Greetin’s, Cousin George

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At the height of the Munich crisis, in September 1938, King George received a letter that Grace Tully, Roosevelt’s private secretary, said was “as informal as any [Roosevelt] ever sent to an old friend.” The letter contained an invitation for the royal family. “It would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations if you could visit the United States,” Roosevelt wrote; ”… if you bring either or both of the children with you they will also be very welcome, and I shall try to have one or two Roosevelts of approximately the same age to play with them!” The President knew the strains of a prolonged tour and the sweltering Washington weather. Might the King prefer “three or four days of very simple country life” at Hyde Park? There would be “no formal entertainments” and it would provide “an opportunity to get a bit of rest and relaxation,” he promised.

Roosevelt requested that talk of the visit remain outside normal diplomatic channels, and therefore secret, until plans matured. Discretion in the early stages might keep isolationist bloodhounds from sniffing out another “entangling alliance” and raising a howl against intrigue. The President asked his Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Joseph P. Kennedy, to deliver the letter personally to the King. He happily delivered the invitation, but later became offended; since Roosevelt kept negotiations concerning the visit on a private rather than official basis, Kennedy soon found himself in the dark as to details. Feeling slighted by Roosevelt’s methods, Kennedy angrily telegraphed Hull, complaining that “if I were not advised by the [British] Foreign Office, I would know nothing about the King’s trip whatsoever. I hate to admit knowing nothing about it because that would seriously interfere, I imagine, with my prestige and contacts here.” Roosevelt tried to soothe Kennedy. He explained to the Ambassador that the discussion “about the proposed visit of their Majesties next year is only in the preliminary stages and that, therefore, I am conducting it personally.” Negotiations remained private.

Not until the settlement of the Czech question, which allowed Hitler to move into the Sudetenland but temporarily avoided war, did George Vl answer Roosevelt’s letter. On October 8 the King publicly announced his intention to visit Canada, and at the same time wrote to the President that he was looking forward to the trip, especially for its contributions “to the cordiality of the relations between our two countries.” He noted that “we shall not be taking the children … as they are much too young for such a strenuous tour.” Roosevelt replied on November 2, discussing in greater detail the projected visit. After talking with the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Lindsay, F.D.R. suggested a trip to Chicago and Washington, to New York City and the World’s Fair, and to Hyde Park. He was not insistent about Chicago, but he did think the King “should go to a Joint Session of the Congress and say a few words of greeting.” Concluding, he told the King he was happy “that Great Britain and the United States have been able to co-operate so effectively in the prevention of war—even though we cannot say that we are ‘out of the woods’ yet.”

George VI agreed with Roosevelt’s suggestions. His itinerary would include Washington, New York, and Hyde Park. The President was especially pleased that the King consented to visit Hyde Park. Mackenzie King would accompany his sovereign as Minister in Attendance. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt later wrote that her husband hoped their Majesties’ visit “would create a bond of friendship between the people of the two countries.” Despite the confident tone of his letter to the King, F.D.R. was convinced that war was just over the horizon and “wanted to make contacts with those he hoped would preserve and adhere to democracy and prove to be allies against fascism.” Hyde Park would be the ideal setting for serious discussions, for Roosevelt felt that he knew people better once they had sampled the estate’s charm. Talks there could be less tense and more personal. Washington and New York could attend to the formalities of the visit and satisfy public curiosity.

Thus in June 1939, plans had become reality. As Hull was conversing with King George in the observation car, signals along the railroad flashed green, and the train continued steadily toward the American capital. George T. Summerlin, the chief of the State Department’s Division of Protocol, worked with Colonel Edward J. Starling, chief of the Secret Service, to provide their Majesties adequate protection. Government agents checked every crossing, bridge, and culvert to insure a safe passage. But each inch of track from Niagara Falls to Washington could not be watched, so a pilot train preceded the royal special. If anarchists or the Irish Republican Army had mined the tracks, the King and Queen would still be safe. Newsmen riding in the pilot train were not enthusiastic about this arrangement. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, however, their locomotive developed a hot box and pulled off on a siding. The royal train rushed past, and the reporters arrived in Washington too late to witness the meeting of King George and President Roosevelt.