Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Germany invaded Poland three months after King George VI’s visit to Washington. The invasion began three months after the visit, not four. This version has been corrected.
I am a history buff on White House entertaining. I was writing to ask if there is anything in The Washington Post’s archives relating to the 1939 royal visit? This visit to the United States by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was the first by a reigning British monarch.
— Dave Emge,
For a nation that fought two wars against the British, we certainly go gaga when visited by their well-bred royals — literally well-bred, with all of that adjective’s animal husbandry connotations.
In August 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that Britain’s king and queen were planning a trip to Canada. FDR composed a letter to George VI. “If this visit should become a reality,” he wrote, “I hope very much that you will extend your visit to include the United States.”
Three months later, the king wrote back: “I am happy to say that the way now seems clear for me to gratify my wish and accept this invitation, which I do with the utmost pleasure.”
The king added that he and his wife, Elizabeth, could spend no more than four days in the States. These were, he wrote, “disturbed days” back home.
He didn’t need to elaborate. Adolf Hitler had annexed Austria, and his troops occupied the Sudentenland. As U.S. Ambassador to France William C. Bullitt put it in a letter to FDR: “the grand smash seems fairly imminent.”
This was no doubt on Roosevelt’s mind when he made his invitation. Isolationists thought the United States had no business getting involved in a European war. Germany was looking for clues as to whether America would stand by the British, as it had 20 years earlier. An official visit by Britain’s monarch would send a message.
On the evening of June 7, the king and queen and their party (including, naturally, a lady in waiting) left Ontario aboard the royal train, arriving at Union Station at 11 the next morning. Streets around the station were mobbed with crowds in excess of 250,000, everyone hoping for a glimpse of George and Elizabeth as they were borne to the White House.
Photographers were told that during the royal parade, they would not be allowed to “rove.” For the first time, The Post reported, “still and movie photographers covering a major event in Washington will be on stands built for them — and photograph from there only.”
That evening, official Washington gathered to dine with the royal entourage in a building the British had put to the torch 125 years earlier. Guests assembled in the East Room of the White House before heading to the State Dining Room. Dinner, served on a gold table service in use since the Madison administration, consisted of clam cocktail, calf’s head soup, terrapin, corn bread, boned capon, cranberry sauce, peas, buttered beets, sweet-potato cones, frozen cheese and cress salad, maple and almond ice cream, white pound cake and coffee.
(If it sounds like American cuisine, it had nothing on what the royals ate when they visited the Roosevelts three days later in Hyde Park, N.Y. FDR’s mother was aghast that the king and queen were served hot dogs.)
In his state dinner toast, FDR remarked upon the special Anglo-American bond: “It is because each nation is lacking in fear of the other that we have unfortified borders between us. It is because neither of us fears aggression on the part of the other that we have entered no race of armaments the one against the other.”
The next day, the Roosevelts and the royals sailed from the Navy Yard on the presidential yacht Potomac to visit Mount Vernon, where the great-great-great-grandson of King George III visited the tomb of George Washington. Next on the itinerary was a tour of the Fort Hunt Civilian Conservation Corps camp and a stop at Arlington National Cemetery.
The royal train left that evening for New York, where George VI and Elizabeth were scheduled to visit the World’s Fair.
The trip to Washington — 75 years ago today — had been a success. The Post wrote of the royals’ departure: “A Washington Post copy boy, who saw the royal couple waving to the crowds as their palace-on-wheels rolled out of Union Station the other night, will never forget the scene. As they moved away in the gloom, the Queen’s tiara sparkling, he turned to a reporter and sighed:
“‘It was just like a fadeout in a movie, wasn’t it?’”
Three months later, Germany invaded Poland, raising the curtain on an entirely different sort of movie.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.