Camp David, History of the Presidential Retreat

Presidential Retreat Has Hosted Private Moments and World Events

Richard Nixon with Girl Scouts at Camp David
President Richard Nixon posing with Girl Scouts at Camp David entrance. Bettmann / Getty Images

Camp David, a rustic retreat nestled in the heavily wooded mountains of western Maryland, has been used by every American president since Franklin Roosevelt as a place to escape from the pressures of official Washington. Over the decades, the secluded and heavily guarded enclave has hosted not only the private moments of presidents and their families, but also meetings which have impacted the entire world.

What had been a rugged camp built by WPA workers in the 1930s, the location in the Catoctin Mountains became a highly secret presidential hideout during the darkest days of World War II. The existence of the camp wasn't even acknowledged by the federal government until after the end of the war.

Key Takeaways: History of Camp David

  • Camp David was originally called Shangri-La, and in wartime replaced FDR's presidential yacht.
  • Though only a short flight from the White House lawn, it is secluded and a world away from official Washington. The rustic retreat in the Maryland mountains has hosted many private presidential moments, but also historic world events.
  • Notable visitors to Camp David have included Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev, Margaret Thatcher, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat.

Camp David has often played a part in the mystique that surrounds the presidency. It has hosted barbecues, cabinet meetings, sledding parties (which cost a first lady a broken leg), peace conferences, summits, outings on horseback, and competitive afternoons at the camp's skeet range.

History of Camp David

Something most Americans never realize is that Camp David is a naval facility. Officially designated as Naval Support Facility Thurmont, the camp is situated near the small town of Thurmont, Maryland.

It seems odd that a camp far from the ocean and high up in Maryland's mountains would be run by the U.S. Navy. But Camp David's history begins with a boat.

When America entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt's diversion of sailing the Potomac River in the presidential yacht (also named Potomac) became a major issue of national security. In the winter of 1941-42 U-Boats raided the American Atlantic coast. There was a genuine fear at the top levels of government that a U-Boat could conceivably sail into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River.

With yachting out of the question, the Navy was tasked with finding a suitable location for the president to escape from the stress of Washington. The desire to avoid humid conditions pointed the search toward higher altitudes, which led to some heavily wooded land the federal government happened to own in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.

As part of a New Deal program in the 1930s, acreage thought unsuitable for other purposes was dedicated to new uses. The land in the mountains, which couldn't be farmed, was transformed into rustic recreational camps. One of the camps, known as Camp 3, seemed like a potential location for a presidential retreat. It was relatively remote, it sat high up in dry cool air for most of the year, and it met the standard for wartime security. Hardly anyone knew it existed.

Roosevelt was driven to the camp in May 1942 and loved it. The cabins at the camp were soon brought up to a comfortable, but hardly luxurious, standard. Plumbing was installed in what would be the president's cabin, and members of the military installed communications equipment. Fences were built around the camp. With wartime building projects accelerating around the country, the building of a presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains went unnoticed by the press and the public.

The location was still known officially as Camp 3. Roosevelt was a fan of the novel Lost Horizon, the plot of which involves airplane passengers stranded in a mountain paradise called Shangri-La. To the president, Camp 3 would be known as Shangri-La. The existence of the camp was not announced to the public.

photo of President Roosevelt at retreat known as Shangri-La
President Franklin Roosevelt at dinner party at Shangri-La (his name for Camp David). Corbis / Getty Images

Roosevelt began using the retreat in 1942, and welcomed an important visitor in May 1943. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill traveled to the U.S. to discuss war strategy with Roosevelt, and some of their time, which included some planning for the following year's D-Day invasion, was spent at Shangri-La. The two leaders enjoyed sitting on a screen porch at the front of Roosevelt's cabin, and on spring afternoons they visited a nearby stream to fish for trout.

Newspaper reports about Churchill's visit mentioned him being at the White House and addressing a joint session of Congress. But wartime security concerns meant there was no mention of his trip up into the Maryland hills.

Historically Significant Events

Following Roosevelt's death, Harry Truman visited Shangri-La a few times, but never really took a liking to it.

When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he became a fan of the camp, and he liked it so much he named it for his grandson. Camp David soon became familiar to Americans. Eisenhower was the first president to use a presidential helicopter, which put Camp David within 35 minutes of the White House.

Eisenhower's use of Camp David seemed to perfectly fit the America of the 1950s. He hosted barbecues, at which he loved grilling steaks. Following his heart attack in 1956, he recuperated at Camp David.

photo of Eisenhower and Khrushchev at Camp David
Eisenhower and Khrushchev at Camp David, 1959. Archive Photos / Getty Images

In September 1959, Eisenhower invited Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to Camp David in hopes that the placid atmosphere would reduce Cold War tensions. Khrushchev later referred to the "spirit of Camp David," which was seen as a positive sign, though relations between the superpowers remained tense.

When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he was asked about the presidential retreat. He said he would keep the name Camp David, but didn't expect to use the facility much. For the first two years of his administration, the Kennedy family rented a horse farm in Virginia for weekend getaways. But in 1963, they began to use Camp David more.

Kennedy, who loved history, traveled from Camp David for two visits to nearby historical sites. He visited the battlefield at Gettysburg on Sunday, March 31, 1963. According to news reports, he drove himself and family members in a convertible. The following Sunday, April 7, 1963, Kennedy and friends took a helicopter from Camp David to tour the battlefield at Antietam.

As the 1960s turned turbulent, Camp David became a welcome refuge for presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. By flying to Camp David, they could escape the chants of anti-war protesters that carried to the windows of the White House.

photo of Begin, Carter, and Sadat at Camp David
Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, 1978. Keystone / Getty Images

When Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977, he was intent on removing some of the pomp associated with the presidency. According to some accounts, he was intent on selling off Camp David, as he viewed it as an unnecessary extravagance. National security officials explained to him that Camp David had unseen features which make it impossible to sell to civilians.

Beneath some of the cabins were bomb shelters and command bunkers built during the Eisenhower administration. On a visit to Camp David in 1959, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was shown the underground facilities, which he described in his diary as "an underground fortress."

Carter forgot about selling the presidential retreat when he began to use it and came to love it. In September 1978 Carter hosted talks at Camp David between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt that went on for 13 days of difficult negotiations. The Camp David Accords were the eventual result.

photo of Bush, Thatcher, and Marine honor guard at Camp David
Camp David style: World leaders in a golf cart and a Marine honor guard. Luke Frazza / AFP via Getty Images

Carter's Camp David summit stood out as perhaps his greatest achievement, and later presidents would occasionally use Camp David as a backdrop for diplomacy. Presidents Reagan and Bush hosted world leaders for meetings. In 2000, Bill Clinton hosted what was billed as the "Camp David Summit" between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The summit garnered a lot of news coverage, but no substantive agreement came out of it.

Following the 9/11 attacks on America, President George W. Bush used Camp David extensively as a getaway from the White House.

In May 2012, President Barack Obama hosted a G8 Summit, a gathering of world leaders, at Camp David. The meeting was originally planned to be held in Chicago, and it was widely assumed the change to Camp David was intended to avoid demonstrations.

photo of President Barack Obama firing a shotgun at Camp David
President Obama on the Camp David skeet range. Pete Souza / The White House via Getty Images

Private Presidential Moments

The true purpose of Camp David has always been to provide a relaxing escape from the pressures of the White House. And sometimes the recreation pursuits in the Maryland woods have taken a surprising turn.

In January 1991, first lady Barbara Bush broke her leg in a sledding accident at Camp David. Newspapers the following day showed her arriving back at the White House in a wheelchair. The break was not too severe and she recovered quickly.

At times, the array of diversions at Camp David has prompted skepticism. In 2013, Barack Obama, while talking about the issue of guns in a magazine interview, mentioned shooting at clay targets at Camp David. Critics pounced, claiming the president had to be exaggerating.

To quell the controversy, the White House released a photograph showing the president firing a shotgun on the Camp David skeet range.

Sources:

  • Schuster, Alvin. "Woodsy White House: Camp David, long a retreat for Chief Executives, has become a prime news source." New York Times. 8 May 1960. p. 355.
  • Giorgione, Michael. Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.