A Royal Visit Helped Lay Groundwork for World War II's Grand Alliance

February 8, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIMonarchyBritish EmpireFDRAllies

A Royal Visit Helped Lay Groundwork for World War II's Grand Alliance

George VI visited the United States in the spring of 1939 as Britain prepared for war with Germany.

Congressional Neutrality Acts

President Roosevelt felt all these trends keenly. In the first years of his presidency, he was occupied with the economic woes at home, but after 1935 foreign affairs came to the fore, beginning with Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s brutal conquest of Ethiopia. In response to the growing tensions in the world, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts, the last one issued in 1937. Among other things, if a war broke out anywhere in the globe, American ships would be prohibited from carrying arms to belligerents, and no loans, directly or indirectly, could be extended to warring parties. Even nonmilitary goods could be excluded, unless prepaid.

In late 1937, Congressman Louis Leon Ludlow introduced proposed legislation that would add an amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, if adopted, would make any congressional declaration of war illegal, unless the United States was physically invaded. If there was no armed invasion, Congress could only declare war if the action was confirmed by a nationwide vote, a national referendum. Luckily, enough congressmen realized how ludicrous the measure was and turned it down, but it showed the depth of isolationism in the country.

The Woeful State of America’s Military

Roosevelt’s main concern in the late 1930s was to outmaneuver the isolationists and bolster America’s woefully neglected defenses. The president was not about to enter any war if he could help it, but given German and Japanese aggression, he realized the need to strengthen the U.S. armed forces.

Congress’s “penny wise, pound foolish” neglect of the Army and Navy was yet another byproduct of the prevailing isolationism. In 1939, the U.S. Army was described by Life magazine as the “smallest and worst equipped” army of the great powers. Most of its artillery was World War I-vintage, and it was short of machine guns, howitzers, and personnel. The Army’s strength was listed as 174,000, ranking it 19th in the world, sandwiched between Portugal and Bulgaria. But even this figure is misleading; if one counts the proportion of men under arms to the total population, about 130 million, the U.S. ranking was more like 45th.

The Republic seemed formidable, but the Army and Navy “arm” that wielded the Republic’s sword was atrophied, weakened by draconian budget cuts and purposeful neglect. Roosevelt wanted to strengthen the armed forces, and help victims of Japanese and fascist aggression, but politics tied his hands. His only weapons were the written and spoken word, but rhetoric would not stop Hitler’s tanks.

A Hotdog Picnic

Hitler’s bullying had caused Britain and France to appease him in the infamous Munich Pact in late 1938. Abandoning even the pretense of moderation, Hitler marched into Bohemia and Moravia, in effect destroying the rump of what was left of the Czech Republic.

Roosevelt made his first overtures regarding a royal visit to America at the height of the Munich crisis. The president was often accused of being devious, even mendacious at times, but in this case the political climate demanded he proceed with the utmost caution. Eschewing the normal diplomatic channels, he wrote a personal letter to the king, inviting him to America, saying “it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations.”

Of course there were details to sort out, which required time. Roosevelt asked that all negotiations regarding the royal visit be kept secret, at least until plans were finalized and more definite. Hard-core isolationists like Senator Borah were always on the lookout for “foreign entanglements” and might consider the king’s trip to be the beginning of an unwanted Anglo-American alliance. To assure secrecy, Roosevelt had Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, hand deliver the letter personally to the king. Kennedy complied, but later grew resentful when Roosevelt neglected to advise him of the negotiations and their progress. The president tried to mollify Kennedy, but the ambassador still felt his prestige was somehow compromised.

After the king and queen’s visit was made public, a predictable variety of reactions ensued. Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to have the royals experience something that they could not get elsewhere, namely an authentic slice of real American culture. This put her in conflict with her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Since Springwood, the Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park, New York, was going to be on the itinerary, the First Lady decided to stage a picnic for the royal couple. Sara Roosevelt, the imperious matriarch of the family, was aghast. The old lady was Victorian to the core, and something of a social snob to boot. The idea of serving “common” picnic foods like hot dogs was unthinkable. But in this battle of wills, Eleanor got her way.

Actually, the elder Mrs. Roosevelt was not alone in her opinion. “Oh dear, oh dear,” Eleanor wrote with tongue in cheek. “So many people are worried that the dignity of our country will be imperiled by inviting royalty to a hot dog picnic!” One or two hot dog companies then competed for the honor of having their brand consumed by the king and queen. In the end, none of the competing brands got the coveted prize. Harry Johannson, 25-year-old son of Springwood’s cook, Nellie Johannson, was the one who obtained the royal frankfurters. The young man traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, and went directly to Swift and Company. He picked Swift because, quite simply, they were “the best.”

Once the royal visit was announced, the isolationists in Congress accepted it as a fait accompli. They could not resist continuing their partisan sniping, however. Senator Borah, intransigent as ever, suggested that if there was a lull in the conversation the president might ask the king about paying the $5 billion of war debt that Britain owed the United States.

A Spartan Reception

The king and queen’s sleek streamliner entered the United States via the suspension bridge that spanned the border at Niagara Falls. The royal train, its cars a dazzling blue and silver, stopped at the small brick station where dignitaries waited to extend an official welcome to their Britannic majesties. Floodlights bathed the platform, but there was no bunting, and only a small patch of red carpet. The only real sign that something unusual was going on was the presence of two small British and American flags and the unmistakable odor of fresh paint.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his wife were on hand to greet the royal pair, as was Sir Ronald Lindsay, the British ambassador. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth appeared on the observation car, but after a few hasty words of greeting, Hull and his party boarded the same train. The idea was to continue the trip overnight, riding through Buffalo and on to Washington, D.C. The Niagara Falls ceremony was spartan because it had to be. Neither the city of Niagara Falls nor the New York Central Railroad had enough money for elaborate decorations. One British correspondent, not knowing the financial realities, was impressed by American “simplicity.”

As the train sped southward, Hull and the king had some private political conversations in the observation car before finally turning in for the night. Progress was swift, because the way was cleared and all signals flashed green. Every culvert railroad crossing and bridge had been thoroughly check by the Secret Service because there was a fear that radical Irish Republican Army terrorists might have planted a bomb in an attempt to assassinate the king.

Even the FBI or Secret Service could not inspect every mile of track, so a “pilot” train went ahead as a decoy and locomotive “guinea pig.” If there were any explosives on the track, the pilot train would blow up first. The pilot train was filled with reporters, who no doubt were not enthusiastic about these arrangements! And, as if to add to their woes, their locomotive developed engine trouble and was force to a siding in Pennsylvania. The royal train flew past, so the reporters came into Washington too late to cover the arrival.

“God Save the King”

President Roosevelt and a host of dignitaries met the royal couple at Washington’s Union Station. It was the first time a president had greeted his guests outside the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt was all smiles, but she later admitted she dreaded such formal occasions. After the train pulled in the king and queen appeared, His Majesty wearing the full dress uniform of an admiral of the Royal Navy.

Roosevelt was also in formal attire, standing with the help of an aide. Leg braces weighing some 40 pounds were hidden beneath his pants legs. Secretary Hull formally introduced the two heads of state. “Mr. President,” Hull intoned with his soft Tennessee drawl, “I have the honor to present their Britannic Majesties.” Extending his hand, a beaming Roosevelt said “At last I greet you!” The king warmly shook the president’s hand and replied, “It is indeed a pleasure for Her Majesty and myself to be here.”

The Marine Band struck up “God Save the King,” then followed with the obligatory “Star Spangled Banner.” This concluded the formal greetings, so the president and Mrs. Roosevelt escorted their guests to waiting limousines past a guard of honor. A motorcade formed up to take the king and queen to a reception at the White House.