Greetin’s, Cousin George

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A long line of nervous congressmen stood in the Capitol rotunda awaiting the arrival of someone of obviously high importance. Vice President John Nance Garner buzzed among the legislators trying to ease the tension with his famous stories. Toward the rear of the rotunda, members of the House tittered at Garner’s jokes, while sober-faced senators critically eyed the antics of the Vice President. The audience pleased him. His jokes became less appropriate, the laughs grew louder, and the senators seemed less impressed. Then Garner walked over to the door and peered down the Capitol steps. Suddenly lie turned back into the rotunda rasping, “The British are coming!”

Garner’s sighting of the King and Queen of England was not as dramatic as “Cactus Jack” intimated. The royal invasion of the United States had begun two days before, on June 7, 1939, when a blue and silver streamlined train headed across the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls. Salutes boomed in the background as King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth, became the first reigning British monarchs ever to visit the United States. The twelve cars of the royal train passed over the bridge, and in less than five minutes the locomotive steamed into the brick and sandstone station.

The station was redolent of fresh paint. Decorations were scanty, but in a floodlight a small square of new crimson carpet protruded from the gloomy surroundings. There was no bunting—neither the budget of the New York Central system nor of the city of Niagara Falls could afford it—there were only small British and American flags crossed above the station door. “The simplicity of the scene” impressed an English correspondent; the aura of royalty impressed the American people.

The train braked to a stop, and more floodlights appeared. The red door of the observation car opened. His Most Excellent Majesty George VI, By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, stepped briskly from the car to the red carpet. His silver hair shining in the lights, the American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, awaited the royal guests; Mrs. Hull stood at his side.

In his soft Tennessee drawl, Hull welcomed the royal couple and expressed hope that the visit would be a “thoroughly enjoyable one.” The formalities over, they chatted for a few moments, then boarded the train. With a twenty-one-gun salute echoing in the station, the party began the overnight ride to Washington. As the train rolled into Buffalo, automobiles crammed the highways, their occupants seeking a glimpse of the King and Queen. One reporter remarked that if the train were on a campaign tour, “the King and Queen ought to carry Niagara County.”

Beyond Hull’s welcome, the floodlights, and the thundering salutes at the Suspension Bridge Station lay questions of international importance. The House of Commons had authorized conscription on April 27, 1939, and Germany and Italy announced a military and political alliance ten days later. Did the King and Great Britain seek assurances from the United States in the event of a world war, or something more? Was President Roosevelt leading the country into an unwanted alliance? Speaking with reporters early on the day of the King’s arrival, Hull emphasized the effect the visit would have on nations that were “seriously threatened with chaos and anarchy” in international relations. He noted the closeness of American and British interests and referred to nations that were “disturbing the peace,” thereby giving the trip a diplomatic tone. Some observers even speculated that Roosevelt had given Hull instructions to test public opinion on a prospective alliance. George VI had dropped a hint of British intentions while speaking in Banff, Alberta, a few days before, telling the gathering that “we” (the democracies) would “show them” (presumably the Axis nations). American reporters quickly interpreted this remark as pointing to an Anglo-American alliance. (The King’s public-relations aides persuaded reporters not to disclose this incident, and when one American tried to telegraph the story to his paper, the Canadian communications office refused to accept it.) As the royal train moved southward on the evening of June 9, Hull and the King discussed the “serious” conditions in Europe for more than a half hour. Perhaps clarification of the trip’s purpose would come in Washington.

Preparations for the visit had long been in the making. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King had been angling for a royal tour of North America since 1937. The idea intrigued Roosevelt, who, through his representative at the coronation of George VI in 1937, suggested a Washington visit. The new king was favorably inclined, but not until August, 1938 did arrangements for the trip to Canada begin to take form. Mackenzie King relayed the information to President Roosevelt.