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What Happened to America’s Most Precious Documents After Pearl Harbor?

Librarians and archivists made sure the nation’s records didn’t become casualties of World War II

Today, America's founding documents reside in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives. (Jeff Reed/U.S. National Archives)
smithsonian.com

America’s founding documents are among the most precious pieces of paper in history, so precious that they have a lavish, bulletproof and heavily guarded rotunda all their own. But what happened to these documents during World War II? As Jessie Kratz writes for the National Archives, following Pearl Harbor, archivists sprung into defensive action on behalf of the nation’s most cherished documents.

The National Archives had been housed in a new building for only four years when war broke out. In the aftermath of the attack, archivists began divvying up the building into multiple security zones and rearranging documents so they’d be safe. They scurried to build boxes for important documents, whisked much of the Archives’ photographic footage into safe storage elsewhere, and copied as many documents to microfilm as possible as a safeguard.

In total, 14,578 cubic feet of records were moved from their original locations to safer places within the National Archives after Pearl Harbor, Kratz writes. Among them were the most important of the Archives’ holdings, including the nation’s treaties and public laws. The Bill of Rights was replaced with a facsimile and moved, too.

Though the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both live in the National Archives today, at the time they were stored in the Library of Congress. But with fear of a Japanese invasion at a fever pitch, officials decided to send the documents to an even more secure area for safekeeping. They were put on a train along with the Gettysburg Address and taken to Fort Knox in Kentucky, shielded by a retinue of armed Secret Service officers.

While the outbreak of war spurred archivists to action, plans for the safety of the documents had actually been made years before. As author and historian Stephen Puleo tells The New York Post’s Michael Riedel, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was aware of the symbolic significance of the documents and their importance to American morale, and installed a friend, Archibald MacLeish, in the Library of Congress with their protection in mind.

MacLeish identified objects and documents that should go in case of war, including a Gutenberg Bible and the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta. Similarly, writes Anne Bruner Eales for Prologue Magazine, the National Archives had been planning how to move critical documents in case of an emergency, even performed a test evacuation in early 1941.

“The sheets of vellum…in those cases which you guard are the very sheets and leaves on which that form of government and that conception of human life were brought to being,” wrote MacLeish in a letter to the Marine Guard entrusted with watching over them in the Library of Congress. “Nothing that men have made ever surpasses them.”

Archivists had other important parts to play during the war, like protecting foreign documents seized from Germany and Japan and expanding its collections to include things like radio broadcasts. But perhaps their greatest triumph was when the founding documents were returned to public display in October 1944.

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