Escaping the White House: Camp David

On Friday, July 7, 2023, the National Archives is hosting a vacation-themed hashtag party. Join the conversation on Instagram and Twitter using #ArchivesHashtagParty and #ArchivesVacay. Today’s post is from Alyssa Moore in the National Archives History Office.

Secluded in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, not far from Washington, DC, sits an active naval base called the Naval Support Facility Thurmont, also known as Camp David. The President’s country retreat, the facility sits on 180 acres with a dozen cabins and recreational spaces that may be used by the President, their family, and their guests.

Camp David may be best known as the site of American diplomacy, where high-profile foreign leaders have forged historic peace agreements, like the Camp David Accords. However, it also serves as a vacation home, and every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt has used Camp David as a place to relax and briefly escape from the duties of the Office of the President.

The facility was originally built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration as a camp for government employees. When the United States entered World War II, security concerns emerged concerning President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cruises on the Presidential yacht and fear of German U-boats lurking in the Potomac River. This led the White House to search for an alternative Presidential vacation site.

When FDR established Camp David as a Presidential retreat, he originally named it “Shangri-La” after the fictional mountain kingdom in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed the residence “Camp David” after his grandson. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower named the Presidential cabin “Aspen,” which remains its name today.

President Eisenhower quickly set out to overhaul the entire compound. He added picnic tables, an outdoor cooking area, a bomb shelter, a three-hole golf course, a projection booth, and a bowling alley. During his 1959 visit, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was shown this bowling alley. As it was his first time watching the sport, Khrushchev was eager to observe, however he was reportedly most impressed by the automatic pin-setting machine.

An anecdote by Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, describes how Macmillan dreaded watching the “inconceivably banal” nightly movies at Camp David, which were usually westerns that President Eisenhower had already watched multiple times. Eisenhower’s many trips up the mountain, combined with his renaming of the compound and his highly publicized use of it for recreation, made Camp David synonymous with the modern American Presidency.

Outdoor activities at Camp David include hiking the trails, jogging, tennis, basketball, horseshoes, skeet shooting, mountain biking, and swimming in the heated pool. A movie theater, game room, pool table, bowling alley, fitness center, and library are also available for leisure time spent indoors. A fleet of golf carts helps the first family and their visitors get around the complex.

Among the many recreational activities, horseback riding was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan. He once described the relief afforded by the mountain vacation spot, writing that the “days I liked best were those Fridays when I could break away a little early, about three or three-thirty, and take off for Camp David.”

In February 2021, President Joe Biden spent his first weekend at Camp David since his inauguration that January. He said that he looked forward to “just hang[ing] out with the family and do[ing] what we always do.” He reportedly also defeated his granddaughter, Naomi Biden, at a game of Mario Kart.

For half a century, Presidents and their families have appreciated the solitude and tranquility of Camp David. The vacation home offers a respite from Washington politics. Serving every President since World War II, Camp David provides the first family and their guests with a uniquely private place to relax. It has become a household name and is forever associated with the Office of the President.

One thought on “Escaping the White House: Camp David

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *