The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor not only plunged the United States into world war, but it also had far-reaching ramifications for every single government agency, including the National Archives.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the National Archives made extensive plans to protect the nation’s records against the threats of war. The National Archives Building, which was considered the most bomb-resistant building in Washington, was divided into four areas classified according to their levels of security.
The Bill of Rights, which was on display in the exhibition hall, was replaced with a facsimile. It was moved with other constitutional amendments, treaties, and public laws into the safest areas of the building. The Archives built boxes for these valuable documents and prepared for their removal should they need to be evacuated from the building.
In total, 14,578 cubic feet of records were moved following the Pearl Harbor attack.
The National Archives instituted a number of other safety measures, including removing all photographic and motion picture film with a cellulose nitrate base. These unstable and highly inflammable media were moved to specially designed vaults both inside and just outside the city.
The Archives also appointed fire and air-raid wardens and formed decontamination and demolition squads. They held training courses on fire-fighting, gas defense, and first aid to help staff prepare for potential threats.
Another measure the National Archives undertook was to ramp up its microfilming program. The theory was that microfilming would ensure at least a copy of the documents would remain if the originals were destroyed.
By the end of 1943, the National Archives had preserved 400,000 pages with microfilm. Government agencies also microfilmed records still in their custody and sent the copies to the National Archives for safe storage.
Finally, the Archives used the process of laminating documents to make them more secure. While now considered an outdated means of preservation, at the time lamination was thought to make the documents more durable in case of an attack.
This vigilance to protect our documentary heritage from enemy attack remained firm throughout the war. The war’s end in 1945, however, only brought a new test for the National Archives—the challenge of appraising, accessing, and preserving the millions of cubic feet of records the U.S. created during the war.
Read “Fort Archives: The National Archives Goes to War,” Summer 2003 issue of Prologue magazine to learn more about the National Archives during World War II.
This month the National Archives is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by showcasing the Senate’s copy of FDR’s Day of Infamy address, which will be on display from November 10, 2016, through January 4, 2017, in the East Rotunda Gallery.