FDR’s White House Map Room

October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts highlighting our “Archives Across America.” Today’s post comes from Sarah Navins from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. 

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Al Cornelius in the White House Map Room, ca. 1943. (FDR Library, National Archives)

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mind saw in maps. His love of maps can be traced to his childhood when he first began collecting postage stamps. Stamps from all over the world expanded FDR’s knowledge and understanding of geography and the international community, a knowledge that he brought with him to the White House in 1933.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, National Geographic provided President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with special wall-mounted map cabinets hidden by enlarged photographs.

Inside the cabinets were maps on rollers organized by hemisphere, region, and theater of operation. Cartographers from National Geographic routinely updated these maps, bringing the new maps to the White House and personally installing them in the President’s cabinet,which hung in his private Oval Study. By simply turning in his chair and opening the cabinet, FDR could quickly check battle locations around the world.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt meets with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov in the White House study, June 1, 1942. The President’s National Geographic map case can be seen in the background. (FDR Library, National Archives)

In January 1942, FDR converted a ladies’ cloakroom in the White House basement into a top-secret communications center. Modeled on a similar room maintained by Winston Churchill, the Map Room was a place where the President could monitor military activities around the globe. Here reports, documents, and coded messages were received, summarized, and filed.

Through the Map Room, Roosevelt communicated with Allied leaders around the globe, including Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek. Maps posted in the room were used to track the locations of land, sea, and air forces. The drably furnished office was staffed 24 hours a day by Army and Navy officers. The President could drop in at any time. Access was restricted to him, the Map Room staff, and specific individuals at the direction of the President. Even the Secret Service was barred.  FDR’s Map Room was the precursor to the modern-day White House Situation Room.

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In an oral history interview, Adm. John L. McCrea, Naval Aide to President Roosevelt, gave the following description of what exactly was in the Map Room:

Just what information did we store and were readily available in the Map Room? . . . [M]ore importantly by far, was the complete file of messages passed between the United States [the President], the United Kingdom [Mr. Churchill], China [Chiang Kai-Shek] and Russia [Joseph Stalin] having to do with the conduct of the war.

[V]isual aids were used to locate the whereabouts and numbers of U.S. Forces—Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps throughout the War Zones. In addition the progressive day to day location of military and merchant convoys was posted, as was the locations of Naval Task Forces, the whereabouts of capital ships, etc.

The FDR Library archives holds the papers of the Map Room from FDR’s Presidency. This collection includes the messages sent to and from FDR to other world leaders and military files sent to the Map Room to be summarized for the President.

In preparation for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, our archives staff has been reviewing the Map Room Papers for material related to the battle.

In the military files we located these Situation of European Theatre Ground Operations maps from Operation OVERLORD in June 1944. The maps detail the positions of Allied and Axis troops as well as commentary on the weather of the day—a vital piece of information for the planning of the invasion.

We look forward to sharing these maps and more from our collections related to the D-Day invasion in the coming years as we continue to observe the 75th anniversary of World War II.

Visit the National Archives American Archives Month web page for more information about our events and activities throughout the month. 

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