After the smoke of the Pearl Harbor attack started to clear and the United States was able to get a bearing on its situation, government officials knew there was little time to regroup. Whether or not the Japanese would launch another attack or even a full-scale invasion was a question officials had no time to ponder. There was a limited window to do what needed to be done, and among the most important acts was hiding some of the country’s vital documents.
Protecting American Treasures
Within a few days of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States was officially at war with Japan and Germany, and neither was known for its forgiving nature or courtesy toward its enemies. Knowing what could be at stake if the country were ever invaded, either by a full land force or by spies, there was no hesitation to put the entire capital on lockdown. Blackout shutters, street patrols, hidden escape tunnels – though the war was thousands of miles away from mainland American soil, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t find its way across the Atlantic or Pacific.
On December 26th, 1941, while the rest of the country tried to enjoy the tattered remnants of the holiday season, Secret Service agents were ushering precious cargo out of Washington, DC. The unmarked cases held within them the documents that held the very essence of the United States. Their symbolism has been ingrained in American history for so long that the loss of their physical presence would prove a massive morale blow to the people of the United States.
From the National Archives, these agents held in their protection the Gettysburg Address, the Articles of Confederation, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a rare copy of the Magna Carta, and three volumes of the Gutenberg Bible. In the final case, which was reserved for what many consider the United States lifeforce, were the parchment versions of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The Plan to Save American Treasures
At the start of the war, German forces showed no mercy when it came to the books and precious documents they came across during their progression across Europe. Libraries burned, museums were looted, and relics of the world’s history were lost in the fray.
Before being dragged into the war, the United States had planned on protecting its most vital documents, but when the plan was created 14 months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were few who believed that it would actually have to be implemented. As it turned out, the documents would spend the bulk of the war locked away in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
When the war started to turn in favor of the Allies, the US government was confident a Nazi invasion would be impossible, and so the documents pulled from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, which over time came to include thousands of other boxes of historic parchments and prints, were returned. Almost a year before the end of World War II, the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence were displayed once again in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives, as if symbolizing the inevitable victory that would come 11 months later.