New Document Reveals Measures Taken to Protect FDR in the Days After Pearl Harbor

11/09/2011 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012
  • Steven M. Gillon Scholar-in-Residence at History and Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma

A recently declassified secret service document details the extraordinary steps taken to protect President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the hours after the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.

The document, written by Mike Reilly, head of the presidential protection detail, is revealed in my new book, Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War. Supported by other materials, the December 11, 1941, memo offers a unique glimpse into the highly secret workings of the secret service.

According to Reilly, before the attack on Pearl Harbor there had been between 17 and 22 White House Policemen and four to six Secret Service agents assigned to the White House. After the attack the number of people assigned to keeping the president safe jumped to over 100. "Since December 8th on each tour of duty," he noted, "there have been 22 to 28 White House Policemen, 20 Metropolitan Policemen or 20 Uniformed Secret Service Guards; two Metropolitan Detective Sergeants and from 8 to 15 Secret Service Agents." In addition, a "squad of four soldiers in an Army reconnaissance car equipped with two 50 caliber machine guns" patrolled the avenues around the White House.

By Sunday evening, December 7, the White House had been transformed into the armed fortress that we know today. The secret service set up temporary sentry gates to channel visitors to the grounds. Construction teams installed barriers at each of the entrances to the White House to prevent a car or truck from crashing the gates. Everyone who entered the White House was now forced to show identification. Even secretary of state Cordell Hull, who regularly shuttled back and forth between the White House and the State Department, was now required to show his credentials. For the first time, reporters were photographed, fingerprinted and issued a pass, which they were forced to show every time they entered the grounds.

Worried about the possibility of an air assault on Washington, the secret service issued everyone in the White House a gas mask, including Roosevelt. According to agent Frank Wilson, the President's mask "was tied to his wheel chair so that it would be ready for immediate use at all times." Agents installed a device "to guard against the presence of radium which may be used in an attempt to injure the President." The secret service also created ten safe houses in the Washington D.C. area where they could take FDR in the event of an attack. If necessary, a plane stood ready to whisk him away from D.C.

An army of engineers, electricians, and technicians descended on the White House in the hours after Pearl Harbor installing new equipment and updating communications. Engineers installed an emergency backup power plant to supply current in the event of a power failure. Technicians installed a more elaborate phone system that would connect the White House switch board with the U.S. Park Police and the Army reserve troops now stationed in the Treasury Building.

The added security measures failed to satisfy Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who decided to conduct his own inspection of White House security on the evening of December 7. He was shocked by what he found. "I just made an inspection ... and in the whole rear of the White House only three men," he complained to the secret service. "Anybody could take a five ton truck with 20 men and they could take the White House without any trouble."

FDR's planned war address the next day presented the secret service with an unprecedented situation. They were convinced that Japanese or German assassins were waiting along the route down Pennsylvania Avenue. How could they transport Roosevelt safely to the Capitol and back to the White House? They depended on careful planning and some assistance from one of the nation's most notorious gangsters.

Never before had a president been so well protected. There were more secret service agents and police gathered around FDR than at any other time in his presidency, including his three Inaugurals. Many agents carried sawed off shotguns. Despite the cold weather, they decided not to wear topcoats because they feared the extra clothing would hamper their ability to draw their .38 service revolvers.

As he emerged from the White House shortly after noon, Roosevelt must have been surprised to see a shiny black limousine waiting to transport him to the Capitol. Since government rules prevented spending more than $750 for a single automobile, the president did not have an armored car.

As Roosevelt approached the car he said to Reilly, "What's that thing, Mike?"

"Mr. President, I've taken the liberty of getting a new car. It's armored, I'm afraid it's a little uncomfortable, and I know it has a dubious reputation."

"Dubious reputation?" FDR asked inquisitively.

"Yes, sir. It belonged to Al Capone. The Treasury Department had a little trouble with Al, you know, and they got it from him in the subsequent legal complications. I got it from Treasury."

Roosevelt seemed amused. "I hope Mr. Capone doesn't mind," he said.