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Oral History Project Peeks Behind Scenes

For decades, the gavel used on the day Congress declared war on Germany and Italy during World War II sat in a shoe box in Irving Swanson’s house.

It wasn’t until Matt Wasniewski interviewed Swanson for the Clerk of the House’s oral history project that it even came up.

“You want to see it?” Swanson asked Wasniewski. “I can go upstairs. I think I know where it is.”

Swanson, who served as reading clerk in the House on the days that war was declared on the main Axis powers, seemed nonchalant as he explained that Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) signed this gavel and, no, it isn’t the gavel Rayburn used on the day that Congress declared war on Japan. That was a different gavel, and Rayburn kept it for himself, Swanson said.

Swanson and Wasniewski’s conversation took place in 2004, but a transcript is available on the project’s website for those who want to hear Swanson’s words for themselves.

That’s the point of the oral history project, after all — to allow people who have only read the stories in history books to experience them through someone else’s eyes.

The official title of the project is the Oral History of the U.S. House of Representatives. But for Wasniewski, the Office of History and Preservation’s historian and deputy chief, and Kathleen Johnson, the office’s oral historian, the focus is on the people who work behind the scenes of the House, such as clerks and pages, instead of the Members themselves. After all, most Members usually have their stories told, whether in biographies or in libraries. It’s the people who make the House run who are often forgotten.

“We take such a big institution and put it on a human scale,” Johnson said.

That’s what Swanson’s story highlights. Born in 1912, Swanson was a young man when World War II began. In 1940, Swanson became a reading clerk in the House of Representatives under Rayburn.

Just a year later, on Dec. 8, 1941, he was reading the roll call of the House during the joint session of Congress called after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Swanson witnessed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare the day before as a “date which will live in infamy.”

“You could hear the drop of a pin,” Swanson said. “Easy to take the roll call, I can tell you. Everybody was very quiet.”

Swanson also watched as Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) became the sole vote against declaring war on Japan.

Just a few days later, he was again the reading clerk on the day war was declared on Germany and Italy. He read Roosevelt’s message to Congress, asking them to declare war, and he again read the roll call.

That was the day Rayburn gave Swanson the gavel that sat in his house for so long. A couple of people asked about the gavel over the years, but Swanson wanted to donate it when he died. He ended up giving it to the Clerk’s office for the project.


Off the Official Record

For Wasniewski, finding out small details, such as Swanson’s role during World War II, is what the project is all about.

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