When Presidents 'Recreate,' the World Falls Apart

On Thursday, Barack Obama took a break from vacationing in Martha's Vineyard to address the ongoing crisis in Egypt, condemning the military's use of violence against pro-Morsy protesters and announcing the cancelation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises. It's a predicament presidents find themselves in more than you might think; as Bloomberg noted earlier this week -- before Egypt's bloody clashes erupted -- the world has a habit of going to pieces while presidents are getting their R&R, with the George W. Bush/Hurricane Katrina debacle being but one particularly memorable example. Here are some of the biggest international crises to hit the fan while U.S. presidents were out of the office.

FDR and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Few treaties in history rival the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact. Signed on Aug. 23, 1939 by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the agreement provided a roadmap for the carving up of Eastern Europe between the USSR and Nazi Germany, and gave Germany the green light to invade Poland, which it did eight days later.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on a presidential cruise onboard the USS Tuscaloosa, traveling from Canada to New Jersey on his way back to Washington. FDR was wrapping up a month-long vacation that had begun at his famous Hyde Park estate in New York and ended with a cruise to Nova Scotia. Although his presence on the ship didn't really make a difference in the end -- he was back in Washington by 1:30 in the afternoon the next day, and was able to send a telegram to Adolf Hitler urging peace in the meantime -- nothing ruins your day like finding out that two totalitarian superpowers are teaming up to start the deadliest war in human history. When Germany invaded Poland just over a week later, FDR announced that America would remain neutral in the conflict. 

Ronald Reagan and Flight KAL 007

Obama might have been less-than-thrilled to spend his precious time off giving a press conference on Egypt, but the situation pales in comparison to one of the tensest diplomatic crises of the entire Cold War -- the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by Soviet fighters -- while both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Gen. Yuri Andropov were away on vacation.

The incident occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a Soviet fighter jet shot down a KAL passenger flight after it had unknowingly entered Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers, including 61 Americans and one U.S. congressman (Larry McDonald, president of the John Birch Society and fan of Rudolf Hess) were killed in the subsequent crash, provoking a series of bitter recriminations between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the time, Reagan was at his famed Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, Calif. and was reportedly irate when asked to cut his vacation short because of the crisis. The White House spokesman at the time, Larry Speakes, argued that there was nothing that the president could do in Washington that he couldn't do in California - which was probably true. This attitude was quickly abandoned, however, as the severity of the crisis (and the bad PR) came into sharper focus.

George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War

George W. Bush was often mocked for his serial vacationing. During his eight years in office, Dubya set a record for most vacation days in a single presidency, amassing 879 over the course of two terms. But the younger Bush wasn't the only member of his family with a penchant for taking a few days off during turbulent times - and getting hounded by the media for it. His father, George H.W. Bush, was a pioneer of the genre back in the early 1990s.

During the buildup to the first Persian Gulf War in August 1990, just a few weeks after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and as American troops prepared for the possibility of war, George Sr. faced heavy media criticism for playing golf in Maine as the Middle East seemingly fell apart. While the president was keeping abreast of developments in the region with briefs from his top advisors (something that holds true for every vacationing president), jarring images in the press of a golfing president and rolling tanks served up easy fodder for criticism. On the bright side, the elder Bush delivered a gem when asked about the impending war, explaining to a reporter that "when I'm recreating, [I] will recreate" -- a line that will certainly come in handy next time you're asked to come into the office on a weekend. Despite the sniping, Americans supported the man's right to his vacation. A Wall Street Journal poll taken at the time found that 53 percent of the public supported their executive's decision to fight for the right to recreate. 

Unfortunately for H.W,, the Gulf War wasn't the only world historical event to occur during the lazy month of August. The following year, in August 1991, Bush was at his vacation home in Maine when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev survived an attempted coup, presaging the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's enough to make a man never want to go on vacation again.

Barack Obama and Liu Xiaobo

Usually when an international crisis erupts during a presidential vacation, it's a product of circumstance -- something terrible might happen when the commander-in-chief's on holiday, but it doesn't happen because he's on holiday. Not so with China's conviction of dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion on Christmas Day 2009. Liu, a former university professor and leading regime critic, had received a considerable amount of attention in the West following his involvement with Charter 08, a manifesto criticizing the authoritarian practices of the Chinese Communist Party and calling for free elections and respect for human rights. Because of his international stature, the Party reportedly chose to announce the draconian sentence on Christmas Day, while most of the Western world would not be paying attention.

The strategy was partially successful. Liu's sentencing provoked relatively little outrage at the time and no immediate response from the U.S. government, but a few months later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price. Finally, in December 2010 -- nearly a year after his original sentencing, -- Obama was sufficiently moved to draw attention to Liu in a speech, demanding his release and claiming "he was far more deserving of [the] award than I was."


National Security

Declassified: The CIA's Secret History of Area 51

Area 51 is a touchstone of America's cultural mythology. It rose to notoriety in 1989, when a Las Vegas man claimed he had worked at the secret facility to discover the secrets of crashed alien hardware, spawning two decades of conspiracy theories and speculation about little green men. But the facility's history -- and the history of the strange, secret aircraft that were developed there -- extends back to 1955. Since its inception, the government has obliquely acknowledged its existence only a handful of times, and even the CIA's 1996 declassified history of the OXCART program -- the development of the SR-71 Blackbird at the secret site -- refers only to tests conducted in "the Nevada desert." The government has never publicly discussed the specific facility ... until now.

On Thursday, the National Security Archive reported that it had gotten its hands on a newly declassified CIA history of the development of the U-2 spy plane. The report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contains the CIA's secret record of how Area 51 came to be.

In 1955, CIA Special Assistant for Planning and Coordination Richard Bissell, Col. Osmund Ritland, an Air Force officer working on the U-2 project, and Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson began looking for a location in California or Nevada to test the U-2 prototype. The location had to be remote -- far from the view of the public (or potential Soviet spies). On April 12, 1955, they were scouting locations from the air with the help of Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier. While flying over the Groom Lake salt flat, they noticed an airstrip that had been abandoned after being used by the Army Air Corps during World War II. The CIA history describes their first encounter with the site:

After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plan down on the lakebed, and all four walked over to examine the strip.... From the air the strip appeared to be paved, but on closer inspection it turned out to have originally been fashioned from compacted earth that had turned into ankle-deep dust after more than a decade of disuse. If LeVier had attempted to land on the airstrip, the plane would probably have nosed over when the wheels sank into the loose soil, killing or injuring all of the key figures in the U-2 project.

The salt flat and old airstrip were added to the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Test Site, which the land abutted. On the AEC maps, like the one above, the area was designated "Area 51." For the U-2 developers, it went by a different name. Johnson, the plane's lead designer, called the facility Paradise Ranch, and it came to be informally know as "the Ranch" -- or "Watertown Strip," after bouts of flooding. The site became operational three months later, in July 1955, and testing of the spy plane was underway by the end of the month.

The UFO sightings began almost immediately. The U-2's operating altitude of 60,000 feet was higher than any other aircraft at the time -- higher than some people even thought possible. "[I]f a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner [during twilight hours] ... its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the sun and appear to the airliner pilot, 40,000 feet below, to be fiery objects," the CIA history notes. These sightings were reported to air-traffic controllers and the Air Force, and were compiled in the Air Force's Operation BLUE BOOK, another subject of decades of alien conspiracy theories. "U-2 and later OXCART [the SR-71 development program] flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s," according to the CIA.

The Ranch was evacuated in June 1957 for a series of nuclear tests "whose fallout was expected to contaminate the Groom Lake facility," the report notes, but by September 1959 the CIA was back, using the site to develop the A-12, the forerunner to the SR-71. Over the next year, flights shuttled work crews to and from Area 51; the runway was lengthened, new hangars and 100 surplus Navy housing buildings were installed, and 18 miles of highway to the site were resurfaced. The facility seems to have remained in operation since.

The latest declassified documents aren't exactly new revelations for Area 51 scholars -- much of this is known from interviews and inferences. In researching this article, I spoke to Bill Sweetman, an expert on secret U.S. military projects, who recounted the story of Bissell, Ritland, Johnson, and LeVier finding the site in the same detail as the declassified history. Sweetman directed me to the work of Chris Pocock, who has been reading between the lines of the CIA's redactions for decades. But the new report, all 355 pages of which you can read here, does tell a fascinating story about the origins of one of America's great mysteries.

National Security Archive