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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Harry S. Truman's "Little White House"

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

Since the creation of the American presidency, there have been presidential vacations. Early chief executives such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe preferred the comforts of their private estates. As the nineteenth century progressed, transportation and communications advancements permitted the president to travel greater distances while remaining informed on developing situations and crises. Ulysses S. Grant favored his family home at Long Branch, New Jersey; Theodore and Edith Roosevelt, along with their six children, retreated to Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York; and the Tafts rented two homes, Stetson Hall and Parramatta, in Beverly, Massachusetts, to escape the sweltering summers of Washington D.C. More recent presidents have generally followed this tradition, taking vacations to their personal homes or family compounds. These places, wired to receive instantaneous communications, also featured Secret Service agents and state-of-the-art security systems. These retreats have effectively become smaller versions of the White House itself, since the work of a president never truly ceases, regardless of surroundings.

President Harry S. Truman's "Little White House" at Key West Naval Station.

National Archives and Records Administration

President Harry S. Truman had many nicknames for the Executive Mansion. In his private papers, he sarcastically referred to it as the “Great White Prison” and the “taxpayers’ house.”1 On August 3, 1948, the president wrote in his diary: “Went to the ‘Great White Jail’…found the White House falling down. My daughter’s sitting room floor had broken down over the family dining room.”2 While a rather amusing anecdote that prompted a major White House renovation, Truman’s words illuminate how the chief executive felt at different times about his occupancy. Perhaps it was more the turbulence of world events, along with numerous domestic challenges as the country transitioned from war to peace, which compelled President Truman to seek sanctuary outside Washington. Fleet Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations Chester W. Nimitz, who had recently inspected the Key West Naval Station, recommended the Florida base to the president as a possible vacation destination. Truman agreed and left for Key West in November 1946. This would mark the first of eleven visits to “The Little White House.”3

This photograph taken by Paul Begley shows President Harry Truman with his Secret Service detail walking in Key West, Florida in March, 1950. The presidential yacht Williamsburg can be seen in the background.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The Key West Naval Station provided modest accommodations for the president and first family; a staff of approximately 16 aides and advisors; 15 Secret Service agents, and roughly 20-30 reporters.4 According to author Lawrence Knutson, “Key West’s naval base gave Truman a degree of privacy, security, and freedom unavailable in most vacation spots.”5 The president’s day typically began at 7:00 a.m. with a morning walk around the base or into town. He returned around 8, venturing aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg for breakfast. Afterwards President Truman returned to “The Little White House,” where he worked on his mail until 10 or so. The president and his aides then headed for nearby Truman Beach, discussing policy and politics in the sun. He often cooled off with a swim, which required Secret Service agents to wade into the shallows as the president churned through the water.6 Lunch was served around 1 p.m. at the house, and so long as nothing was pressing the president often relished an afternoon nap. A poker game usually began around 4, and dinner would be served later at 7 p.m. Sometimes the Trumans hosted first-run movie screenings for their guests, but the president often preferred to challenge his visitors to another round of poker on the south porch. These competitions went well into the night, sometimes lasting until midnight or later.7

President Harry S. Truman in the "chow line" for lunch at the "Little White House."

National Archives and Records Administration

The president visited Key West twice a year, once in spring and again either in late fall or winter. By summer 1948, Truman had been to the “Little White House” four times, but the upcoming election produced a whole new level of stress for the president. During his cross-country campaign, Truman traveled some 31,000 miles by train, giving 351 whistle-stop speeches to undecided voters across the nation. He appealed directly to the American people, calling upon them to cast their ballots in support of his vision for the country. At one such stop, an audience member famously shouted, “Give’em hell Harry!” to which the president roared back, “That’s just what I’m about to do!”8 Despite his intensive campaigning, many pollsters and pundits predicted New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee, would win the election handily. An exhausted Truman didn’t stay up to hear the returns on election night. He snuck out of his campaign headquarters in Kansas City and headed to the Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. The president treated himself to a Turkish bath, a ham sandwich, and a glass of milk before retiring to bed. He awoke around midnight and turned on the radio, hearing that he was over one million votes ahead of Dewey. The announcer insisted that Truman would eventually lose his lead, prompting him to go back to sleep. At 4 a.m. Secret Service Agent Jim Crowley woke the president, alerting him that his lead had now grown to two million votes. As President Truman began to get dressed he told his security detail that they better head back to Kansas City. “It look[s] very much as if we [are] in for another four years,” remarked the victorious candidate.9

This photograph, taken by Paul Begley on April 5, 1950, shows President Harry S. Truman, along with his family and staff at Key West, Florida.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Elected in his own right, President Truman made plans to travel to Florida shortly after the election. Key West, the seat of Monroe County, went 83% in favor of its most famous visitor. City officials publicly declared November 7 as “Harry Truman Day,” preparing a grand, congratulatory welcome for the president. “There were bands, banners, and buntings,” wrote one correspondent, “and a victory parade through cheering crowds along a route which included newly-named Truman Street.”10 The day’s events attracted some 25,000 residents and spectators. First Lady Bess Truman and daughter Margaret would later join the president at Key West on the trip, and the family stayed for nearly two weeks at the “Little White House.”11 The president returned in March 1949, inviting Supreme Court Justice Fred M. Vinson to visit his naval abode. Vinson’s wife Julia made an angel-food cake for the occasion, which he brought aboard the president’s plane, Independence. Vinson sporadically checked on the cake during the flight, remarking to the press, “I don’t care what happens to me; I just don’t want anything to happen to that cake.” Upon his arrival he joined the president for a luncheon, presenting the cake as a gift. President Truman thanked the Chief Justice for his kind gesture, dividing the dessert among the attendees. “It really looks very pretty,” he said, “But I can’t eat it all by myself.”12

This is a photograph of President Harry S. Truman during a press conference in the garden of the "Little White House" in Key West, Florida.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

While Truman enjoyed the warm waters, tropical breezes, and relaxing atmosphere, he was constantly fulfilling his duties as president. “I have been signing and dictating as fast as I can here,” he wrote his sister Mary Jane. “Just finished signing a folder full of public documents and I must now sign some three or four hundred letters. It is no vacation—only a change of scenery.”13 In his memoirs, Truman described the “Little White House” as more of a hideaway than a vacation hotspot. It permitted the president “to catch up on [his] work…without interruptions.”14 While Truman could temporarily escape the confines of the White House, the issues of the day—desegregating the United States Army, China’s fall to Communism, the escalating war in Korea, steel and coal labor strikes—were never far from the president’s mind. These major events required his full attention and public statements to the American people, which were conveyed through ten press conferences held at the Key West Naval Station.15 On March 27, 1952, President Truman returned from Key West and moved back into White House, which had been under major renovation for nearly four years. Two days later, the president announced at the Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner that he would not run again that fall.16 While the spring 1952 trip to “The Little White House” was Truman’s last as president, it was not his last visit to one of his favorite destinations. The former president and his family returned five more times between 1957 and 1969.17

President Harry S. Truman, First Lady Bess Truman, and daughter Margaret relaxing at Key West.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum/NARA