During his state visit to Britain May 24-26, President Obama gave Queen Elizabeth II a leather-bound album of mementos from her parents’ trip to the United States in 1939. The queen seemed to like it, and even stuffy British commentators thought the gesture classy. But little news coverage noted that the 1939 royal tour of America—which occurred 72 years ago this week—was a triumph of public relations and one of the most important diplomatic events in the history of US-British relations. If it were made into a movie, “The King’s Visit” could be just as dramatic and moving as “The King’s Speech.”
It would be the same king in both films, of course – King George VI. The darkening atmosphere would be the same, as the night of World War II was drawing across Europe. But the pivotal character would be Franklin D. Roosevelt instead of speech therapist Lionel Logue. The prime obstacle to be overcome would be, not a stammer, but Americans’ historical memory of the redcoats.
No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on US soil until King George and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, crossed the border from Canada on June 7, 1939. Many US voters were isolationist and wanted no part of a European war. FDR thought the sight of a real king might change their minds. “I think it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations,” he said in his breezy invitation to “My dear King George.”
The canny FDR was right. Crowds lined D.C. streets for a glimpse of the modest king. Newsreels noted that the last time the British had marched through the streets of Washington, they burned the White House. This time, they burned only a few hot dogs, the dish President Roosevelt famously served the royal couple during their visit to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Three months later, Britain and Germany were at war. Americans sympathized with Britain’s plight, due in no small part to the royal visit, according to the FDR library’s history of the visit. “Britons were no longer strangers or the evil colonial rulers from the past but familiar friends and relatives with whom Americans could identify,” concludes the history.