In the spring of 1955, two sergeants from the White House Army Signal Agency — the branch of the military responsible for secure presidential communications — were confronted with a problem: They had captured an enemy combatant, but the prisoner wasn’t talking.
The prisoner was an Eastern gray squirrel, the species — Sciurus carolinensis — that had been infuriating President Dwight D. Eisenhower by burying nuts in the golf practice hole that had been installed on the White House grounds.
Squirrels had been a fixture around the White House for decades, at least since the area had become the sort of urban parkland that the animals thrive in. Lafayette Square was heavy with the critters. (Years later, biologists there would measure one of the highest densities of squirrels ever recorded: 20 per acre.)
The park squirrels were fed by tourists and natives alike, including such figures as presidential adviser Bernard Baruch. Harry Truman had been known to feed the squirrels on the White House grounds when he was president.
Eisenhower did not share in this affection. The U.S. Golf Association had constructed a putting green on the South Lawn of the White House, just outside Ike’s office. On nice mornings he could walk from the residence to the office, 8-iron and wedge in hand, and shag a few balls.
That’s when he noticed that squirrels were stealing golf tees he’d left there overnight and wreaking havoc with the green.
“The next time you see one of those squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” Eisenhower said to John Moaney, the valet who had served him since 1942.
Moaney and the Secret Service decided that firing weapons on the White House grounds and dispatching squirrels in sight of tourists was probably not a good idea.
The task of exploring less lethal eradication methods was given to a young naval officer named William Crowe. He learned that infestations of starlings were sometimes controlled by broadcasting tape recordings of the birds’ distress calls. Could such a thing work with squirrels? To find out, they would need a squirrel or two.
Imagine the scene: Soldiers have captured some squirrels with the aim of recording their distress calls. There’s a problem: The squirrels are silent, refusing to divulge even name, rank or serial number.
“What good’s the tape going to be if he doesn’t make any noise?” one of the sergeants says.
To which the other replies: “Give me that pencil. I’ll get some noise out of him.”
That’s right: The White House employed enhanced interrogation methods against squirrels.
“He jabbed this squirrel with this pencil,” Crowe later told historian Paul Stillwell , “and we got all kinds of squeaking on the tape before it was through.”
Alas, what might have worked for starlings did not work for squirrels. The tape was sent to a biologist at the University of Maryland, who, after listening to it, recommended that the squirrels simply be trapped and relocated.
This was not without its own pitfalls. Eisenhower may have detested squirrels, but many Americans felt differently.
On March 15, 1955, an article appeared on the front page of The Washington Post under the headline “White House Squirrels Being Deported for Taking Divots From Putting Green.” United Press reporter Merriman Smith broke the story of “Operation Squirrel.”
The backlash was swift. “We’ve been getting calls from people who claim to know about squirrels,” said Richard L. Neuberger, an animal-loving Democratic senator from Oregon. “One said the White House squirrels have been living so high on soft peanuts they won’t be able to handle hard nuts in the woods.”
Some experts feared relocated squirrels would be attacked by resident squirrels.
For nearly two weeks, White House press secretary James C. Hagerty batted away any squirrel-related questions with a firm “No comment.” Finally, on March 25, 1955, he made an announcement: Only three squirrels had been relocated, two to Rock Creek Park, one to Virginia. The problem seemed to be over. Trapping had stopped.
In his diary entry that day, Hagerty wrote: “I naturally took a lot of kidding on this in the stories that followed, but it had the effect I wanted — it ended the squirrel controversy.”
Years later, muckraking journalist Jack Anderson claimed that those three squirrels hadn’t been trapped. They’d been poisoned. Anderson did not name his sources, writing only that they were New Frontiersmen — John F. Kennedy acolytes who had come across squirricidal documents after the Democrat was elected in 1960.
Merriman Smith continued to cover the White House. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the assassination of Kennedy.
And Lt. Crowe, who explored electronic countermeasures to drive the squirrels from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? He rose through the ranks and became an admiral. In 1985 he was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, incidentally, used to feed walnuts to the White House squirrels. Eisenhower would not have approved.
It’s Squirrel Week, which means I’ll be featuring the critters all week. To read about a rap concept album inspired by Eisenhower’s 1955 squirrel battle, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.