“Well, I remember one thing, of course, we had one vote against [the declaration of war against Japan]. It was a lady from Montana—Jeannette Rankin. She voted against war. She was a strict pacifist…I remember this vividly because she was down in the front row of the chamber, which was right in front of me, and she was crying like a baby. Ev Dirksen, whom she admired, and who was a dear friend of mine, too, came down, put his arm around her, and tried to get her—because he told me—to vote present. But she would not vote present, she voted against the war.”
— Irving Swanson, July 27, 2004
During Irving Swanson’s decade-long career as a reading clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives, he had the distinction of reading the momentous roll calls in which the House approved declarations of war against Japan and then Germany and Italy in December 1941. Among his recollections of the December 8, 1941, declaration of war against Japan, are those of Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin’s lone ‘No’ vote against war and President Franklin Roosevelt’s entry into the House Chamber. Three days later, after the conclusion of the roll call vote to declare war against Germany and Italy, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas gave Mr. Swanson the gavel he used during the vote that day. In addition to these events, Mr. Swanson recalls details about the House Chamber in the early 1940s as well as the relationship between Members and floor staff. He also shares anecdotes about personalities such as Speaker Rayburn, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Vito Marcantonio of New York, Richard Nixon of California, and Lyndon Johnson of Texas.
Irving W. Swanson was born on February 25, 1912, in Hudson, Wisconsin, and attended the local public schools. He attended college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and at the University of Minnesota, studying history and taking pre-legal coursework. In 1937, he married the former Margaret I. McMurray, who passed away in 2005.
Swanson initially came to Washington in the late-1930s to study law at George Washington University, where he eventually earned his J.D. While a law student, he took a job on Capitol Hill with the Library of Congress’s Legislative Reference Service (the forerunner of the Congressional Research Service). In 1940, he auditioned before House Speaker Sam Rayburn for a reading clerk position in the House and was hired. Swanson served as a minority (Republican) reading clerk in the Office of the Clerk and, after his principal Democratic counterpart fell ill, he shouldered many of the duties at the reading clerk’s desk.
In 1943, Swanson enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant, j. g., and was assigned to a post in Washington, D.C., where he acted as a liaison between the Navy Department and Congress—specializing in procurement issues. In 1945, after a chance encounter with Speaker Rayburn in a Capitol hallway, Swanson was released from military duty and called back to his position as a reading clerk in the House. He remained in that capacity until 1953, when he left to serve as a special assistant for the Majority Secretary of the Senate. After two years, Mr. Swanson took a position as the legislative counsel for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In 1961, Swanson became the assistant for Senate Minority Secretary J. Mark Trice. He left congressional service in 1967, and took a position as a lobbyist for a major pharmaceutical company. He retired in the late-1980s.
Through his decade-long career in the House, Swanson developed a close relationship with Members of the House. Mr. Swanson’s principal duties were to read measures and communications that came before the chamber and, before the advent of electronic voting, taking recorded votes by voice roll calls. But these were not his only tasks. In an era when Members did not have large office staffs to handle and explain complex legislative issues, Representatives often called upon Mr. Swanson to describe legislation that was coming before the floor—what it contained and who was voting for or against it.
In 2005, after his oral history interview, Mr. Swanson donated the gavel used during the session to declare war on Germany and Italy, to the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives. The gavel is on long-term display in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in an exhibit on House history. On February 13, 2012, Irving Swanson passed away two weeks short of his 100th birthday. He received full military honors and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lone Vote: Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana
Eyewitness account of Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin's lone vote against the U.S. declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.
The Speaker's Gavel
Background on the gavel used during the House proceedings that led to the declaration of war against Germany and Italy on December 11, 1941.
Declarations of War in 1941
View a documentary featuring former House Reading Clerk Irving Swanson remembering the U.S. declarations of war in 1941, accompanied by historical audio and video footage.
Congressman Merlin Hull of Wisconsin
Description of a meeting with Congressman Merlin Hull of Wisconsin.
Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana
Eyewitness account of Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s vote against the U.S. declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.