Maryland: Camp David Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A presidential retreat that offers relaxation and refuge from the demands of Washington, D.C., Camp David has given American presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt the opportunity to think, reflect, and make decisions away from the White House during times of stress and responsibility.

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Catoctin Mountain Park

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Thurmont, MD 21788-1598

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A site for presidential weekends away from the pressures of the White House, Camp David has amusements and recreational facilities including a bowling alley, bridle paths for horseback riding, a golf course, a heated pool, a helicopter pad, movie screens and projectors, a skeet range, a staff pool, and a tennis court. Nearly two dozen wooden cabins can accommodate the president, his family, White House staff, cabinet officers, and, sometimes, international heads of state. Some presidents have used Camp David almost exclusively for recreation; others have crafted international agreements with foreign dignitaries at the mountain retreat.

A Fabulous Fiction Made Real

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) chose the site and the name for the retreat in 1942. He called it “Shangri-La,” after the mythical community described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson, David Eisenhower, in the foreword he wrote to W. Dale Nelson’s The President Is at Camp David(1995), explains this choice of names.

Why should a president have a retreat like Camp David? In theory, the American presidency is a democratic office charged primarily with tending to the welfare and happiness of the citizens who elect the president. For a long time, though, the president has been much more than that; since the 1930s, Americans have reluctantly but inevitably accepted responsibilities for world peace and progress, and the presidency has been the institution responsible for coordinating American action toward that end. So it is today, and so it became at some indefinable moment at about the time Lost Horizon was published in 1933.

Hilton’s novel clearly foretells the catastrophe of World War II. It describes the mission of the mythical community of Shangri-La in undertaking to spare mankind’s cultural treasures from the plague of barbarism about to descend. In the story, Hugh Conway, a British diplomat, is anointed by the High Lama of Shangri-La to assume charge of the community and its mission. Conway declines at first and leaves Shangri-La, sensing that the task would be beyond him. The book ends just as Conway resolves to try after all and begins his arduous journey back.

It is not a stretch to conceive of FDR during 1941–42 as seeing parallels between Conway’s mission and his own; that as president of the United States it was his duty to mobilize America to serve as a bastion against the assault of fascism and twentieth-century totalitarianism. Conceivably, like Conway, he felt that he would need a camp, a “paradise” where he could be fortified to face the decisions he knew were necessary to defend America and the future of civilization. The cold war challenged his successors in the same way.

For a long time his doctors had advised Roosevelt to leave the swampy heat of Washington, D.C., whenever possible, particularly during the sweltering summers. Roosevelt’s asthma made higher elevations and cooler mountain air desirable for the president. The site in the Catoctin Mountains was chosen on April 22, 1942, but the pressures of World War II upon the president quickly made the mountain retreat a working extension of the Oval Office. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, conferred with FDR at the camp when it was called Shangri-La over the details of the Allied invasion of Normandy. They also managed to make time to fish together in nearby Hunting Creek.

FDR’s confinement to a wheelchair due to polio made it necessary to equip “the Bear’s Den,” as the main presidential cabin was called, with special features. A nine-foot-high wall was erected around the camp, and Marines were stationed to guard the camp’s perimeter. Seclusion was, and is, essential to the camp’s charm. It is off limits to the press, permits few visitors, and is vigilantly guarded. FDR spent more than twenty weekends at Shangri-La from 1942 to 1944. Eleanor Roosevelt was a less frequent visitor to the camp than other First Ladies who followed her. It is likely that her relationship with FDR had cooled after Mrs. Roosevelt discovered FDR’s affair with his social secretary, Lucy Mercer.

The dress code at the presidential camp was the opposite of what it was at the White House: casual clothes, no suits, no ties. A staff of nearly one hundred (including the Secret Service) occupied the twenty unheated cabins near the president’s lodge. Few cabins had running water, and fewer had hot water. Cabin occupants washed outside in metal troughs, some twenty-five chilly yards from the cabins where they slept. In “the Bear’s Den” building, fireplaces were added to the four bedrooms, since nights at 1,800 feet of elevation can be quite chilly, even in summer.

The camp could not easily be seen from the air because the natural wood buildings blended into the dense forest. Still, the Secret Service managed to restrict air traffic over the camp, as it did over the White House. FDR’s successor, Harry S Truman, was not impressed by the rustic seclusion of Shangri-La. Thirty men went to work felling trees, and they created a clearing that would later be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s golf course. In nearly eight years as president, Truman visited the camp only nine times. He did have the buildings winterized for year-round use. When uncertainty about the camp’s fate followed Roosevelt’s death, it was Truman who decided that it was to remain a presidential retreat. The slender wooden gate that guarded the camp during FDR’s day was replaced during the Reagan administration by a reinforced metal fence at the camp’s entrance, guarded by a contingent of Marines.

Golf and Cold War Diplomacy

After Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed Shangri-La “Camp David” after his father and grandson. Periodic efforts were made over the next several decades to restore the original name that FDR had given the camp, but the image of the retreat had become fixed in the public’s mind as Camp David, and the name had international recognition as well. The White House of Bill Clinton reported that suggestions to restore the earlier name were no longer made during Clinton’s tenure as president.

Because Eisenhower had campaigned on an austerity platform, the president initially objected to the camp as an unnecessary luxury. Mamie Eisenhower insisted on further modernization if the president were to keep the camp as a retreat. A small, three-hole golf course was installed, one that Eisenhower enjoyed but President Gerald R. Ford would later complain about as too small.

Eisenhower, recovering from a heart attack in 1955, met with his cabinet at Camp David. He was the first president to introduce helicopter travel between Washington, D.C., and Camp David. An underground bomb shelter was added to the camp to serve as a sort of presidential command post in the event of nuclear war. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was a guest at Camp David in 1960, a meeting that came to be known as “the spirit of Camp David.” The two world leaders shared a fondness for Western films, and the talks between them represented a temporary thaw in the Cold War relations between Moscow and Washington, D.C.

President John F. Kennedy met with former president Eisenhower at Camp David in 1961 after the failure of a United States-organized force to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Although a pony ring was built for Caroline Kennedy’s pony at Camp David, the Kennedys visited the camp less than two dozen times. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), visited Camp David twenty-nine times over the five and one-half years of his presidency. Often the domestic turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War drove LBJ to the mountain retreat, where mental peace eluded a president who presided over a very unpopular war.

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, went to Camp David to draft presidential speeches on Vietnam, as persistent a problem for him as it had been for LBJ. Important decisions about the American economy were made at the camp by Nixon and his aides. After Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned office amid a bribery scandal, Nixon, at Camp David, chose Gerald R. Ford as vice president. In June, 1973, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev visited Camp David for talks on nuclear weapons. By 1973 Nixon had made 149 visits to Camp David, entertained eleven foreign visitors, and made Camp David more central to his presidency than any other president. The Nixon administration’s frenetic efforts to cover up its role in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Washington Watergate building led Nixon and his aides to retreat to Camp David to strategize, but the scandal ultimately compelled Nixon to resign from office.

President Gerald R. Ford permitted television crews to film parts of Camp David and to interview him there. His successor, Jimmy Carter, invited Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to Camp David. The thirteen days of meetings at this Middle Eastern summit resulted in a major international agreement, known as the Camp David Accords. The Camp David Accords led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on March 26, 1979. Both Begin and Sadat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at Camp David.

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, visited the camp a total of 187 times, more than any other president. Reagan used the camp primarily as a personal haven for himself and his wife, Nancy, and seldom invited foreign visitors, although British prime minister Margaret Thatcher visited twice. Horseback riding was a favorite pastime for the Reagans. By 1986 the maintenance and operations budget for Camp David had grown to $1.6 million annually. A chapel, at the cost of $1 million, was added in 1991. George Bush, Reagan’s successor, met with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney at Camp David to decide to dispatch military forces to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. William Jefferson Clinton, Bush’s successor, did not use Camp David with the frequency of other presidents.

An Imperial Presidency or a Necessary Retreat?

Camp David, in its distance from the nation’s capital, has permitted American presidents to both make history and escape history. It has provided a locale for important international and domestic conferences that have had far-reaching effects. Perhaps as important, it has given the occupant of the White House a physical alternative to the fenced-in urban dwelling the president regularly inhabits.

Rather than being an extravagant expression of the president’s imperial powers, as Dwight D. Eisenhower initially thought, Camp David has offered most of its presidents a measure of tranquillity and a temporary haven from the rigors of what may be the most demanding job on earth.

For Further Information
  • “Catoctin Mountain Park.” www.atevo.com/guides/parks/item/0,3653,38,00.html. A guide to the Catoctin Mountain Park near Camp David, a U.S. National Park open to the public. Good description of park facilities and recreational activities. See also the National Park Service site at www.nps.gov/cato/.
  • home.rose.net/~dingdong/CDHistory/. A general history of the camp, the presidential activities there, and Camp David’s role in international diplomacy. A Web site written by the Department of the Navy. A good resource.
  • Nelson, Dale W. The President Is at Camp David. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995. An excellent history of the camp and the personalities who have given it national importance. A very readable account.
  • Parker, Thomas. The Road to Camp David. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A history of the Middle Eastern dispute, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and the solutions arrived at in the Camp David Accords.
  • Quandt, William B. Camp David Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986. Written by an expert in foreign affairs, this is a detailed study of Jimmy Carter’s role at Camp David in brokering a peace for the Middle East.
  • Telhami, Shibley. Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Extensive analysis of the camp’s famous international agreement.
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