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Florida History: Presidents in Paradise

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President Truman President Truman

By Dr. Robert Watson

special contributor to the Sun News


The presidency is the world’s most demanding job. Consequently, most presidents relied on “retreats” to get away from the capital city and recharge the batteries. Reagan, for instance, had his ranch in California, “W” his ranch in Crawford, and Teddy Roosevelt sought refuge at Oyster Bay.


Not surprisingly, Florida has played host to many presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and others who vacationed regularly in the Sunshine State. But, it was Harry Truman that used a home in Florida as his official presidential retreat.


Truman was a workaholic and was feeling the demands of the office, so his physician, Brigadier General Wallace Graham, suggested a vacation in a warm climate. Hearing of the plan, Admiral Chester Nimitz quickly proposed the naval base in Key West.


It appears, however, that the crafty admiral’s concern was not just the president’s health. The navy was facing significant budget cuts in the post-war years and was eager to gain favor with the Commander-in-Chief, who happened to be a WWI vet.


Truman first arrived on November 17, 1946 and the officers’ quarters at the naval base were converted to serve as his “Little White House.” A working White House, the home ended up hosting top military brass, members of both the Congress and Supreme Court, heads of state, and other dignitaries, and Truman made many important decisions while there, such as establishing the Everglades as a national park in 1947.


To encourage the president’s return, the navy spruced up the facility and rolled out the red carpet. It worked! Truman ended up spending 175 days of his presidency in Key West on 11 official trips from 1946 to 1952. He then returned five more times after his presidency.


The site brought out the playful side in Truman, who read, napped, took walks, swam, and played both poker and piano while there. Even though his aides panicked, he even rode along with the Navy on a test to take a captured German submarine to the depth of 450 feet!


On the advice of Bill Saunders, the young son of the base commander, Truman sailed to the Dry Tortugas. He asked Bill to be his guide and the boy complied. But, after a long, fun day, the boy informed the president on the way back to Key West that he missed school. Truman promptly scribbled a note for the principal excusing Bill for the day! He even signed it “Harry S Truman, President.”


Another problem was that Truman’s daughter was soloing with the Detroit Symphony on March 16, 1947. But the Keys had only one radio station and it wasn’t carrying the performance. So, the enterprising owner of the station, John Spottswood, quickly switched the station’s affiliation to one featuring the concert. Spottswood informed the relieved president, but the two later discovered that the FCC license would not be granted in time. Truman made a phone call… and they both ended up listening to the concert.


The Little White House is arguably Florida’s most important home. Also used by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, the home still stands at the Truman Annex in Key West and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Understandably, Truman used to say that Key West was his second favorite city, behind only his hometown. He also enjoyed threatening that he had half a notion to move the White House to the Keys. It should also be noted that the Navy’s post-war budget ended up being cut less than originally planned!



Robert Watson, Ph.D. is Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn Univer

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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