Reconsidering Ike's Health and Legacy by Watson and Berger

Reconsidering Ike's Health and Legacy:
A Surprising Lesson in Duty at the Little White House Residential Retreat

By Robert P. Watson, PhD and Dale Berger, MA

Department of Political Science
Florida Atlantic University

There have been many good leaders throughout history. But, despite the need, far too few of them have been great leaders. Often times we do not appreciate or understand the true depth of what makes these individuals great until they have departed this world, and it takes both historians and the public time to reflect on the totality of the individual's actions and life's work to render history's judgment. The reason for the shifting assessments made by history is the subjective nature of the questions "what is it that makes a great leader?" and "with the passing of time, which decisions and actions proved to be the right ones?"

Moreover, there are an infinite number of possibilities in answering such questions. For example, is a particular policy or action taken by an individual so momentous as to overwhelm other policies or actions? Is it the actual accomplishments achieved by the individual during his/her lifetime as opposed to those at a particular moment in time? Is it the pursuit of goals deemed noble by the individual or those by society? Or, is it the judgment of the individual‘s character based solely on a particular act, event, and time versus character judged on the totality of individual's life? Questions like these are raised which complicate history's quest to identify and understand great leaders; and the process typically extends well after the individual is gone.

The difficulty in assessing greatness and legacy is evident in the Office of the President. Out of the forty-two men who have held the office at the time of this writing, only a small number of about three or four are considered to have been great presidents. One such leader is Abraham Lincoln, a president whose leadership was not fully appreciated until after his death. Here is a man who is almost universally considered to be America's greatest president. Yet, there are still concerns regarding his decision to suspend of the writ of habeas corpus, questions about his delay in emancipating black slaves, and debate about his battle with depression. However, Lincoln is not the only president whose leadership is examined continuously and the merits of his greatness debated.

Another president who also shares in this continual process of examination of leadership is the thirty-fourth President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. When it comes to efforts by historians to rank presidents, Eisenhower was often ranked as an "average" president after leaving office. For example, the second Schlesinger Poll (1962) - the first presidential rating poll conducted that included Ike - ranked Eisenhower twenty-second out of thirty-one presidents, placing him at the bottom of the list of "average" presidents. Not a very illustrious start for his post-presidential legacy, to be sure. However, with time Eisenhower's status improved as is noted by his twelfth place ranking in the Porter Poll (1981), eleventh place ranking in the Murray-Blessing Poll (1982), and ninth place ranking in the Chicago Tribune Poll (1982). In more recent polls, Eisenhower's enhanced stature remains firm. For instance, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. - son of the originator of the presidential ranking polls - continued his father's enterprise with a poll in 1996 that ranked Eisenhower tenth. The C-SPAN Poll in 2000 had Eisenhower in ninth place.

Recent scholarship on Eisenhower - as has been the case for other presidents - has resulted in a reshuffling of the presidential ratings with the thirty-fourth President now ranked by scholars in the nine to twelve range, up from "average" to "near great" status. So, questions obviously remain regarding the legacy and status among scholars of the American presidency of the man who, as Supreme Allied Commander, saved the free world from fascism and had such a decisive impact upon the course and direction of the post-war order.

One of the relatively unknown - and understudied - aspects of Eisenhower's life was his 1955 trip to the "Little White House" presidential retreat in Key West, Florida. This visit, which was taken as part of the therapy for his health ordeal, provides some interesting insights not only into the President's health but into his character and governing style, relevant to the ongoing discussion of Eisenhower's legacy.


During his presidency, Eisenhower had several reoccurring health episodes, with the two most serious being his gastrointestinal problems and heart disease. There remains disagreement among scholars as to the number of heart attacks President Eisenhower had throughout his life. Some say as little as two, while others say as many as seven but, it was Eisenhower's episodes of gastrointestinal problems which seemed to come about without any apparent cause, resulting in sever stomach cramps, that plagued him throughout most of his adult life.
In his book titled Eisenhower's Heart Attack, Clarence G. Lasby explains that it was not until a medical examination was conducted that Eisenhower finally learned what was causing all of his stomach cramps and gastrointestinal problems dating back to the 1920's. As Lasby notes:

The president had chronic ileitis, an inflammation of the lowest potion the small intestine, also known as Crohn's disease after Dr. Burrill B. Crohn, who first described it in 1932. It was a little-known disease, considered mild rather than severe, and it primarily affected the young. It usually had a slow onset, but once established its symptoms tended to recur over months or years nearly always ending in surgery.

Lasby goes on to further explain why the President's medical team, even after learning that Eisenhower was inflicted with this little-known disease, decided against taken any surgical measure to alleviate this problem, stating:

Since the president was free of any active symptoms, the diagnosis did not pose any immediate medical problem. The doctors found no indication of a need for surgery and were content to rely on continued observation and possible dietary changes.

Noteworthy is the fact that, despite his Crohn's disease, heart problems, and heavy smoking Eisenhower enjoyed a long life, living to be almost eighty years old.

On March 21, 1949, Eisenhower had another one of his health episodes and fell ill. According to an entry in Eisenhower's diary dated June 4, 1949, it was during this latest medical ordeal that then-president, Harry S. Truman, invited the General to stay at the "Truman Little White House" at the Naval Station in Key West, Florida. This would be Eisenhower's first visit to the presidential retreat in the Florida Keys. President Truman reasoned that Eisenhower needed rest and recuperation. In his diary entry, Eisenhower recorded:

While in Washington, I had a severe digestive upset this spring, which finally put me to bed on March 21. By the end of a week I was fit to travel and President Truman invited me to use his residential facilities at Key West. I went down there with General Snyder and remained until April 12. On that date he took me to Augusta National Golf Club where I remained until May 12.

This gesture of friendship by President Truman for Eisenhower to use the presidential retreat in Key West was genuine and demonstrates that the Truman-Eisenhower relationship as still on good terms during this time. The positive nature of their relationship is also reflected in an April 9, 1949 letter written by Truman to Eisenhower in response to Eisenhower thanking him for the use of the Little White House in which he writes:

Dear Ike:
I can't tell you how much I appreciate your note of April sixth and I am just as happy as I can be that you are progressing to full physical recovery. I hope you will stay as long as it is necessary to accomplish that purpose.
I am also happy that my prescription is having the desired affect.
Take good care of yourself and stay as long as you want to.
Sincerely yours,
Harry Truman

The cause of Eisenhower's sudden illness on March 21, 1949 that precipitated his visit to the presidential retreat in Key West remains unresolved and has been the subject of much continual debate. Some have suggested that Eisenhower suffered a mild heart attack, while others believe that his illness was another example of his long struggle with gastrointestinal problems or Crohn's disease. Much of this debate has arisen over the difference of opinion between two of Eisenhower's doctors, Colonel Mattingly and General Howard Snyder.

On the one side there was Dr. Mattingly, Eisenhower's Army cardiologist who had served the President as a consultant during the early 1950s and during Ike's 1955 heart attack. Mattingly believed the cause of Eisenhower's sudden illness in 1949 to be a mild heart-attack. Although he was not present during Eisenhower's sudden illness in 1949, Dr. Mattingly concluded that the President did in fact experience a mild heart attack but that the attending doctor, Dr. Snyder, offered a "deceptive diagnosis" as part of a cover up. In the book Eisenhower's Heart Attack, the author supports that Dr. Mattingly's belief in a possible cover up concerning Ike's 1949 illness, writing:

...both Eisenhower and Snyder were purposefully withholding the occurrence of this illness from the public and from the consulting cardiologists. Snyder, he charged, "definitely belonged to the old school of physicians" like Vice Admiral Ross McIntyre (who for twelve years had hidden the ailments of Franklin Roosevelt) and was more interested in protecting the "political life" of Eisenhower than he was providing the truth to the public. Mattingly liked and respected Eisenhower, but he believed he had "sanctioned and collaborated in the deception. "As an ambitious army officer," the cardiologist deduced, "he, like many others with aspirations of becoming high-ranking officers and leaders, made special effort to keep his records free of any disease or physical abnormalities which might interfere with subsequent promotions and assignments."

Dr. Mattingly's analysis of the exact nature and cause of Eisenhower's illness in 1949 stands in stark contrast to Dr. Snyder's diagnosis at the actual time he was treating Eisenhower for this illness.

On the other side of this debate is Dr. Snyder who believed that the culprit was Eisenhower's long history of gastrointestinal problems. General Snyder had been Ike's personal and presidential physician after WWII and was therefore present during the 1949 health crisis. Snyder describes the conditions associated with Eisenhower's gastrointestinal problems and makes mention of the 1949 health incident in a memorandum in which he states:

General Eisenhower is subject to recurrent attacks of abdominal distension with colic, at times mild, occasionally severe. The exact cause has not been determined. There is a history of dysentery covering a period of years; no bacillary or amoebic cause was ever demonstrated. Diligent search has been renewed for any bacterial or parasitic cause upon several occasions during the past few years with negative results.

General Eisenhower's GI tract reacts to any nervous upset with an immediate explosive evacuation of the intestines, or a more serious combination of manifestations. The General, due to a very painful and prostrating attack of colic and abdominal distention in March, 1949, and several moderately painful attacks at other times, now becomes alarmed and apprehensive at first indication of abdominal distention and cramps. These attacks usually develop after a period of nervously exhausting work, and have been precipitated by eating a highly spice...meal.

Although Dr. Mattingly and Dr. Snyder both seem to make a compelling argument as to the true nature of Eisenhower's 1949 illness, one must take seriously Dr. Snyder's diagnosis for the mere fact that Dr. Snyder was not only there for the 1949 episode but, also for the previous gastrointestinal episodes that Eisenhower had experienced. Therefore, Snyder was quite familiar with Eisenhower's symptoms and health. Also, it was not until some time after this episode that Eisenhower and Dr. Snyder finally found that it was the little-known Crohn's disease that had been causing Ike's gastrointestinal problems for so many years. Either way, it was Eisenhower's heart problems that led him to his stay in Key West a second time in 1955.

On September 25, 1955 while in Denver, President Eisenhower suffered a mild heart attack. At 2:45a.m., the President complained that he had a pain in his chest and, after listening to the President's heart at 3:11 a.m., Dr. Snyder determined that Eisenhower had experienced an injury to his heart. Evidence for this event and diagnosis exists in a memorandum made at Eisenhower's bedside on September 24, 1955. On the morning of September 25, 1955, the President was removed from the Doud residence to Fitzsimons Hospital, staying there for almost seven weeks until November 11. At that time, he flew back to Washington to spend a long weekend and then proceeded to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to continue his recovery. After President Eisenhower began to feel better he headed to Key West.


Eisenhower was routinely criticized by his opponents and critics as being a passive, disengaged president, one who often delegated his responsibilities to others, leaving the task of running government to his subordinates. This criticism is best reflected by Tom Wicker who, in his biography Dwight D. Eisenhower, states; "In the fifties, liberals and many Democrats derided him as a "caretaker" president rather than a strong executive in the White House..." Charges such as these have often been leveled at other presidents, including Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. But, are such charges a fair and accurate portrayal of President Eisenhower?

After taking a closer look at Eisenhower's stay at the Key West presidential retreat, such criticisms of Eisenhower appear baseless and designed for the sole purpose of besmirching the president's reputation. Eisenhower spent twelve days during his presidency in Key West, Florida, from December 28, 1955 to January 8, 1956. Documentary evidence of the visit and the President's activities at the retreat remain at both the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Harry S. Truman Little White House. Regarding Eisenhower's Key West retreat, his health, and presidential legacy, three questions are considered:

  • Who accompanied or met the President in Key West?
  • Was this a working vacation or a vacation of rest and relaxation?
  • Were Eisenhower's recreational activities for self pleasure and enjoyment or were they part of a necessary medically prescribed regiment?

The Harry S. Truman Little White House

At the time President Harry S. Truman started using Key West as his presidential retreat, few had ever heard of the relatively obscure small island in the Straits of Florida. Yet, ever since Navy Lieutenant Matthew C. Perry sailed into Key West harbor on March 25, 1822 and raised the American flag, the island has had a naval history and American military presence that has included a U.S. garrison for Caribbean and coastal defense, the Civil War-era Fort Zachary Taylor on the island, and Fort Jefferson 70 miles away on rocky atoll called the Dry Tortugas.

The Key West Naval Air Station was bustling with activity during the Second World War. One year after assuming the presidency and the end of the war President Truman first visited the site. In 1946, Truman's personal physician, Brigadier General Wallace Graham, M.D. recommended the president take some needed rest and relaxation in a warm climate. Speculation swirled that Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz motivated the selection of Key West for the President's retreat in order to showcase the U.S. Navy for the visiting president and thus prevent deep post-war budget cuts. Truman arrived on the island on November 17, 1946 for the first of eleven official visits that would total 175 days of his presidency.

The site of Truman's - and later Eisenhower's - retreat was the modest home of the naval base commandant, known as "Quarters A." Improvements were added and the home was eventually transformed into the Little White House. Years after Eisenhower's visit, and with the importance of the Naval Air Station in Key West diminished, the base was de-established and the surrounding area was designated the "Harry S. Truman Annex" in honor of the president that so loved the island. The site Truman and Eisenhower used as their presidential retreat also hosted Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, as well as world leaders like British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and King Hussein I of Jordan. On April 2, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell even organized a peace summit at the Little White House for Azerbaijan and Armenia, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. So the site's ties to the American presidency are many and continue to the present time.

Who Accompanied to or Met with the President in Key West?

To help us reach any conclusions about Eisenhower's legacy from his stay at the Truman Little White House, it is important to begin by taking a closer look at the company Ike kept during his stay. Eisenhower not only had aides accompany him to Key West, but also invited individuals of note to meet with him. He paid courtesy calls on local dignitaries and his list of visitors and activities included the mundane - a visit by Pedro Esguerra, a barber who gave the president a haircut - as well as the official event. Two of the President's naval aides at the Naval Station - Edward L. Beach and Evan P. Aurand - kept detailed log of Eisenhower's every move, chronicling the numerous daily activities at and visitors to the Truman Little White House.

From the Beach and Aurand Records, a distinct pattern can be seen on the company Eisenhower kept and can be divided into four distinct categories. These four distinct categories include: (1) the President's medical team; (2) his personal staff and Cabinet members; (3) other officials and dignitaries; and (4) close friends of the President. Table 1 provides a detail look at the following people for each distinct category who either accompanied Eisenhower during his stay in Key West or met with him there:

Table 1: Eisenhower's Guests in Key West (1955-1956)

Secretary James Hagerty President's Press Secretary
Dr. Milton Eisenhower President's Brother & Unofficial Advisor and Confidante
Dr. Howard Snyder President's Personal and Presidential Physician
Dr. Kevin McCann Special Assistant to the President
First Lady Wife-Mamie Eisenhower
Mrs. Doud Mother of Mamie Eisenhower (Ike's mother-in-law)
Admiral and Mrs. Harry Henderson
Dr. Walter Tkach Dr. Howard Snyder's Assistant Physician
Mr. Rowland Hughe Budget Director
Colonel Goodpaster Staff Secretary
Mrs. Whitman President's Confidential Secretary
Mr. Benson Secretary Of Agriculture
Mr. Morse Undersecretary of Agriculture
Gabriel Hauge
Mr. Fred Seaton Administrative Assistant (Part of Congressional-Administration Team)
General Al Gruenther NATO Commander
Captain and Mrs. Fritz Gleim Commanding Officer, Key West Naval Base
Mr. Gerald Morgan Special Counsel - Liaison Staff & Access to Eisenhower
Mr. Bill Robinson President's Personal Friend
Mr. Ellis Slater President's Personal Friend
Mr. George Allen President's Personal Friend
Mr. James Dunn U.S. Ambassador to Brazil
President Kubitschek & Party President of Brazil
Dr. Thomas Otto An old friend of Dr. Snyder

From the list of guests in Table 1, it is evident that the President's medical condition was still serious enough that prominent members of his medical team accompanied him to Key West. Also we can see from the list of guests that President Eisenhower invited and entertained both personal friends and public officials, including a head of state. With prominent members of his Cabinet and key aides in attendance, it is clear that the presidential retreat was a working White House. The presence of budget director Rowland Hughe and Secretary of Agricultural, Ezra Taft Benson, suggest that Eisenhower meant to conduct serious work while in Key West and indicate the President's health was not so bad as to preclude work. The evidence suggests that there was more to Eisenhower's trip than mere rest and relaxation, and that Eisenhower was far more engaged in official duty than might otherwise be suspected of a president criticized for being disinterested, or for a president recovering from a major health ordeal, or for a president - or anyone - seeking some R&R on a tropical island.

Was this a Working Vacation or Rest and Relaxation?

Eisenhower's daily activities while at the Truman Little White House indicate that the trip was more than just warm-weather recuperation from a heart attack. Table 2 gives a detailed account of the presidential day and activities in Key West, reflecting an array of work-related activities that would be consistent with a light day of work at the Oval Office in Washington, DC.

Table 2: Eisenhower's Official Activities in Key West (1955-1956)

12-28-55 Arrived at Key West; No official indication of work-related activity recorded
12-29-55 3:50pm. 4:14 p.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building
12-30-55 9:25a.m. 12:55p.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building- Worked on State of the Union Message
12-30-55 4:27p.m. 4:40p.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building
12-31-55 No official indication of work-related activity recorded
1-1-56 10:44a.m. 11:39a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building- Worked on government business & State of the Union Message
1-2-56 8:53a.m. 10:55a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building
1-3-56 8:33a.m. 10:28a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building- Worked on Budget with Budget Director & State of the Union Message
1-4-56 9:10a.m. 1:59p.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building
1-5-56 8:09a.m. 8:44a.m. Met with & had Breakfast with President Kubitschek of Brazil
1-5-56 9:14a.m. 10:00a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building- Worked on State of the Union Message
1-6-56 8:34a.m. 10:49a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building- Worked & met with Secretary and Undersecretary of Agriculture
1-7-56 9:40a.m. 10:10a.m. Arrived at his office in the Administration Building
1-8-56 8:53a.m. 9:07a.m. Held an informal press conference
1-8-56 11:08a.m. Departed Key West for return trip to Washington, D.C.

The information contained in Table 2 shows that President Eisenhower was far more active than might be expected of a passive "caretaker" president or a leader recovering from a major heart attack, as some of his critics suggested. From Table 2, it is apparent that on at least nine days Eisenhower was actively conducting the nation's business. Not counting the two days Eisenhower traveled to and from the Truman Little White House retreat, the president worked nine of ten days while in Key West. The only day for which there is no recorded activity of official work conducted by President Eisenhower was on December 31, 1956, a holiday observed by most people throughout the country.

It must be noted that the activity logbooks for Eisenhower recorded by naval aides Beach and Aurand does not provide a comprehensive account of the President's day and work-related activities in Key West. For instance, the records on Eisenhower's daily activities were completed by two different people and each used a different method and style for writing an account of the President's activities. Notes on Eisenhower chipping golf balls, walking to a nearby baseball diamond where he chipped golf balls, and other activities was recorded using two different styles, thus suggesting the presence of two men - Beach and Aurand - recording the logbooks. For example, on the daily activity logs dated December 28 and 30 there are two separate entries for chipping golf balls; one for Eisenhower's arrival and one for his departure. Whereas, on the logs dated January 4 and 6 there is only one entry recorded for both the time Eisenhower arrived to chip golf balls and the time he departed.

Sadly, there are no recorded accounts of any presidential phone calls being made or received, depriving history of an important source for understanding the nature of Eisenhower's presidential retreat.

However, the fact that Eisenhower scheduled a daily work load while at a retreat on America's Caribbean island and immediately after a major health ordeal, suggests something about his commitment to the office, his capacity for work, and the state of his health.

Were Eisenhower's Recreational Activities for Pleasure or Part of a Medically-Prescribed Regimen?

As was previously mentioned, Eisenhower was frequently criticized by for being a "caretaker" president who spent much of his time playing golf. There is no mistake that Eisenhower thoroughly enjoyed golf - golfing as often as possible while in the White House - as well as other recreational activities for pleasure. However, closer examination of Eisenhower's medical records suggest that the President's golf outings and other recreational activities were for both enjoyment and as part of a necessary medically-prescribed regimen.

Thanks to the President's naval aides, Beach and Aurand, there is a detailed account of his recreational activities in Key West. Table 3 provides the name of the activity taken place and a brief description of it, the date the activity took place, and the duration of the activity from the time the activity began to when the activity ended.

Table 3: Eisenhower's Recreational Activities in Key West (1955-1956)

12-28-55 3:08p.m. 3:49p.m. Chipped golf balls President walked across street to baseball diamond
12-28-55 3:49pm. 4:45p.m. Walk Walked around naval base stopping to greet member of submarine #408
12-28-55 8:35p.m. 10:15p.m. Movie Watched "The Kid From Left Field"
12-29-55 2:35p.m. 3:05p.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
12-29-55 3:05p.m. 4:00p.m. Walk Around Naval Base-then back to office
12-29-55 8:10p.m. 10:14p.m. Movie Watched "Wichita"
12-30-55 2:50p.m. 4:16p.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
12-30-55 4:16p.m. 4:37p.m. Walk Around Naval Base-then back to Office
12-30-55 7:46p.m. 9:45p.m. Movie Watched "Angles in the Outfield"
12-31-55 11:27a.m. 12:25p.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
12-31-55 5:45p.m. 6:08p.m. Walked South and east to the main gate and reversed back
12-31-55 8:00p.m. 9:55p.m. Movie Watched "Tall Man Riding"
1-1-56 3:32p.m. 3:46p.m. Walked From main gate to Quarters "L"
1-1-56 8:20p.m. 10:00p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "The Glass Slipper"
1-2-56 11:02a.m. 12:10p.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
1-2-56 8:10p.m. 10:01p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "Kiss Me Kate"
1-3-56 11:20a.m. 11:55a.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
1-3-56 2:38p.m. 3:22p.m. Walked Walked around base then back to Quarters "L"
1-3-56 7:45p.m. 8:50p.m. Movie Watched "The Marksman"
1-4-56 1:59p.m. 2:29p.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
1-4-56 8:05p.m. 11:00p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "Road to Denver" & "Bring Your Smile Along"
1-5-56 8:05p.m. 10:25p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "The Seven Little Foys"
1-6-56 10:55a.m. 11:32a.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
1-6-56 1:06p.m. 1:46p.m. Softball game Watched game between Secret Service & White House Press
(Winner Secret Service 12 to 4)
1-6-56 7:45p.m. 11:25p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "Terror on the Train" & "The Marauders"
1-7-56 10:10a.m. 10:19a.m. Chipped golf balls Walked across street to baseball diamond
1-7-56 3:30p.m. 7:05p.m. Played Bridge Bridge Game with guests
1-7-56 8:18p.m. 10:40p.m. Played Bridge/Movie Watched "Strange Lady in Town"
1-8-56 11:08a.m. Depart Key West for Washington, D.C.

As seen in Table 3, Eisenhower's recreation includes four activities: (1) chipping golf balls; (2) walking; (3) playing bridge; and (4) watching movies. The logbooks show that the most frequent recreational activity for President Eisenhower in Key West was chipping golf balls. Not counting January 8, 1956 - the last day of his trip - before he departed at 11:08 a.m. from Key West to Washington, D.C., the President walked across the street to the baseball diamond to chip golf balls every day except for two. At least on one of the days he skipped chipping golf balls - January 1, 1956 - he did so because the First Lady and Mrs. Doud were visiting and instead joined them on a sight-seeing ride to Ramrod Key. After golf, the President's second most common recreational activity was walking. Out of twelve days, Eisenhower spent five days walking around the base or to various locations. For example, the log dated January 1, 1956 records Eisenhower walking from the main gate of the Naval Station to the main housing quarters (identified in the Eisenhower daily activity logs simply as Quarters "L"). The President did not walk uninterrupted or for long times or distances, but rather, stopped to talk, rest, or visit with someone. For example, his log on January 3, 1956 states:

The President, Dr. Milton Eisenhower, Dr. Howard Snyder and Commander Beach departed the quarters and walked around the base - South and Southwest PX area, continuing past the submarine piers, North along the Coast Guard Station docks inspecting various types of buoys in the process of being cleaned and repaired: then South along the pier to the main road, continuing to Quarters "L", arriving at 3:22p.m. .

Lastly, Table 3 shows us that Eisenhower spend a great deal of leisurely time playing bridge and watching movies. Yet, the two main forms of recreation for the President both involved physical activity and were prescribed by his doctors.


What were the health benefits of the President's visit to Key West? The President's medical reports for 1955 and Dr. Howard Snyder's medical diary for Eisenhower provide insights into the necessity and benefits of the Key West trip. Evidence suggests that Eisenhower not only enjoyed golf and other recreational activities in Key West, but that these activities were a part of a prescribed medical regimen. For instance, in correspondence between Dr. Paul Dudley White and Dr. Howard Snyder in 1955, Dr. White, after a visit to see Eisenhower at his Gettysburg farm, writes to Dr. Snyder concerning the President's current state of health. In the letter he also offers advice and recommendations to improve Eisenhower's health:

After you folks went to Washington yesterday I went back to the farm and had luncheon with the President and after a short rest we walked quite a long distance around the farm, not rapidly, but over much rough ground through the corn fields and up and down several gentle slopes. We went at a pace that was just suited to the ground but we didn't stop to rest. I think it took us a little more than half an hour and there was quite a cold wind...He was not short of breath in the least nor did he complain of any discomfort, leg weariness, or fatigue...It had occurred to me that I may have untended more of a stroll with him than I had intended although it was an excellent functional test. I would suggest that this kind of a walk or perhaps half as long might be repeated soon and a test made at the end of it of his pulse rate, blood pressure, and heart sounds. I thought that perhaps his heart rate was more of an indication of the effect of exercise than symptoms might be in his case. Although this may be of no real significance, I would feel a little more content if occasionally some simple tests could be made when he is exercising a little more vigorously as I thought we might have been in the cold yesterday with him. Actually what we did was equivalent to at least several holes of golf without swinging the golf clubs or compensating for such additional activity by pausing now and then for a stroke...When he goes south it would be a good idea when he walks over the golf links to repeat such testing...Another thing that came to my mind last night after leaving him was the value of a five or ten minute pause at intervals of not over one hour during any conference that he has with either Cabinet, Security Council, or any other body or person...[and] Similarly, his periods of exercise I think might be interrupted by a ten minute rest if he carries on for over half an hour at a time. Probably an hour of exercise with a break in the middle should suffice (paul duly letter).

The next important piece of medical information comes from Dr. Snyder's "Progress Report" dated Wednesday, December 28, 1955. In this report, Snyder gives a detailed account of his daily check up and progress of the President's health status. The following information in Table 4 displays the Physician's progress report for Eisenhower for December 28, 1955:

Table 4: General Snyder's Progress Report (December 28, 1955)

07:15 General Heaton, Colonel Mattingly, and technicians came to my office. We all went up to the President's bedroom.
07:45 BP: 120/80/68 with 3 skipped beats in 30 seconds These findings were confirmed by cardiogram (see reports).
08:45 The President departed the White House by motorcade for MATS Terminal for flight to Key West, Florida. Had to wait for Dr. Milton Eisenhower.
09:15 Airborne for Key West aboard the Columbine. The President's pulse was skipping. I gave him Phenobarbital, ½ grain. The President talked with Milton most of the morning and then dozed for forty minutes before arrival.
12:50 Arrived at Key West, Florida, at the Boca Chica Airfield. He was greeted by a group of VIP's. Departed immediately by motorcade for the Naval Air Station. Stood up in an open-topped car during the considerable journey from the airport to the Naval Air Station.
13:20 Arrived at Quarters "L", U.S. Naval Base, Key West, Florida.
13:25 BP: 112/76/72 with 1 skip per ½ minute.
14:25 The President, accompanied by Milton and me, departed the quarters and walked to the baseball diamond. Returned to the quarters at 1435 hours.
14:40 Before exercise- -pulse: 76. Exercised pitching golf balls for half an hour and then walked around the base
17:00 Immediately after walk-pulse: 88. There was 1 skip in 150 beats.
22:15 After two highballs before dinner, then dinner, and a movie-BP: 120/80/86 no skip in pulse.

The information in Table 4 provides additional support for the argument that Eisenhower's recreational activity while in Key West was actually prescribed by his medical team. These reports - which repeat the need for exercise - coupled with Dr. White's letter in 1956, clearly show that Eisenhower was encouraged by his physician to do specific activities that would enable him to monitor and improve his current physical ailments. Dr. White often recommended that Eisenhower walk for exercise during his stay in Key West. Whether it was a walk around the naval base or his walks to chip golf balls, President Eisenhower participated in some form of walking exercises almost every day. The only exception was on January 5 and 8, and the morning the President returned to Washington.

Dr. White's letter and Dr. Snyder's progress report provide some counter argument to the criticism that Eisenhower was a passive president who was more interested in playing golf and left the task of governing to his aides. Although Dr. White's letter does not explicitly call for Eisenhower to play golf as part an exercise program, he nonetheless implies as much and is aware of the importance of chipping golf balls for Eisenhower's health and enjoyment. For instance, he writes:

...Actually what we did was equivalent to at least several holes of golf without swinging the golf clubs or compensating for such additional activity by pausing now and then for a stroke...When he goes south it would be a good idea when he walks over the golf links to repeat such testing..."

However, it is Dr. Snyder's progress report that definitively shows that Eisenhower's golf activity in Key West was more than recreation. In his report of December 28, 1955, under an entry at 14:40 hours, Dr. Snyder writes, "Exercised pitching golf balls for half an hour and then walked around the base." The President's personal physician since World War II, Snyder knew Eisenhower's medical history and health condition better than anyone else, and as such knew the proper medical advice and regimen to ensure Ike's health. It is possible Snyder encouraged golf because he knew the President loved the game and would comply, but we cannot be sure. Snyder also seems aware of the necessity of scheduling "down time" in Eisenhower's schedule, indicating the extent of the President's health problems but also the fact that Eisenhower was both working and perhaps not prone to taking adequate times for rest and relaxation. Eisenhower acknowledges these concerns in his dairy entry for February 7, 1950, in which he states:

General Snyder and I have decided that it is not possible for me to remain in New York and at the same time resist sufficiently the demands upon my time so that I can maintain a schedule indefinitely. Moreover we have found that whenever I return from a vacation it is only a matter of a very few weeks until I am showing again the effects of strain, long hours, and tension...So, now we are trying something different: we are reserving one full week out of each two months, to be completely blacked out of my calendar. Preferably, I am to leave the city during the "no work" week, but if not then I am to lock the front door of my house.

Key West's warm weather and relaxing lifestyle helped the President, perhaps as did his frequent golf outings and card games. Eisenhower enjoyed and had a talent for both, and both appeared to help preserve his fragile health and enhance his happiness. One of Eisenhower's friends, General Goodpaster, commented:

He's a great poker player, and extremely good bridge player. He plays bridge very much in poker style and he's a tremendous man for analyzing the other fellow's mind, what options are open to the other fellow, and what line he can best take to capitalize or exploit the possibilities, having figured the options open to the other man. Under Fox Conner...he became keenly interested in the command process, not just the mechanics of it so much as the analysis of what was in the commander's mind - what was in Lee's mind, for example at Gettysburg.


What is it about Eisenhower's little-known trip to the tropics that could possibly shed new light on his legacy? All presidents vacationed and had a preferred destination for getting away from the momentous pressures of the highest office. FDR needed the therapeutic waters of Warm Springs, Georgia, John F. Kennedy enjoyed the outdoor activities of the Massachusetts coast, Reagan relaxed at his "Western White House" in California by chopping wood and riding horses, and George H.W. Bush boated and golfed in Kennebunkport, Maine. But not all of them made their vacations working ones or utilized their retreats as working White Houses. Moreover, even among those in the modern era who have been forced to conduct working vacations, not all of them worked every day and did so fresh off a major health ordeal.

In order to understand why Eisenhower's trip to Key West was so important, it is necessary to keep in mind the circumstances surrounding the trip. Simply put, the trip was the result of Eisenhower's heart attack, while the trip was portrayed by aides as part of Eisenhower's convalesce treatment (to rest and recuperate) and by his critics as examples of his declining health and minimal work habits. However, although Eisenhower's stay at the Truman Little White House in Key West did help the President to rest and recuperate, the trip also displays the same trait which can be seen throughout his life - a commitment to duty and his country.

Eisenhower's sense of duty to his country always took precedence over all other things, including his own health. Time and time again this has always been the case with Eisenhower. As the historian Stephen Ambrose notes in his biography Eisenhower: Soldier; General of the Army; President Elect 1890-1952, Ike was struck with a bad bout of the flu in early January 1943, yet refused to let it impact his official responsibilities. Ambrose writes:

He had contracted the flu on his Christmas Day drive from Tunisia to Algiers, and could not shake it, even after spending the second week of January in bed, where he conducted his business more or less as usual. Otherwise, he was in his office fourteen hours a day. He got no exercise and took no relaxation. His social life was so nil that he went for weeks without taking a drink, not because he had any thought that a man in his position ought not to touch alcohol, but simply because he was too busy to take the time for a pre-dinner cocktail, ate too fast to have any wine with dinner, and worked too late in the evening for a nightcap.

Another example of this dedication to service and country can be seen in August 10, 1943. Stephen Ambrose states:

On August 10, Eisenhower submitted to a physical exam (a routine requirement before he could be promoted to full colonel). The doctors thought he was hypertensive and found his blood pressure to high. They ordered a week's rest, in bed. Five days later, Eisenhower actually did take two days off, staying in his bedroom, but not in his bed. Butcher found him pacing the room nervously, worrying about his responsibilities, but nevertheless in a reflective mood.

The same concerns and actions are found in Eisenhower's own words in his diary, where he comments: "Reservation of a day or half-day each week (aside from Sundays) fails because of my giving way to some insistent demand for a conference, meeting, luncheon, or similar chore." Furthermore, Dr. Snyder was aware of this trait of his boss, and often expressed concern about Eisenhower's work at the expense of his own health. In a letter written to Kevin McCann, Snyder says:

I subscribe to the estimate you make regarding the President's convalescence, with one very serious exception - that is, the President has not complied with an advised convalescent program because his conscience relative to executive responsibilities has not permitted him to do so. He has not followed the program that I know would be a better one for his health's sake and one which should bring about an earlier and surer good result.

Finally, it is a correspondence between Dr. Mattingly and Dr. White in 1955, in which Mattingly provides great insight to Eisenhower's decision-making process that captures the true nature of the man and best exemplifies Eisenhower's deep sense of duty. Mattingly writes:

I am glad that you have learned first hand from the President that he does not desire his physicians to make decisions about his future. He will make his own decisions. He has much experience in the past making decisions on important and vital problems in both war and peace. What he likes from his staff and advisors, medical or otherwise, is accurate and usable information, regardless of whether it is optimistic or pessimistic. What he wants is facts, and not your philosophy or wishful thinking. He has long learned and taught that you cannot win battles that way. Either you have the ammunition or you do not. His question from us is likely to be - "Have I or have I not a good heart?" - and he would like a yes or no. We know it is not normal and he knows it also. He likewise knows what has happened to many of his officers and staff in the past. He knows, for instance, how soon General Carroll died, (nine months after first attack)...I am sure that the President will take in consideration an estimate of his heart in making the decision about his future, but I am sure that he will not give that as the sole reason for not running should he desire to make such a decision. It would be like a General stating that he did not go into battle because the weather was bad.

Eisenhower's sense of duty and honor to his country at the expense of his own health is displayed during his stay in Key West. Instead of using the visit for quiet rest and recuperation from his heart attack, as might reasonably be expected of anyone including a president, Eisenhower chose to both relax and work. In Key West, he devoted time to his 1956 State of the Union Address, the budget, meeting foreign dignitaries, and other official business. In late 1955 and early 1956, Eisenhower's health was a problem and a topic of concern for his aides and medical team, but the President appears to have been active and happy while in Key West, and able to conduct official business every day while at the retreat, showing a more robust president at the time than had been previously been suggested. Eisenhower's decision to accept his doctor's recommendation for rest was wise and yet his activities in Key West reflect his commitment to duty and country.

Throughout our history there have always been great leaders, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts. History is looking increasingly favorably to the thirty-fourth President, despite the continuation of criticisms about a light workload and affinity for golf while president. Eisenhower should be judged on the totality of his life actions and the person himself, the man who continued to work during a little-known trip to Key West after a serious health crisis in the midst of his presidency.

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