Prologue Magazine

Fort Archives, Part 2

The National Archives Goes to War

Summer 2003, Vol. 35, No. 2

By Anne Bruner Eales


construction of National Archives Building The National Archives Building under construction, January 1934. The solid, imposing edifice was later dubbed "Fort Archives" by the press. (121-BCP-111C-59)

The Archives, CCCR, and even the President of the United States were all concerned that one of the greatest dangers from an air raid on the nation's capital would be the more than four hundred tons of highly flammable nitrate film estimated to be in the area. The film gave off a lethal gas when burning and under certain conditions was highly explosive. In response to an inquiry from President Roosevelt, Solon Buck reported on July 20, 1942, that arrangements were under way to relocate the film to some abandoned powder magazines and gun emplacements at Fort Hunt in Fairfax County, Virginia. The fort, though near Washington, was in an almost unpopulated area, and the Archivist assured Roosevelt that the emplacements were of massive rock concrete construction, especially designed for the storage of flammable and explosive material. It was estimated that the space might be able to house over a million feet of motion picture film.

Vernon Tate, chief of the Division of Photo Archives and Research, was not as enthusiastic about the relocation to Fort Hunt. He had inspected the vaults in the summer of 1941 and found only one to be fairly dry. Tate reported that if the magazines were to be used for storage, they should all be cleaned and repaired, with drains placed in operating order, shelves erected to keep the film at least six inches off the floor and four inches from the wall, and ventilation ports screened to keep out rodents and insects.

Although the Public Buildings Administration undertook an extensive rehabilitation project at the facility, Tate later wrote that "storage conditions . . . at Fort Hunt are something less than ideal." Negatives stored there had deteriorated so badly that they were stuck to the negative preservers. Tate wanted to send someone to inspect the film at intervals of six months but found that was extremely difficult to do. The commanding officer of the post would not allow any female personnel to visit or work at the facility, and several members of Tate's staff were women.

Nitrate films were the only government records evacuated by the National Archives during the war. Rather than remove records, the National Archives Building was divided into four areas having varying degrees of protection from bombing attack, and the agency simply transferred its holdings within the building, depending on the priority of safety they required. The safest area, tiers 3 to 6 of the extension, contained space for some 75,000 cubic feet of records. In May 1942 the Indianapolis Star reported that stored there were such things as the photographs and films of the Byrd expeditions to the North and South Poles, the court records of the Abraham Lincoln assassination, the original Emancipation Proclamation, the Brady Collection of Civil War photographs, and the personal report of Andrew Jackson on the Battle of New Orleans. The paper said the Bill of Rights was packed and stored in the vault below the Rotunda, ready for removal from Washington if that should ever be necessary.

In addition to organizing this relocation of records within the building, the PAHW also took precautions to limit access to the National Archives Building. A control clerk was placed at the Seventh Street entrance to restrict entry to the underground parking area and loading dock, and the doors and gates leading from the Exhibition Hall to the main floor lobby were locked. All visitors to the building had to be escorted to and from their destinations. The committee lengthened the hours of the cloakroom, near the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, where employees as well as visitors were now required to deposit their belongings.

The group had several discussions concerning the use of identification badges. ID cards had been issued to each employee on March 24, 1941; however, the cards were only needed for after-hours access to the building. The PAHW now recommended that the staff wear picture badges but did not include in this requirement any identification cards for the maintenance crew or employees of other government offices detailed to the National Archives. The committee suggested that numbered badges be issued to visitors, with white ones given at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to researchers and red at the Seventh Street entrance to those making deliveries. The chief of reference service strongly objected to the use of badges. Philip Hamer wrote directly to Buck, "The wearing of badges is intended by those who propose it to protect records against sabotage. . . . Even if it be granted that there is real danger of sabotage, the use of badges will not protect us against it. Badges can be stolen or easily duplicated. And I cannot forget the story of one clerk in a war agency who wore Hitler's picture on his badge for two weeks without detection." The controversy over the badges was heated, and the Archivist wavered on this decision. In 1943 the only badges in use were still those issued in 1941.

Although the likelihood of air attack articulated by the War Department in early 1941 remained the official characterization of the threat in late 1942, concern over air raids and sabotage lessened, and security requirements were gradually relaxed. On October 6, 1942, the twenty-four-hour patrol by the wardens was cancelled. February 23, 1943, packages and belongings brought into the National Archives Building by employees and visitors no longer had to be left at the cloakroom. Areas reserved as bomb shelters were returned to the storage of records on April 16, 1943, and six months later, sand containers were removed from the building "in view of the diminishing likelihood of enemy attack on Washington."

This lessening of security facilitated the Archives' ability to handle the enormous influx of wartime visitors to the National Archives Building. During one quarter, 7,845 people not on the staff arrived through the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. The Red Cross had a group that met in the building to roll surgical dressings, and servicemen came to hear concerts presented by the Record Music Association. Hundreds attended military meetings in the building; in the spring of 1943 alone, the National Archives hosted three confidential conferences sponsored by the War Department General Staff and the Military Intelligence Division (G-2). High-ranking officers of seventeen countries came regularly to attend screenings of war training films given by the United Nations Central Training Film Library. A social organization, the United Nations Club, was formed, and in December 1942 it sponsored, with the National Archives, a festival of entertainment films in the building. One night it was hosted by Comdr. M. A. Skragin of Russia and another by Maj. Hal Roach of the U.S. Army. Exhibits continued in the Rotunda area, and during one month, 10,000 people— 2,500 of them servicemen— visited a display of materials from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

The maintenance of building security with so many visitors was a demanding task for the guards, but sometimes a single person could be more challenging. When a visiting military officer told the guard he had come to do business with the Archivist of the United States, the guard responded, "Archivist? We don't have anything like that around here." The security man, obviously new to the Archives, didn't recognize the title, but also didn't recognize the visitor— Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

The majority of people who visited the National Archives during World War II were government employees doing research in the records. In a 1942 article in the American Archivist, E. G. Campbell told how "newly appointed government officials who swarmed into Washington fresh from private industry to head defense agencies could only turn to the manuscript records of their predecessors of twenty-five years ago. . . . How did it work? What were its procedures?" He reported that papers of the War Industries Board, the Fuel Administration, and other similar agencies contained the history of America's World War I attempt to achieve total industrial mobilization, an effort so successful that even the government of Nazi Germany studied these records. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, was also interested in the records of the First World War— he wanted to study the history of German sabotage in the United States. Mary Anderson, director of the Women's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor, sent inquiries about World War I housing for women war workers, which she felt would be "very useful in our consideration of a similar problem now." When the War Production Board wanted to place an expert tool-and-die maker in an airplane plant, the man's citizenship was in doubt. He was able to go to work on the production line because records in the National Archives showed when and where his parents landed in this country, and when they were naturalized.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur noted that records were of special value to the military during war. "More than most professions the military is forced to depend upon the intelligent interpretation of the past for signposts charting the future." When the military was looking for information about a certain mountain pass in enemy territory, the Archives provided a detailed map sent home after World War I by a former consular attaché. Meteorological records, in constant demand for the study of weather history in strategic areas, were particularly valuable in planning for the landings in Normandy.

Movie writers and directors, such as Lt. Col. Frank Capra and Comdr. John Ford, sat in on screenings in the National Archives theater looking for material they could use in wartime productions. Newsreels prepared by Paramount, Fox, and Universal Pictures used footage from Archives films to acquaint Americans with military leaders such as Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Patton.

Services provided to the Navy Department by the National Archives were considered so valuable that the navy established a teletype connection between the department and the National Archives Building to expedite the flow of information. On July 18, 1943, the Washington Star reported, "The National Archives may be a depository for supposedly 'dead records,' but because of the war they have come to life and are doing their share to win the conflict." The Archives had more than earned its right to be on the National Defense Agency list.

Although the vast majority of the more than one thousand requests for information that the Archives received every day— one every thirty seconds— were directly related to the war, 20 percent were not. While the current conflict was being fought in Europe and the Pacific, the National Park Service was searching for records dealing with the Civil War battlefields at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. The Library of Congress needed photostats of twenty-seven documents relating to Walt Whitman, and the warden at Alcatraz wanted information concerning damage to the island at the time of the San Francisco earthquake.

Servicing all these requests— eventually more than 230,000 a year— became an ever greater burden as the staff of the National Archives shrank from a high of 502 in 1942 to 337 by the end of the war. About sixty employees were detailed during the war to work on projects for other government agencies, such as the War Department, Bureau of Aeronautics in the Navy Department, and the Office of Civilian Defense (a functional forerunner of the Federal Emergency Management Agency). In a seminal effort at records management, many of these staff members were told to "spread the developing gospel of records administration." They were to encourage agencies "to establish and maintain their files in a more orderly and economical manner so that with the conclusion of the war the records . . . would be compact and well organized."

Some of those working on special projects were technical experts in the fields of microfilm, sound recordings, maps, motion pictures, and photography. The skill and equipment to microfilm records was considered particularly valuable, and the war guaranteed that the National Archives, which had both, would be a leader in the effort. On February 13, 1942, President Roosevelt wrote to the president of the Society of American Archivists that under the conditions of modern war, "none of us can guess the future." He expressed the hope that the society would "do all that is possible to build up an American public opinion in favor of what might be called the only form of insurance that will stand the test of time. I am referring to the duplication of records by modern processes like the microfilm." Bulletin No. 3, issued in December 1941, had already suggested that microphotography could certainly provide insurance copies of records, ease the pressure for space, and often be an excellent alternative to evacuation. A microfilming experiment performed in August 1941 on 160,000 individual assessment records had been particularly impressive. The original six-by-eight-inch assessment cards occupied files five feet high, twenty-five feet long, and two feet deep, while the microfilm of them was about the size of a dictionary. Such results made government offices extremely interested in filming their records, and the Archives provided them with expert advice and even space to do the work. On November 24, 1941, units of the Navy Department moved into the National Archives Building and eventually filmed more than four thousand cubic feet of its most secret and confidential correspondence, reports, tracings, and plans. Then, rather than relocate the originals, the Navy simply evacuated these much smaller insurance copies to a repository in the interior of the nation.

The navy was not the only government office to occupy space in the National Archives Building. In March 1942, the navy, War Department, War Records Administration of the Bureau of the Budget, and the CCCR had 57 employees working in the building; by June that number had risen to 101. The largest occupant during the war, at least in terms of space, was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which gathered and analyzed intelligence information and planned and executed operations under the jurisdiction of the World War II Joint Chiefs of Staff. These activities required information, information meant the use of government records, and that needed the assistance of the National Archives. On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Archivist of the United States offered to help the OSS, and the organization initially received quarters in the building on April 22, 1942. The allocation of space steadily increased; by 1944 the OSS occupied almost 15,000 square feet of the National Archives Building. Approximately 7,500 square feet was provided in exchange for a naval commission for Vernon Tate and the condition that he be assigned to the Map Division of the OSS so that he could, as an officer, supervise both the Photo Division and OSS operations in the Archives Photo Laboratory. Eight other Archives staff members, five of them women, provided technical assistance to the organization, microfilmed maps and other secret data, and supervised use of an optical printer and specialized sound and editing equipment.

In January 1944 the OSS Map Division moved into Room 400 (now the Microfilm Reading Room), changed the locks on the doors, and declared it a restricted access area. OSS staff members began entering the facility late at night with large, flat items covered by tarpaulins. This "highly classified material" being perfected at the National Archives was a set of maps of beaches that would soon be known as "Utah" and "Omaha." In April 1944 high-ranking officers from all over the world gathered at the Archives to see an OSS exhibit of "certain secret military equipment and devices" that apparently were going to be used in the Normandy landings.

When the U.S. Army arrived overseas, so did some American archivists. President Roosevelt and Solon Buck were both known to be deeply interested in the plight of the "forgotten men" emerging from concentration camps with, as stated by the New York Times on April 18, 1944, "no tangible or documentary relationship to the civilization to which they once belonged." In an effort to bring order to foreign records that had been bombed and scattered, the President allowed Fred Shipman, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, to serve in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations and at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) as a temporary archives adviser. Capt. Collas Harris performed the same service for the military government in Japan, and Maj. Arthur Kimberly, formerly chief of the Division of Repair and Preservation at the Archives, went to Manila to help the government of the Philippines reconstruct its records.

Although comparatively few American records were damaged in the war— primarily in Hawaii and the Philippines— Archives staff members anticipating the end of the current conflict wanted to prevent the chaotic condition they had found in World War I material. Collas Harris wrote in February 1942, "There is no question but that after the war there will be vast accumulations of records of the present war and emergency agencies. Because there was no agency or organization authorized and equipped to handle records of disbanded agencies after the last war, many valuable documents became lost, destroyed, or disorganized. . . . This situation should not occur again, for the National Archives was founded primarily to take over and preserve important Government records."

However, the Archives' task was not just to compile records but also to assimilate them in context. In response to a 1943 request from the President, the Bureau of the Budget formed a committee to preserve "for those who come after us an accurate and objective account of our present experience." The group encouraged government offices to "maintain records of how they are discharging their wartime duties," and twenty-nine agencies had historical units by the end of 1943. Eventually forty government offices used records to prepare World War II history projects.

The National Archives was one of them. On June 4, 1946, President Harry S. Truman wrote to the Archivist of the United States, "The experience of the Federal Government in the war just ended is full of meaning in relation not only to possible future emergencies but also to the problems of peace. The things we did and endeavored to do and the lessons we learned need to be studied thoroughly and dispassionately both by agencies of the Government and by the independent resources of scholarship. . . . I would like to see prepared and published such guides to the records of our wartime experience as will make the pertinent materials known and usable." The Archives responded to the President's request with the two-volume Federal Records of World War II. This publication also fulfilled the Archives inscription— What Is Past Is Prologue— and was arguably one of the agency's greatest contributions in the Second World War.

Archives involvement in World War II had preceded its beginning and now continued beyond its end. Staff members collected a history of radio broadcasts covering December 7, 1941, the first day of America's involvement in the war, and D-day, June 6, 1944. Exhibits were prepared that displayed to the American public the German and Japanese surrender documents; Hitler's marriage certificate, private will, and last political testament; the original Yalta agreement signed by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill; and the agreement of the Combined Chiefs of Staff to launch the Normandy Invasion. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright opened the exhibit of the Japanese surrender documents because, as the Archives announced, "the defense of Corregidor by General Wainwright and his associates symbolizes the spirit and indomitable will of the American people that made victory possible." Maj. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, the hero of Bastogne, unveiled the German surrender documents to a crowd that included cabinet members, senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, the combined chiefs of staff, and members of the diplomatic corps. Hundreds of thousands came to see these exhibits in the building of "dusty and yellowed old parchments." Few of them had understood the value of an archives when the war began, but the devastating conflict had provided the National Archives with a positive opportunity to establish its identity, its importance to the government, and its value to the American people.

As the Baltimore Sun reported, the Archives even got the last word on the war. On September 19, 1945, at the direction of the President, the Federal Register announced that the conflict was now to be known as "World War II." The period of "grief and turmoil, of devastation and heroism" was officially over.

Fort Archives, Part 1

Anne Bruner Eales, a publications specialist at the National Archives, is currently writing the inventory for Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. A military historian and published author in her own right, Ms. Eales is also preparing a book on America's involvement in the China Relief Expedition of 1900.



Note on the Sources

The information for this article was taken primarily from the following series in Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration: Office of the Archivist, Functional Classified Files, 1935 - 59; Archival Subject Files of Solon J. Buck, 1939 - 45; and Educational Program Division, Press Clippings, 1937 - 63. Some references are from Donald R. McCoy, The National Archives: America's Ministry of Documents, 1935 - 1968 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978). Archives staff members who provided valuable and much appreciated assistance include William Cunliffe, Louis Holland, Judith Koucky, Robert Kvasnicka, Lawrence McDonald, and Richard Peuser.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.