When former First Lady Nancy Reagan died this past March and was laid to rest next to President Ronald Reagan at his presidential library/museum in Simi Valley, Calif., I got to thinking about the treasure trove of historical artifacts and millions of records and documents of past presidents that are preserved and exhibited for visitors to see in the network of the 13 Presidential Library System facilities located around the country.
In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Library Act to establish a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries/museums usually built in their home state after a president leaves leave office.
It started with Herbert Hoover’s library/museum located in West Branch, Iowa. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration is credited with establishing the importance of presidential libraries as part of the national heritage when he pledged part of his estate at Hyde Park,, N.Y., for the construction of the FDR library/museum building to be accessible to the public.
Prior to Hoover and Roosevelt, other presidents or heirs were left to the huge task of dispersing presidential papers and museum pieces at the end of an administration. Much of the material went to the Library of Congress, although some earlier presidents have libraries or museums that are operated by various state governments, associations, private foundations and historical societies.
FDR’s museum holds the original draft of his “Day of Infamy” speech written hours after he learned of the bombing at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese which vaulted the U.S. into WW II.
In 1950 Harry Truman followed FDR’s lead when his library/museum was built in Independence, Mo. Among the more interesting items is Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign and the safety plug from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.
A survivor of that bombing ordered by Truman was Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who died of leukemia in 1955. A tiny paper bird crane folded by her was donated to the museum by her brother in 2015.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s library/museum sits on the site of his boyhood home in Abilene, Kan. This is the only presidential library/museum that I’ve had a chance to visit so far. Two of the items from WW II that I found fascinating were the large oak table where Ike sat with other allied commanders to plan the D-Day invasion on the shores of France, and I liked seeing German Gen. Rommel’s seat cushion that the Desert Fox used while riding his tank into battle.
Next, John F. Kennedy’s library/museum is located in Boston, Mass. Among the many items in his museum is the Mercury Freedom 7 space capsule that Alan Shepard flew to become the first American to travel into space in 1961.
There’s an extensive collection of First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s clothes and 20,000 objects of art. But more interesting is JFK’s treasured memento from WW II that was sitting on his desk on the day of his assassination in Dallas in 1963. It’s the coconut shell that was returned to JFK with the message he carved and gave to two islanders after his PT 109 patrol boat was sunk in the Solomon Islands. The encounter with the islanders and the coconut shell led to the rescue of Kennedy and surviving crew members.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential library/museum is located in Austin, Texas. Among the thousands of items in his museum is the small Roman Catholic missal upon which LBJ swore the oath of office aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963, following Kennedy’s death. The missal belonged to Kennedy.
Richard Nixon’s presidential library/museum is in Yorba Linda, Calif. Vietnam War years, Watergate, White House tapes and the historic visit to China are all highlights. On a lighter note I like the photo of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Nixon during a visit to the White House in 1970.
Gerald Ford’s library is in Ann Arbor, Mich., and his museum is in Grand Rapids, Mich. In his museum is a pulley plaque presented to him made from pieces of the naval warship USS Constitution in celebration of the U.S. Navy’s bicentennial.
Jimmy Carter’s museum is in Atlanta, Ga., and holds his Nobel Peace Prize medal awarded to Carter in 2002. Only three other presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Reagan’s museum holds the retired Boeing 707 used as Air Force One for Reagan and six other presidents. It also has on display the suit he was wearing during the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt. The suit is complete with a bullet hole in the jacket and X-ray film showing how close he came to death with the bullet lodged a half-inch from the president’s heart.
The George H.W. Bush library/museum is located at College Station, Texas. It holds a 12-foot-high section of the Berlin Wall which fell in November 1989. It also has the same model Avenger torpedo bomber that Bush flew when he was 20 years old and was shot down in the Pacific during WW II.
Bill Clinton’s library/museum is in Little Rock, Ark. and has a full-scale replica of the cabinet room. Surprisingly the Monica Lewinsky scandal is also included in an exhibit.
George W. Bush’s library/museum is at Southern Baptist University in Dallas, Texas. It has a prominent “Remembrance Day” exhibit of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and includes a 22-foot pulverized steel beam from the World Trade Center, the bullhorn Bush used at Ground Zero to address first responders and firefighters on the scene and the Port Authority’s officer badge which Bush carried with him every day after 9-11 given to him by a grieving mother.
President Obama’s administration will be ending soon when he leaves office next January. His presidential library/ museum will be the 14th and is expected to open around 2020 in Chicago, Ill., on the University of Chicago campus.