the grounds without the constant presence of photographers hounding her.

Jackie rode about the estate with other members of the extended Kennedy family, including the president, and the First Couple enjoyed using the skeet range during their visits. Kennedy also allowed family members and officials serving in his administration to use the facility when he was not staying there. President Kennedy once personally went by car, accompanied by a Secret Service agent, to retrieve a wayward guest who had gotten lost on a hike – Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. Kennedy also enjoyed the opportunity to drive his own golf cart, a mode of transportation offered to all at the camp. The president’s cart is referred to as Golf Cart One.

4. Nixon decided to resign after considering his situation there

It was Richard Nixon who had installed the seemingly above ground swimming pool outside the presidential cabin, Aspen. The pool was built above the underground shelter and command post at Camp David, and thus was erected above ground, with landscaping completed to make it appear to be in-ground. As president, Nixon visited Camp David frequently, sometimes on extended stays, and conducted business while relaxing at the facility. He found the setting more conducive to his work than the Oval Office. In 1973 he hosted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the camp, giving him a welcoming gift of a 1973 Lincoln Continental.

According to Nixon’s memoirs, the Soviet was thrilled with the car, and the two leaders took off with Brezhnev driving at high speed on the narrow roads, narrowly avoiding an accident. While at Camp David the two leaders made progress on the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) and agreed that “an objective of their policies is to remove the danger of nuclear war.” But in the back of Nixon’s mind was undoubtedly the unraveling scandal of Watergate. He used the site as the scene for firing John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman in hopes of containing the scandal. In August 1974, Nixon informed his family that he was resigning the presidency after pondering his fate over a weekend at Camp David.

3. Carter kept Israeli and Egyptian leaders secluded there until they reached a peace agreement

On September 5, 1978, Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, joined American President Jimmy Carter at Camp David for peace talks which led to the Camp David Accords. Begin and Sadat did not like one another, and often refused to speak to each other. Carter and his aides had to conduct a shuttle diplomacy between Camp David’s cabins, with Carter prodding the incalcitrant leaders closer to a mutually acceptable position. The talks ground on for nearly two weeks. There were several instances of Begin and Sadat calling off the talks, only to be enticed to continue by Carter.

Carter refused to allow statements to be issued by the delegations from either side, with all information to the press given by his own spokesman, Jody Powell. Neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis were comfortable at the camp; several wrote of its foreboding appearance. The press was kept in nearby Thurmont, but leaks of the tensions between the parties appeared nonetheless. Carter persevered. Though the Camp David Accords have been criticized by many as a failure, there have been no wars between Egypt and Israel since they were signed in 1977.

2. Clinton tried to do the same with leaders including Yasser Arafat

In 2000, President Bill Clinton brought Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leader Ehud Barak to Camp David to negotiate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The Palestinians had not been represented in the earlier Camp David talks under Carter, and Clinton hoped to build upon the earlier Accords to arrive at a solution leading to further progress in the overall Middle East peace process. During the talks Barak made concessions, delivered to the Palestinians by Clinton, and later withdrew them. Barak arrived at the summit having failed to observe the conditions of earlier agreements. Arafat believed a meeting of senior leadership was doomed to fail.

The Israelis offered no written proposals, instead delivering them verbally as possibilities contingent upon Palestinian concessions. The 2000 Camp David Summit did not lead to an agreement between the contending parties, and in the aftermath Israeli settlements expanded in the disputed territory, and another Palestinian “intifada” began in October. The implication that the talks failed due to Palestinian intransigence led to the Israeli claim there was no Palestinian desire for a peaceful resolution of the issues dividing the two, and violence continued, worsening by the end of 2000. Two decades later the same issues divide the parties.

1. It was where Dick Cheney took refuge on 9/11

On September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney spent the majority of the day following the terrorist attacks in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) beneath the White House. After President Bush returned to Washington that evening, a meeting was held in the PEOC chaired by the president. From that evening on, for several days, the American public was told that the Vice President had been moved to a “secure location,” though he returned to the White House for meetings several times. That secure location turned out to be Camp David. He arrived by helicopter (Marine 2) that evening, having taken off from the south lawn of the White House, a violation of normal protocol, but one of many that day and night.

When he arrived at Camp David, the VP and his family took up residence in Aspen Cabin, the residence of the president at the camp — another violation of protocol. The president arrived at Camp David on September 15, expressed displeasure that someone had been using his cabin (without his knowledge), and over the weekend brought his closest advisers and their aides to the facility to conduct meetings to discuss the American response. September 11 and its aftermath proved that since it opened as a presidential resort camp in 1942, Camp David, operated by the Navy, secured by United States Marines and the Secret Service, has become an integral part of the apparatus of the United States government. It has become vital to the maintenance of the president’s physical and mental health, and the execution of his office.


World Leaders Meet –

Presidential Retreat

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