- Historic Sites
The Story Behind The Tapes
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
I began with the book “ Dear Mr. President … ,” an account of the half-century that Ira R. T. Smith had spent in the White House mail room. He had joined the clerical staff during the McKinley administration and was chief of mails when Harry S. Truman arrived in 1945. Among the tales told by Smith was an experience he had once had in the basement under the West Wing of the White House during the FDR years. According to Smith, part of the Oval Office was directly over an underground room that was divided in the middle by a wire partition. This formed a cage—always locked—that served as a storage, area for many of the gifts people endlessly mailed to the President.
One day Smith was visited by some members of the White House Secret Service detail who were concerned about a ventilator in the cage that carried fresh air from outside the building through a duct that terminated in the Oval Office. The Secret Service men had decided, they said, to make some modifications so that no one would be able to kill the President by placing a bomb in the duct.
“They took a key to the cage,” Smith recalled, “and in the next day or so workmen arrived and began making changes. The next time I went into the cage I took a look at what they had done. A wooden partition about five feet by four had been constructed from floor to ceiling. It had a door that was securely padlocked. I was curious about it, because it was the strangest bomb-prevention device I could imagine.
“One of the President’s most skillful stenographers did his work in the basement offices near my desk and had a key to the wire cage. I noticed that he frequently went to the cage, and one day when I was there he came out of the little room. The door was open and I saw a small desk and a chair inside. I nodded to the stenographer.
“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘got a machine in there, eh?’
“He laughed. ‘I was just getting some reports from upstairs,’ he said.
“I didn’t say anything more, but I noticed that the stenographer frequently went to the little room, where he obviously took down whatever conversation went on in the President’s office. We never discussed it, and I guess my staff kept on believing [what they had originally been told].”
Well, there it was. The rumor had grown out of this story.
I then went to the index to the vertical file, which produced several very dated clippings about Jack Romagna. One of them contained a home address in a Maryland community close to the nation’s capital—an address that was eighteen years old when I saw it. Soon thereafter I was talking to Mr. Romagna on the telephone!
Jack Romagna led me to Henry M. Kannee, his predecessor in the job of official White House stenographer. Here at last was a man who had been deeply involved in the conception and operation of the RCA machine—more deeply than any other person, living or dead, including even FDR himself.
Mr. Kannee recalled that the idea of using a recording device sprang from an incident that had made FDR very angry. On the last day of January, 1939, the President had conferred at the White House with some seventeen members of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. The main subject on FDR’s mind was “the first line of defense” for the United States. In the Pacific it was “a series of islands” that must be safeguarded so that the Japanese would not be able to dominate the entire Ocean and thus “prevent us from having access to the west coast of South America…. It is all a question of defending against Japan. We cannot say it out loud; it may be considered unfriendly.”
In the Atlantic our first line of defense was “the continued independent existence of a very large group of nations” threatened by Hitler and Mussolini. The major potential victims were England and France, but many other European countries were also in danger. If Europe were dominated by the Axis Powers, Africa—“95 per cent colonial”—would fall. “Brother Hitler” would then turn his attention to Central and South America. “Those are the simple facts…. Those are things you ought to regard. How far is it from Yucatan to New Orleans or Houston? How far from Tampico to St. Louis or Kansas City? How far? … I will do everything I can [do] to maintain the independence of these other nations by sending them all they can pay for on the barrelhead…. Now, that is the foreign policy of the United States.”
Some of the members of the committee spontaneously applauded, but then a senator asked: “Did you intend to leave the impression that it was the duty of this Government to help protect and maintain the independence of these nations… by whatever efforts may be necessary to do it?”
“No, no,” the President replied. “Listen: I probably saw more of the war in Europe [in the summer of 1918] than any living person…. Therefore you may be quite sure that about the last thing that this country should do is ever to send an army to Europe again.”
The President’s Senate supporters found this reassuring, but his opponents did not. The members of the Military Affairs Committee had barely taken their leave before someone began leaking to the press the confidential things the President had said. The New York Times , the next day, came out with a front-page story: “ ROOSEVELT TO HELP DEMOCRACIES ARM; PUTS OUR DEFENSE FRONTIER IN FRANCE; TELLS SENATORS OF DANGERS ABROAD .”
At a press conference held on February 3, 1939, the President faced the inevitable question: Had he in fact told the Senators “that the Rhine was our frontier in the battle of the democracies versus fascism?”