Greetin’s, Cousin George

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The next day after church the King spoke with Roosevelt alone and discussed Europe in general terms. The President expressed hope for a Franco-Italian détente and was, George VI noted later, “definitely anti-Russian.” Returning the conversation to the role of the United States in a future war, F.D.R. promised the King that if American naval patrols spotted a U-boat, they “would sink her at once” and “wait for the consequences.” Continuing his promises, Roosevelt declared that if the Germans bombed London, the United States would enter the war. At that point diplomatic discussions ceased; it was time for a picnic.

The Roosevelts wanted to treat their guests to a “traditional” American outing. Mrs. Roosevelt corralled friends to barbecue hot dogs and serve beer. Strawberries for shortcake, a favorite of the King, came from the neighboring farm of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. The royal couple sampled the hot dogs, but the King’s enthusiasm waned when he dropped mustard on his coat. This did not dull his taste for beer, however, and he downed several glasses, blissfully unaware that the Central Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Indianapolis had passed a resolution deploring the inclusion of beer on the Hyde Park menu. Princess Te Ata, a half-breed Choctaw-Chickasaw Indian who lived on Park Avenue in New York City, entertained the guests with Indian tales and songs. She was a replacement for the usual Roosevelt picnic game, “musical squat,” a scramble for cushions on the lawn rather than for chairs.

Next on the agenda was a swim. The President donned his two-piece bathing suit and the King appeared in a one-piece garment, which James Roosevelt described as a “genuine relic from the era of… King Edward VII.” Both swimmers piled into F.D.R.’s hand-operated Ford, and the President whizzed the King around Hyde Park; according to James Roosevelt, this gave Scotland Yard palpitations. (The President’s Secret Service men, of course, were used to the vehicle.) After a brief dip they joined the others at the house for a quiet supper of fish chowder and oyster crackers.

The visit was over. Like old friends, the Roosevelts and the royal couple exchanged photographs and gifts. They reminisced during the drive to Hyde Park Station, where the King and Queen boarded the train that would take them back to Canada. In parting, George VI assured his hosts, “It’s been a long weekend, but a short visit.” Dusk covered the valley as the train moved slowly north, and people who had gathered along the banks of the Hudson began to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Wistfully the Roosevelts returned to Hyde Park.

Certainly the tour had been a personal triumph for George VI and Elizabeth, but it also brought international reverberations. A German editor suggested that the royal visit had been “the most important link in the whole chain of measures whereby Britain has attempted … to tie America more firmly to British destinies.” Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest from Royal Oak, Michigan, who by that time was rabidly anti-Roosevelt, labelled the tour a bid “to nullify our basic foreign policy of no entanglements.” The mystique of monarchy may have captivated many Americans, but cynics saw the visit as only “so much high-grade panhandling,” as one of them expressed it. One foreign affairs expert concluded that the British government wanted “to count on North America as a whole for moral and material support in its continental adventures.” The deepening of “understanding and sympathy between the English speaking nations,” as Roosevelt put it, had aroused a suspicious nerve in the American character.

Although they lacked proof, isolationists had reason for suspicion. Because “America First” sentiment had for the moment blocked hope of revising neutrality legislation, Roosevelt was seeking a new course that might release United States foreign policy from its legislative fetters. Since Congress had proved recalcitrant, the President believed that personal executive action was necessary. In their conversations George VI had noted that the President was “terribly keen” on naval patrols; yet this was mainly bravado. Roosevelt knew that he could not take a country to war so easily. He had not even thrown his weight behind the Bloom Bill, which remained buried in committee until July. Though Roosevelt’s most optimistic statements to the King smacked of active intervention and probably contained the seed of the future “destroyer deal,” Lend-Lease, and the “shoot-on-sight” order, in 1939 his interventionism looked to the south and the Caribbean rather than to Europe.

Foremost in the President’s mind was defense of the Western Hemisphere. Like most Americans, F.D.R. wished to avoid American participation in a European war, but the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy did not need to be reminded that the Panama Canal and control of the Caribbean were vital to the country’s security. The British would have preferred a more positive response toward European problems, but F.D.R. had done little serious thinking beyond hemispheric defense. Only the outbreak of World War II, a few months later, would change that.