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.

The motorcade left the station and proceeded up Constitution Avenue as a nearby battery of artillery boomed out a 21-gun salute to honor the royal pair. An estimated 600,000 people lined the parade route, cheering lustily as the limos slowly drove by. The weather was unbearably hot, hovering somewhere around 94 degrees. The king must have been suffocating under his heavy uniform that was festooned with medals and dripping with gold braid, but he put on a brave face. Even Roosevelt looked par-boiled in his cutaway coat and striped trousers.

Soldiers, sailors, and police were stationed every few feet along Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, partly for show and partly as crowd control for the enthusiastic, surging masses. Queen Elizabeth was the star of the show and would continue to dazzle throughout their American sojourn. She seemed radiant in spite of the heat, with brilliant blue eyes and a manner that oozed genuine grace and charm.

People who were watching from the tall buildings that lined the route were disappointed, because Her Majesty held a parasol to guard her delicate features from the sun’s blistering rays. At one point, when Eleanor Roosevelt waved to the crowd, a spectator impertinently yelled, “Put your hand down! Let’s see the queen!”

Arriving at the White House

The motorcade finally reached the White House, driving into the south entrance. There the king and queen were greeted by members of the diplomatic corps. There were some sticky moments that had nothing to do with the heat. Because of the rule of precedence, the Ambassador of Japan and the Ambassador of China stood next to each other, though the two nations were in the midst of a bloody war. The reception was short because of a scheduled garden party at the British Embassy.

That party was considered the event of the season, and invitations were much sought after by Washington’s political and social elite. The temperatures were still high, and a smothering humidity added to the discomfort. The oven-like atmosphere produced some bizarre concessions to the weather. One senator wore a straw hat, while Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan wore an ice cream suit.

Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Garner was an embarrassment to all concerned. The garrulous old Texan was famed for his description of the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss,” though reporters had sanitized the quote to “warm spit.” Gardner lived up to his reputation by going up to King George and jocularly slapping him on the back.

Roosevelt returned the hospitality with a formal state dinner during which he toasted his royal guests, saying the United States “welcomes on its soil the king and queen of Great Britain, of our neighbor Canada, and of all the far-flung British Commonwealth of Nations.” For all of Roosevelt’s bonhomie, he felt the British Empire was an antiquated institution and could not bear to mention it specifically.

After the formal dinner, guests were entertained by a varied lot of artists. Kate Smith belted out her rendition of “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” but the rest of the program was decidedly rural in nature. North Carolina’s Soco Gap Dancers did a rousing square dance, and the Coon Creek Girls from Pinchem-Tight Hollow, Kentucky, fiddled away the night, literally and figuratively, with country tunes. African American opera singer Marian Anderson was the highlight of the evening. Anderson sang “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” “Tramping,” and “Ave Maria” in a beautiful contralto. The affair broke up about midnight, and everyone considered the visit to be a success so far.

“The British are coming!”

Friday, June 9, 1939, was the second full day in Washington, with a schedule that included 10 engagements in 11 hours. But the king and queen considered a visit to Capitol Hill the most nerve-wracking of all. Virtually all of Congress would be on hand to meet them. The majority of Congress were rabid isolationists.

The timing of their visit was superb, or horrendous, depending on one’s political views. The Bloom Bill had recently come out of committee, a proposal what would, among other things, alter neutrality legislation by lifting the arms embargo and allowing the “cash and carry” concept to go forward. That is, belligerents would be able to buy war materials from the United States for cash, not credit, and would be required to ship the purchases overseas themselves.

Earlier, Roosevelt tried to set a fire under Congress in support of the bill, confiding to Senator Tom Connally of Texas that he would “like to have the arms embargo lifted before their [the monarchs’] arrival.” But the stubborn solons would not move so fast. In fact, one congressman snidely called the bill “a present to King George.” When King George and Queen Elizabeth arrived at the Capitol the bill was set to be voted on the very next week. Its fate hung in the balance.

Congressmen assembled under the capitol’s vast and soaring dome, waiting for the royal arrival, and the air was abuzz with anticipation. Vice President Garner started telling “down home” stories and ribald jokes, evoking titters and then gales of laughter from those standing immediately beside him. Some of the more conservative senators gave him icy stares, but Garner was undeterred. He walked over to the door and peered out over the Capitol steps. Suddenly, he looked back to his colleagues and loudly proclaimed, “The British are coming!”

The “British” were indeed coming. King George and Queen Elizabeth’s motorcade had arrived, and within minutes they were standing in the rotunda ready to meet members of Congress. By accident or design, the royals were standing under a great canvas paining of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the culminating battle of the American Revolution that gave independence to the United States.

The king and queen’s regal bearing, obvious charm, and genuine affection for the United States won many hearts, and perhaps even a few minds. Senator Borah, the arch isolationist, was wearing a formal morning suit he had not donned in 35 years. The king, usually deemed colorless and dull, surprised many when he called Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina by his nickname, “Cotton Ed.” Louisiana Congressman Robert Mouton kissed the queen’s hand. Elizabeth soon had everyone under her spell. Congressman Ned Patton remarked, “If America can keep Queen Elizabeth, Congress will regard Britain’s war debt as cancelled.”

The Trip to New York

The visit to the halls of Congress was a success, but there were many more stops on the royal agenda. There was a cruise down the Potomac to visit George Washington’s estate and place a wreath at his tomb, a stop at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and a brief stay at Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects.

King George and Queen Elizabeth next departed Washington for a brief glimpse of New York and the World’s Fair that was being heavily promoted at the time. Their Majesties were greeted by New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, then were whisked off to the World’s Fair grounds at Flushing Meadow. New York had not seen an affair like this since Lindbergh’s flight in 1927; some three and a half million people turned out to see the king and queen

The World’s Fair of 1939 was justly famous, but as the tour progressed the king seemed more and more agitated, even impatient. Finally, nature won over royal dignity. “Where is it?” the king asked with a note of real urgency in his voice. Fair promoter Grover Whalen finally got the hint, and the king was led to the men’s restroom.

After New York it was on to the last stop on the royal tour, a brief stay at the Roosevelt country home at Hyde Park. The president and First Lady had gone ahead, so they were sitting in the mansion’s library ready to receive their royal guests when they arrived. Sara Delano Roosevelt insisted that the king would want tea to drink, not a cocktail. For once ignoring his mother’s imperious demands, Franklin had the cocktail shaker primed and ready when the king and queen appeared.

“My mother thinks you should have a cup of tea—she doesn’t approve of cocktails,” the president confided.King George eagerly accepted a cocktail, adding, “Neither does my mother!”

That evening the president, King George, and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discussed political issues after the rest had turned in for the night. Superficially, the king and the president were a study in contrasts. Roosevelt was older, loved the limelight, and was almost always charming. The king was painfully shy, hated the limelight, and disliked being king.

Yet the pair also had things in common. Stricken with polio that made him a paraplegic, Roosevelt had overcome his disability, psychologically if not physically. King George had a terrible stutter, which made public speaking agony, though he managed to partly overcome the disability in time. Both men also were basically country squires at heart, but with a social conscience and a hatred of fascism.