December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
It was the first time in history that British sovereigns had come to see what they lost in 1776. George and Franklin, Elizabeth and Eleanor, hit it off like old friends; even Texas congressmen melted under the royal charm. Brewing was a crucial World War II alliance
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Although Roosevelt believed the trip to Washington necessary, George VI, upon arrival, may have entertained second thoughts about its appropriateness. The warmth of the greeting at Union Station was nothing compared to the weather. The temperature soared to ninety-four degrees, and waves of heat rose from the street as the motorcade departed from the station. In their open car at the head of the parade, Roosevelt was almost suffocating in his cutaway, striped pants, and high hat, while the King, wearing the heavy full-dress uniform of an admiral of the fleet, came near to fainting from the heat—according to Grace Tully, he “could not have been more wretched had he been encased in a suit of armor.”
Still, more than 600,000 people jammed Constitution Avenue to catch sight of royalty. They cheered wildly. Police, soldiers, and sailors, stationed every ten feet along the parade route, restrained the surging throng with difficulty. Ten Flying Fortresses and numerous fighter planes roared overhead, but they did not drown out the rumbling tanks and clattering cavalry in the parade, or the noisy crowd that fought for vantage points along its route. It appeared that all Washington had turned out. Although the visit was “unofficial,” work stopped in the capital city. Schools were let out, government employees got the day off, shops closed, and even chain food stores shut down between eleven and one so their employees could ogle.
The procession turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, where people had rented hotel rooms at exorbitant prices to get a clear view of the King and Queen. Guests jammed the windows. Unfortunately, to protect herself against the heat, Queen Elizabeth carried a parasol, mauve lined in green, which frustrated the window-wedgers above. Those on the searing pavement below were hardly better off. Stacked ten deep in places, most of them strained mightily for only a momentary glimpse. Soldiers blocked the view of some, and ubiquitous Secret Service men trotted beside the cars, creating yet another obstruction. The crowd standing near Fourteenth Street and Pennsylvania edged away from the parade route when a light tank began to smoke, then stalled and burst into flames. Cavalrymen maneuvered their horses smugly around their disabled competition. But Americans had come to see royalty and they would not be denied. When Mrs. Roosevelt’s waving blocked the crowd’s view, a voice yelled, “Put your hand down! Let us see the Queen!”
The motorcade drove into the south entrance of the White House, where, for the first time since the Civil War, soldiers stood guard with rifles and fixed bayonets. Inside the Executive Mansion foreign diplomats had gathered to receive the King and Queen. Because of rules of precedence China’s ambassador stood with Japan’s, and the representative of Franco’s Spain paired off with his counterpart from the Soviet Union. After meeting with the diplomats the royal couple took a quick sightseeing drive around Washington. The tour ended prematurely so that the King and Queen might dress for the capital’s main social event of the year, the garden party at the British Embassy.
On the embassy’s extensive lawns, Washington society rubbed elbows, and then some, in a determined effort to stay near the royal presence and the punch bowls. Over a thousand uncomfortably dressed guests jammed the humid gardens. As one reporter remarked, going to the party was in itself an “excellent weight-reducing privilege.” Having an invitation meant being “acceptable.” Originally Lady Lindsay, the British ambassador’s wife, had invited only a select group of congressmen and their wives, apparently following her husband’s dictum that the garden party was like “heaven—some are taken and some are not.” But when those omitted raised a storm of protest, the embassy expanded the guest list. Most congressmen finally received an invitation, and their wives dragged them to the embassy to mingle nonchalantly with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Jr., John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd.
Styles of dress were not the only compromises made with formality. The heat and humidity loosened the bindings of convention. Perspiring women fanned themselves with invitation-cud envelopes and parched men struggled around the punch bowls for iced tea and lemonade, a scene which prompted Representative C. Jasper Bell to blurt out that the party “was sort of like our church socials in Missouri.” King George tried to ease the situation by tracking “Finder’s keepers!” when someone dropped a coin in the receiving line, but he did not stoop to pick it up himself. Vice President Garner succeeded in burying all protocol in the punch bowl when he dealt the King a Texas-style greeting—a hearty slap on the back. Ickes, when he heard of it, noted sarcastically in his diary that the slap was only “a showing of familiarity and bad breeding necessary to impress others with his democracy.” Somehow able to ignore the congressional buffoonery, a diplomat concluded that the garden party, which had “caused more heartburns, more adverse press comment, [and] more of a tempest in a teapot than any social event … in this country, [went] off beautifully.”
The formal state dinner that evening gave Garner another opportunity to display his “democracy.” Sitting on the Queen’s right, Cactus Jack was as “full of life as a kitten,” Ickes noted. The Secretary of the Interior was shocked. Obviously, he told his diary, Garner had “no breeding or natural dignity,” treating royalty as he would poker cronies. Ickes doubted “if he had any more self-restraint” at a White House dinner “than he would have shown at a church supper in Uvalde, Texas.” Later the Vice President pawed and grabbed the King. Then, according to Ickes, Garner “reach[ed] his arm behind [the King’s] back as if in a semi-embrace. I suppose that…to Garner the King was simply a visiting Elk.”
Guests then adjourned to the East Room for an entertainment chosen by Mrs. Roosevelt. It presented a variety of American music from Negro spirituals to popular tunes. Kate Smith forced a rearrangement of the program, fearing that she might be late for her radio show. Mrs. Roosevelt introduced her as “one of our greatest singers,” whereupon she sang “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” and received polite applause. Ickes thought that Kate Smith “was awful, both in appearance and performance.” North Carolina’s Soco Gap Square Dancers stomped, clapped, and whirled through “Dive and Shoot the Owl” and “London Bridge.” This perked up Garner sufficiently to remark that the Queen might have dozed off “if those fellers hadn’t been raisin’ the roof.” The Vice President kept alert even while the Coon Creek Girls from Pinchem-Tight Hollow, Kentucky, strummed several folk songs. Perhaps the snake rattle in the leader’s fiddle fascinated Cactus Jack; it made little difference to the rest of the fatigued audience. For nearly everyone the highlight of the evening was Marian Anderson, who sang “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” “Tramping,” and “Ave Maria.” Garner, however, was unresponsive: “So far as I could observe,” wrote Ickes, “he never gave her a hand.”
The affair finally broke up at about midnight, and the King and Queen went to bed in order to be fresh for Friday’s ordeal of meeting congressmen at the Capitol.
A number of congressmen had continued to voice their suspicions about the royal visit. Some thought that Roosevelt was trying to influence voting on the Bloom Bill, which would grant broader powers to the President and topple existing neutrality legislation by extending cash-and-carry provisions to arms and ammunition. The King’s speech at Banff, Hull’s frank talk with reporters at Niagara Falls, and Roosevelt’s statement that he would discuss foreign affairs with the King although the “conversations would not be significant” had not eased congressional doubts. The previous March, Roosevelt had confided to Senator Tom Connally of Texas that the King and Queen would be “coming over” and that he would “like to have the arms embargo repealed before their arrival.” Unfortunately, the Congress had not moved that fast. Perhaps, the more wary individuals speculated, meeting the King and Queen under the Capitol rotunda was a devious Roosevelt plan to sway congressional sentiment. But most of the skeptical forgot these notions when the King and Queen entered.
Tired of Garner’s antics in the rotunda, several senators shushed the Vice President into respectability when they glimpsed the monarchs. Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, a leading isolationist, stood at the head of the line to shake hands with a king whose country owed more than five billion dollars in war debts. This seemed unimportant to Borah now. He had even taken out of mothballs a morning suit which he had not worn in thirty-five years, to look his best for the King.
George VI and Elizabeth, as it happened, stood beneath a painting of Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown. When Key Pittman began to introduce his colleagues, senatorial whispers of “She’s lovely,” “She’s charming,” arose from those still waiting. The Queen heard these compliments and acknowledged them with a smile. Suspicions and tensions eased, and even the crustiest isolationists melted when the King greeted Senator Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina, whom he had met at the garden party, as “Cotton Ed.”
Next, New York’s Sol Bloom, acting chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, stepped up to present the members of the House. Nervous, he fumbled with his hat and mispronounced his colleagues’ names, bumbling the introductions. Following Garner’s lead, House members turned on their democratic charm. Robert Mouton, who represented a Creole district in Louisiana, hailed the King and Queen as “ votre majestés ”; then he astounded everyone by grabbing the Queen’s hand and kissing it. Nat Patton of Crockett, Texas, accosted the King, shouting: “Cousin George, I bring you greetin’s from the far-flung regions of the Empire State of Texas.” Turning to a colleague, he stated, “If America can keep Queen Elizabeth, Congress will regard Britain’s war debt as cancelled.”
Successfully enduring the hot lights and congressional ardor, the King and Queen rushed to the presidential yacht Potomac for lunch and a leisurely cruise to Mount Vernon. Here George VI placed a wreath on George Washington’s grave. Returning by automobile, the party stopped briefly at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at nearby Fort Hunt, Virginia. The camp fascinated the King, who wanted to begin a similar operation in Great Britain. Exhausted after a formal dinner at the British Embassy, the King and Queen returned to their train for the trip to Red Bank, New Jersey, where next morning they would board a destroyer, the U.S.S. Warrington, and sail to New York City.
On Pier 1 at the Battery a large gray alley cat stretched drowsily on the red carpet intended only for royalty. Policemen shooed away the intruder. Flying the Stars and Stripes aft and the Royal Standard forward, the Warrington docked. A bosun piped the King and Queen ashore, where Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and Governor Herbert H. Lehman welcomed them. A morning mist hid some skyscrapers from view, but more than three and a half million people turned out to witness the spectacle of royalty. In Central Park a million school children waved British and American flags. But the twenty-five-car motorcade could not linger long in Manhattan. A time schedule had to be kept and security precautions followed. The motorcycle escort sped up and quickly whisked the King and Queen to the World’s Fair in Flushing.
Whalen found the King outside. Defeated at Perylon Hall, he bundled George VI into a car and they drove to the Court of Peace, where the King was to review troops. Precise plans governed the review. As soon as the King stepped into a specially chalked area, a signal would be given and the troops would instantly swing into motion. Whalen was just explaining the chalk mark to the King when their car reached the Court of Peace. George VI, unmindful of Whalen’s explanation, shot from the car. Accidentally, he stepped on the chalked spot and the soldiers moved out, much to his surprise. The now puffing Whalen explained. George VI protested: “I won’t take the review.” Again he demanded, “When do we eat?” Whalen was too out of breath to answer, and the King trotted off. Once more Whalen chugged after him. When he caught up, George VI pleaded, “Where is it ?” Only then did “Mr. New York” understand, and he directed the King to the nearest rest room.
A few minutes later, while the Meyer Davis orchestra played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Indian Love Call,” the King at last ate lunch. Afterward the royal couple toured the fair grounds in a blue and orange trackless train from which emanated strains of “The Sidewalks of New York.” The King seemed more at ease in the afternoon, but everyone was relieved when the World’s Fair visit ended. George VI and Elizabeth climbed into a waiting automobile for the drive up the Hudson to Hyde Park. There they might rest royal hands swollen from endless handshaking.
The Roosevelts were sitting in the library of their Hyde Park mansion when a member of the royal party phoned to explain that they would arrive late. The President had a pitcher of martinis ready when his guests drove in, even though his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, insisted that the King would prefer tea. As the King approached the cocktail table, F.D.R. observed, “My mother thinks you should have a cup of tea—she doesn’t approve of cocktails.” George VI answered, “Neither does my mother,” and gratefully took a drink.
The atmosphere at Hyde Park was intimate and informal. Only the butlers gave the gathering any hint of convention, and they inadvertently alleviated that. During the evening meal, a serving table suddenly collapsed, shattering part of the dinner service on the floor. The guilty servant stood in shameful silence, pierced by the stares of the Roosevelt women. He knew that he had overloaded the table, but Mrs. James R. Roosevelt saved him further embarrassment when she said, “I hope none of my dishes were broken,” and laughed. The King, the Queen, and the President seated themselves in the library after dinner, only to hear a second tinkling crash. Another butler was sprawled on the library floor surrounded by a sea of bottles, glasses, ice cubes, and liquor. The tray of drinks, in the words of Grace Tully, had “hurtled into space” and the butler “bounced after it like a ballplayer sliding into second base.” By the time the servant managed to pour the drinks, the hour was late, and everyone soon retired except Roosevelt, George VI, and Mackenzie King.
Left alone, the three men talked more seriously about the perilous drift of events in Europe. The defense of the Caribbean gravely concerned Roosevelt. As early as 1936 he had conceived a plan of establishing bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, and Trinidad for the better protection of the Americas and to prevent these territories from falling into hostile hands. American naval maneuvers in the winter of 1938-39 had initiated the idea of a Western Atlantic patrol. Roosevelt mentioned that it was a waste of money for Canada to expand her fleet, for the United States could defend the Western Hemisphere. The President also assured his companions that he would try to do something to ease the restrictions of the most recent Neutrality Act. In truth, he explained, he and Hull were doing their best to put public opinion on the right course. Finally, Roosevelt patted the King’s knee and said, “Young man, it’s time for you to go to bed.” George VI went to his room, but before retiring observed to Mackenzie King how impressed he was with Roosevelt. F.D.R. was like a father, the King said, giving him “his most careful and wise advice.”
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.
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.
Still, the royal visit to the United States constituted an undeniable diplomatic success. The King and Queen had spurred the development of a neighborly spirit between the two countries. Though the visit changed no vote on the proposed revision of neutrality legislation, a better understanding among the Atlantic powers now existed. Americans discovered that royalty went beyond storybook kings and queens. They loved the smiling and personable Elizabeth. Women carefully studied her wardrobe. Men cheered the way George quaffed beer. The King and Queen had sampled good old American hot dogs and liked them. Even the hard-bitten vendors at Coney Island were caught up by the aura of monarchy. The day after the Hyde Park picnic, signs went up on some of the beachside hot-dog stands: “By Special Appointment to his Majesty the King.”