Real history made at Little White House

Presidents from Truman to Clinton visit Key West

KeysNet staffMay 26, 2008 

It’s the place where Harry S. Truman did all of his presidential work during the winter months, where Dwight D. Eisenhower created the U.S. Department of Defense and where John F. Kennedy may have made a decision that averted World War III.

And that’s just the highlighted history of The Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West.

“Almost everybody who comes here says, ‘all that happened here?’” says Bob Wolz, executive director of the Little White House. “There’s just so much history made here that people don’t know about.”

Wolz does not hesitate to call the Little White House the most historically important site in South Florida. But not because a few of the country’s most revered presidents simply spent some leisure time in the Southernmost City.

“People have this idea that President Truman and others just came here to goof off for a while,” says Wolz, who is also co-author of “The Legacy of the Harry S. Truman Little White House.” “Nothing could be further from the truth. There were tremendously important historical events that took place here.”

Originally built as the Navy first officer’s quarters in 1890, the 8,700-square-foot structure that would become the Little White House was first used as a retreat by President Truman in 1946. He spent one week, and returned four months later for a second visit.

None of the presidents who have visited Key West spent more time on the island than Truman. The thirty-third president used the Little White House in the Southernmost City in the same way later presidents would use Camp David.

Over his terms as president from 1945 to 1953, Truman made 11 trips to Key West for a total of 175 days. His time spent in Key West at the Little White House would come to represent 10 percent of his total time in office.

While the Missouri-native’s first three trips to Key West were primarily for vacationing, Wolz says Truman began using the Little White House for pressing presidential matters beginning with his fourth trip in 1948.

“Key West really became the operating White House at that time,” he says. “Primarily due to technological advances such as telephone conferencing and airplanes, the president was able to work outside of Washington (D.C.) for the first time. While in Key West, Truman began signing his executive orders ‘The White House, Key West Naval Station.’ Essentially, where ever the president was, the White House was.”

By 1949, the Navy had remodeled the original commandant’s quarters into what would be called the Little White House from then on.

When not fishing, swimming, strolling through Old Town or playing poker, President Truman attended to such duties as writing his annual State of the Union address and working on the country’s budget while wintering in Key West.

“He discussed the Marshall Plan extensively while at the Little White House, as well as the Truman Doctrine and the crisis in what was then called Palestine,” Wolz says. “Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek also personally sent a letter to Truman at the Little White House asking for the United States’ involvement in the Chinese Civil War, which Truman didn’t want anything to do with.”

Before succeeding Truman as president, General Dwight D. Eisenhower held a series of meetings in the Little White House in 1948-49 that eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Defense.

However, when Eisenhower took office in 1953, the Little White House once again became a primary residence for the Navy commandant. Although Eisenhower did not continue Truman’s presidential tradition of wintering in Key West, he did spend three weeks in the city while recovering from a heart attack in 1955.

Truman returned to Key West many times following his two terms in office, with his last visit coming in 1969 at the age of 84.

Three weeks prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy used the Little White House as the place for a one-day summit with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in March of 1961.

The summit was reportedly held so the two leaders to discuss a growing crisis in Laos, to which a joint resolution was drafted calling for the end of warfare in the Southeast Asian country.

However, Wolz and others suspect Kennedy and Macmillan were most likely more interested in discussing the growing Cuban crisis.

The March 26 summit came little more than one week after the White House gave the CIA the go ahead to equip and drill Cuban exiles in preparation of toppling the new Castro government. Much of that effort was centered in the Keys, particularly No Name Key.

Wolz says it’s very possible the two leaders could have come to a very historic conclusion during the meeting at the Little White House.

“We believe they decided not to directly invade Cuba at that meeting, and to instead support exiles,” he speculates. “It very well could have been the case that McMillan told Kennedy that if the U.S. was going to invade Cuba they were going to have to do it on their own, and Kennedy decided against it.”

Kennedy made a second trip to Key West a year later immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of the Southernmost City’s proximity to Cuba, tourism was taking a major hit due to escalating Cold War tensions.

“People forget Key West was a war zone then. There was barbed wire strung along Smathers Beach and Hawk missiles readied at the airport to shoot down any Soviet planes,” Wolz says. “Kennedy played a big part in assuring people it was still safe to come to Key West again.”

All told, six United States presidents have resided in or visited the Little White House over the past sixty plus years. The most recent visit was by Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2005, during which Wolz had the pleasure of giving the former president and senator a personal tour of the historic home.

Presidential history permeates the walls of the Little White House, but other influential Americans have also left their legacy on the house. Inventor Thomas Edison resided there during World War I while working for the Navy, during which time he developed 41 weapons.

While secretary of state in April 2001, Colin Powell opened a week of peace talks at the Little White House between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Geidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan. Powell chose the Little White House as the site of the peace talks because of the summit Kennedy held with Macmillan forty years earlier.

The Little White House not only played a significant historical role in United States politics and foreign policy, it also jumpstarted Key West’s image as a major tourist destination.

“It put us on the map,” Wolz says. “People were seeing pictures of the president fishing and playing volleyball at the beach. Suddenly everyone in the country wanted to know more about Key West.”

In fact, the Key West Chamber of Commerce reported taking three times the number of calls from interested travelers following President Truman’s first visit in November 1946.

The house continued to serve as the Navy commandant’s house until 1974, when it was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Despite the federal designation, the structure fell into disrepair in the years to come.

Local dignitaries and politicians made a plea to Jimmy Carter while he was in office in the late seventies to use the Little White House as his retreat, says Wolz. Carter respectfully declined, but did host a family reunion on the grounds in 1986.

Following nearly total disuse for more than a decade, the Little White House received a $1 million renovation in 1987, and the museum opened.

The Little White House was designated as a Florida historic site and museum in 1991, and has since found itself a regular stop on the beaten Key West tourist path. Still, Wolz says it’s one of the most under appreciated attractions on the island.

“We’re the best kept secret in Key West,” he says.

The history is not necessarily all in the past for the Little White House.

The house is currently undergoing a $700,000 renovation to restore it to its condition in 1949 — the year it was first renovated as the Little White House for President Truman.

From finding the original wallpaper designs and furniture upholstery to outfitting the home with prints of the paintings that originally hung on the walls, the renovation is a daunting task. Especially considering the museum is still housed within the Little White House.

“The ultimate goal is to establish a Key West Presidential Center where people can come and learn the complete history of presidents in the city,” says Wolz. “Ideally, we’d move the museum out of the house so we can restore it 100 percent to its 1949 condition.”

With the house completely restored and the museum given its own space, Wolz says the Little White House would have the potential to be used as a venue for future political and diplomatic meetings.

“There’s still a lot of history that can be made here,” he says.

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