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The White House Burns: The War of 1812

In August 1814, President James Madison (1809-1817) learned that 4,000 British sailors were entering the Chesapeake Bay and threatening to attack Washington. Madison cancelled plans to visit his Virginia plantation home and gathered his advisors together at the White House. One hundred soldiers camped out in front of the President’s House to protect Madison while he planned the defense of the nation’s capital. Madison and his wife Dolley tried to keep life at home as normal as possible. That was impossible after August 24, when Madison spotted British troops marching toward the city. He sent a message to his wife to leave immediately. Although many panicked, Dolley Madison gathered together important papers and a huge portrait of George Washington and made sure they were taken and hidden away. The enemy entered the White House that evening and set it on fire, but not until they enjoyed a dinner that had been prepared for Madison. The White House was almost completely destroyed, and Madison did not come back until several days later. Some members of Congress considered rebuilding the President’s House in another city, but Madison moved quickly and firmly to ensure that the White House was rebuilt on the original site, using the walls that were still standing. Madison wanted to show the world that a young America would not be scared off by threats from other nations.

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The White House after the 1814 fire.

Library of Congress

The Lincoln White House and the Civil War

The Civil War made Abraham Lincoln’s White House (1861-1865) the center of attention for the entire country. From his first days as president, most of Lincoln’s decisions related to bringing the southern states back into the Union. He seldom left the nation’s capital during the war, and could not forget that Washington and the White House were targets of the Confederate forces. Until Union troops captured Alexandria, Virginia, the enemy was just across the Potomac River from the capital. Wherever he went, bodyguards protected Lincoln. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, feared that he would be attacked. Lincoln said that the first two or three threats to his life made him "a little uncomfortable . . . [but] there is nothing like getting used to things." The war hit close to home when Lincoln’s personal guard, Elmer Elsworth, was killed early in the war while on a mission that captured Alexandria. Lincoln would keep in touch with his generals on the battlefields by using the telegraph in the War Department building, which was next door to the White House. The president would go down a private stair, walk through the basement and a colonnade, and stroll across the White House lawn. Lincoln knew that the White House was a symbol. He wanted to make sure that the country knew that he was determined to finish the war and keep the southern states in the Union. Because of this he kept the White House open to those who wanted to discuss the war, or to tour the house. This showed Americans that the government was confident that the United States would survive.

Abraham Lincoln talks to an officer at dusk in 1863. Painting by Tom Freeman, 1998

McKinley’s War Room: The Spanish-American War

For the first time, the White House became a communications center in wartime during the Spanish-American War of 1898. President William McKinley (1897-1901) was busy at the White House where foreign diplomats and members of Congress flocked to discuss America’s poor relations with Spain. When the ship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, McKinley received the information from a telephone call at three in the morning. A special telegraph office was established on the second floor of the White House. Members of the staff called it the "War Room." The office allowed McKinley to contact the Army and Navy, and to chart the progress of the war on maps pinned up on the walls of the War Room. Usually, the telegraphs were at the War Department, but McKinley brought them to the office of the commander-in-chief. The war, which lasted only three months, was a major victory for the United States. The French ambassador commented that "much of the rapid success of the United States" was due to the communication equipment available to the president.

McKinley's "War Room" during the Spanish-American War, 1898.

Library of Congress

The Wilsons Share in Sacrifice: World War I

On April 2, 1917, thousands of flag-waving Americans stood in the pouring rain along Pennsylvania Avenue as President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) drove to the Capitol by car. Like the rest of the country, the drenched citizens were waiting for Wilson to make an important speech. "The world must be made safe for democracy," Wilson told Congress that evening. The president asked for Congress to declare war on Germany. Wilson realized that his family must make sacrifices just like all American families. A red, white and blue sticker was attached to a White House window, indicating that the Wilsons observed "meatless and wheatless" days in order to save food for U.S. troops and starving Europeans. A "victory garden" was planted at the White House to grow vegetables for the Wilsons’ meals. The president even brought sheep to graze on the White House lawn. The wool from the sheep was sold to benefit the Red Cross. Woodrow and Edith Wilson led by example. By doing so, the White House symbolized the efforts that had to be made at home when the U.S. was trying to win a world war.

President Wilson's White House flock of sheep.

Library of Congress

The White House: Target? Franklin Roosevelt and World War II

Crowds of angry Americans surrounded the White House on December 7, 1941, as news spread of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. How was President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) going to respond? They had an answer the next day, when Roosevelt described the 7th as "a day that shall live in infamy." Congress declared war on Japan and a few days later the U.S. was at war with Germany. From a room in the White House basement called the Map Room (because of maps showing the progress of soldiers and ships), Roosevelt kept in touch with U.S. military forces and leaders of the Allies. He also met in the White House with foreign leaders, such as Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Worried about the safety of the president and his family, the Secret Service put bulletproof glass in the windows of the president’s Oval Office, sentries patrolled the roof with machine guns, and builders constructed a bomb shelter under the East Wing. The Secret Service also ordered many of the windows painted black. Heavy black curtains covered others. If enemy planes flew in to bomb the White House at night, the Secret Service wanted to block all light coming from the structure. For the same reason, Roosevelt was warned that it was too dangerous for him to light up a Christmas tree in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House as he usually did. But the president insisted on having a tree. He did not want Americans to think their leader was a coward. A tree was placed on the South Lawn of the White House, where the Secret Service could keep a close eye on Roosevelt and his guest, Winston Churchill. The world leaders gave the word, and the colored lights blazed. Today, the president lights a tree on the Ellipse.

Americans gather at the White House on December 7, 1941 after the news of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Library of Congress

Truman and the Atomic Bomb

People all over the world still have strong feelings about President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman (1945-1953) gave the order because he thought it would end the war quickly, and he would save thousands of lives that would be lost if U.S. troops had to invade Japan and fight to a finish. On June 18, 1945, Truman held a meeting in the White House. He listened to different advisors discuss the best way to force the enemy to surrender. When Truman wanted to know the number of estimated casualties — those who might be killed or wounded — no one could agree on a number. Already, the island invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had proven to be very bloody. When compared to invading the country of Japan, it was thought that the casualties would be enormous. By the end of the meeting, it was agreed that the U.S. should begin by invading Kyushu, an island located just to the south of the Japanese homeland. Depending on how successful the troops were in Kyushu, they would then plan further attacks. Soon after the White House meeting, though, an alternative became available. On July 16, the first atomic bomb was detonated in Alamogordo, New Mexico as a test. With this new weapon, Truman decided against an invasion and ordered an atomic bomb to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. On the evening of August 14, reporters crammed into the Oval Office to hear a special announcement from the president. An excited Truman told reporters that Japan had just surrendered. The Second World War was over.

President Truman announces the end of the Second World War, 1945.

Harry S. Truman Library

The Cold War Turns Hot: Korea

On the evening of June 24, 1950, President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) was interrupted by a phone call from Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Truman was visiting relatives in Missouri at the time. "Mr. President," Acheson said, "I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea." North Korea’s government was communist, and supported by China and the Soviet Union. Truman returned to Washington the next day. He was concerned that the attack was the beginning of an effort to spread communism through a third world war. As soon as he arrived, he gathered his best military and political experts in his residence at Blair House. (At the time, the White House was being renovated and the Trumans lived in a townhouse across the street.) They decided that the attack was a test. The Soviet Union wanted to see how the United States would react. Truman decided that America would draw the line: the U.S. would fight to keep communism from spreading into South Korea. By the end of the month, naval, air and ground troops were sent to the area. The war lasted three years, but there was no clear victory over communism.

An American soldier comforts a comrade in the Korean War c. 1950.

National Archives

LBJ and Vietnam

One of the most important steps taken by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) to stop the Vietnam War occurred on March 31, 1968. From the Oval Office, he shocked the nation by announcing on television that he would not run for president again. He declared: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." By doing so, he hoped to begin America’s healing. Not since the Civil War had Americans been so divided by a president’s use of military force. Many blamed Johnson for the deadly costs of the war. By telling Americans he would not run for president, he was removing himself from the conflict so that someone else might solve it. The Vietnam War did not begin with Johnson and did not end with him, but he is known as the leader who increased the number of troops sent to Southeast Asia. Over a half million troops were in Vietnam. Most Americans thought the U.S. was winning the war to stop communism’s spread there until January 1968, when the North Vietnamese won a number of important battles. Americans would still be fighting in Vietnam for four years after Johnson left the White House. But his speech in March 1968 told Americans that the process of ending the century’s most unpopular war had begun.

The Gulf War

The world was stunned when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade Middle East neighbor, Kuwait, on August 2, 1990. The region supplies oil to many of the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States. Not only did Iraq threaten the free trade of oil, the invasion of Kuwait was without cause. A few days later, President George Bush (1989-1993) stepped off his helicopter and onto the South Lawn of the White House. Reporters asked him how he was going to react to Hussein’s aggression. "This will not stand," he declared. First, Bush arranged for American troops to take part in Operation Desert Shield. Desert Shield was meant to discourage Hussein from moving past Kuwait into Saudi Arabia, another oil-rich nation. At the end of October 1992, the president doubled the number of troops in the region to about 500,000. It became clear that the United States and its United Nations allies were preparing to push Iraq out of Kuwait, if necessary. The United Nations gave the authority to use military force if Hussein refused to pull out his army by January 15, 1991. That day came and went, and Hussein’s forces had not moved. The United Nations then launched Operation Desert Storm, which included heavy air attacks. On February 24, 1991 troops followed on the ground. In four days, Iraq had been expelled from Kuwait and President Bush gave the word that the fighting should end. The victory was quick and completed the mission to send Iraqi troops back to Iraq. Some thought that the United Nations troops should have pushed on into Iraq and attempted to destroy that country’s ability to invade her neighbors in the future. Over time, historians will look back and discuss the Gulf War and what President Bush and the United Nations troops accomplished.


In wartime, the American people look to the president to command the country’s armed forces through his Constitutional authority. Through time some have accused the president of abusing that authority or interpreting it too broadly. For this reason, the president must also be a communicator-in-chief. He must articulate ideas justifying the use of force and the losses that necessarily follow from it. In every war the United States has fought since establishing the presidency, the White House has been the nation's epicenter. Decisions made there by the president and his advisers have had consequences affecting millions, and inflamed public opinion both in support of and in opposition to America’s military involvement. But the White House is also a home, and Americans have expected the first family to represent the people’s resolve, and to share in the sacrifices common to other families during moments of peril.

Much of the story of the White House is tied to the successes and failures of its inhabitants in fulfilling these expectations. At its best, the United States has proven itself capable of being both idealistic and just in prosecuting its war aims. At its worst, war has divided Americans and left them disillusioned about their government and the role of their country in the world. The story of the White House at War begins with a shameful episode, when British troops set the President’s House on fire in 1814. When considering the vigorous and spirited response to that humiliation, we see how the high and low moments of our history are represented in times of conflict.

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