Here's What You Need to Know: The visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth reassured the British that America was, in spite of the strong strain of isolationism, a possible future ally.
On May 6, 1939, King George VI of Great Britain and his wife Queen Elizabeth arrived in Portsmouth to board the liner Empress of Australia, which was to take them to Canada and subsequently to the United States. This was going to be the first time a reigning British monarch ever officially visited North America, which was exciting to the crowds that had gathered to watch the royal departure. The fact that Britain was on the brink of war with Germany gave the occasion a certain poignancy.
The king hoped for the best, perhaps an 11th-hour development would avert the looming conflict but privately he expected the worst. He wrote uneasily, “I hate leaving the country with the situation as it is.” Yet the king was a man of principle to whom personal desires were subordinate to duty. The war, if it came, promised to be a severe trial. Britain needed the help and support of the Dominion of Canada, and, if lucky, additional aid from the United States.
A Hazardous Voyage
The trip was also a way to salvage the reputation of the monarchy, tarnished by the abdication of George’s older brother, Edward VIII, in 1936. Edward had triggered a crisis when he wanted to marry a twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Declaring he could not bear the burdens of kingship without the “help and support of the woman I love,” he stepped down in December 1936.
Edward married Mrs. Simpson and was created the Duke of Windsor, but controversy dogged him. The duke and duchess made an ill-advised excursion to Nazi Germany, a propaganda coup for Adolf Hitler. So, there was a lot riding on the new king’s trip to America.
Queen Mary, George’s mother, was also on hand at the departure, accompanied by her grandchildren, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. The old queen was the very personification of Britain’s glorious Victorian past. Regal in bearing and ramrod straight, she waved a handkerchief at her departing relations. Margaret, only eight years old, started to cry, but 13-year-old Elizabeth took charge. “Wave,” she admonished her sister, “don’t cry!”
Originally, the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Repulse was supposed to have carried the king and queen over the ocean, but given the uncertainty of the times, it was ultimately decided that the ship had better stick to home waters. The Empress of Australia was an ironic replacement, since it was an old German-built ship that had been given to Britain as a reparations payment after World War I.
The voyage started out well but soon ran into trouble. The ice pack was large that year and had drifted farther south than ususal, into the North Atlantic. To avoid the icebergs the captain was forced to likewise sail farther south than usual. A thick, clammy fog also made the voyage potentially hazardous. Queen Elizabeth wrote Queen Mary, “The fog was like a white cloud round the ship, and the fog horn blew incessantly.… Incredibly eerie, and really quite alarming. We very nearly hit a berg the day before yesterday.” The fact that there was a survivor of the ill-fated Titanic aboard did nothing to lighten the mood.
While the king and queen were at sea the Duke of Windsor once again displayed his penchant for troublemaking. Edward made a radio broadcast to America, his text a seeming endorsement of appeasement. The broadcast was made from Verdun, France, site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, and a not too subtle reference to the horrors of war. Let Hitler have his way, the duke’s message seemed to say, or else face the consequences of another global conflagration. On one or two occasions Edward even gave the Nazi salute to appreciative German onlookers.
The voyage was supposed to last seven days, but fog and ice caused an additional two-day delay. Their majesties landed at Wolfe’s Cove, Quebec, on May 17, 1939. It was the beginning of a month-long, 10,000-mile odyssey that would be both exhilarating and exhausting for the royal pair.
The trip was the brainchild of Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King, who would play host to the royal couple and also accompany them to the United States as minister in residence. The American leg of the journey was largely added at the personal invitation of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Americans had wanted the monarchs to visit the United States in May, almost as soon as they disembarked, because the weather would not be as hot as in June. Mackenzie King, perhaps not wanting to be upstaged by the charismatic Roosevelt, or make it seem as if the United States was more important than the Dominion of Canada, refused.
As a result, King George and Queen Elizabeth would tour most of Canada for three weeks, reserving only about five days for an American excursion. Roosevelt, ebullient as ever, agreed. According to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the president “invited them to come to Washington largely because, believing that we all might be engaged in a life and death struggle, in which Great Britain would be our first line of defense, he hoped their visit would create a bond of friendship between the two countries.”
True enough, but there were other reasons why the president pushed for a royal visit. The King of England would be a pawn in the game of political and diplomatic chess that Roosevelt was playing against isolationists at home and, more indirectly, against Hitler and others of his ilk. King George was considered colorless, but Queen Elizabeth was noted for her immense charm. Their visit would not only make a statement about Anglo-American solidarity in the face of fascist aggression, but also soften the isolationist attitudes that currently prevailed.
The Seams of American Isolationism
Isolationism ran deep in 1930s America, fueled by geography, the Great Depression, memories of World War I, and the fierce independence inherent in the American character. Roosevelt did not want to go to war, but he was also one of the first American leaders who recognized the threat that Hitler represented. Roosevelt the politician had to trump Roosevelt the statesman, at least for the time being. He had to proceed cautiously, or he might find himself out of office.
Geography played a major part in the isolationist attitudes. Before the age of satellite communication, jet travel, and the Internet, the world was a much larger place. To a wheat farmer in Kansas or an auto worker in Detroit, the mighty Atlantic and vast Pacific were oceanic “moats” that protected the Americas from the violence and machinations of the rest of the world.
The airline industry was, if not in its infancy, still struggling with adolescence. Most people traveled by train, in part because many still feared flying, but mostly because air fares were beyond the reach of the average person. In 1935, Pan American Airways inaugurated its fabled “China Clipper” service from San Francisco to Manila. In this service, flying boats island-hopped to Asia, taking about 60 hours one way to do so. Fares were $375 one way (around $4,000 in today’s money) or $675 round trip (about $7,000 to $8,000 today).
Most foreign travel was by ship. The British liner Queen Mary made a record crossing to New York in three days, 21 hours, and 48 minutes, but most vessels took about five days. Asia was even more distant, with most ships taking about 15 days to sail from San Francisco to Japan. Overseas travel was, in the main, for the wealthy. When average Americans viewed foreign newsreels, they might as well have been looking at pictures of the moon.
There was also a feeling that somehow America had been duped by the Allies into entering World War I. The United States had suffered over 300,000 dead and wounded, and yet the cause of world peace, so idealistically promoted by President Woodrow Wilson, was not advanced by the sacrifice. If anything, by the 1930s the world was much worse off. And as if to add insult to injury, the United States had loaned Europe billions of dollars after the war to help get it on its feet. Most of the collective debt was still unpaid.
Some isolationists even blamed the Great Depression, at least in part, on America’s entry into World War I. They argued that American war profiteers had created an illusion of wealth in the 1920s, a bubble that finally burst in 1929. Disillusionment with the war turned most Americans inward. Europe was seen as irredeemably corrupt.
Isolationists applauded when America did not enter the League of Nations, precursor to today’s United Nations. Politicians like Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana become more and more rigid in their attitudes, not recognizing that the world was indeed changing, and that the Pacific and Atlantic moats were not going to be as effective as they were in the 19th century.