The King Listened: The Visit of King George VI to the United States in June 1939

William J. vanden Heuvel (Ambassador to the United Nations European Office, 1977-1979; Ambassador to the United Nations, 1979-1981)

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The visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the United States in June 1939 was without precedent.  Never before had a reigning British monarch set foot in America.  President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the visit (the royal couple were going to be in Canada), and planned every detail of it personally.  He saw it as an opportunity to confront the isolationist forces in this country, who insisted that the gathering storm in Europe was not our concern.  FDR had no faith in the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, known for his policy of appeasement, but he thought the young King and Queen would touch the hearts of Americans, and help them understand that our countries had to stand together to confront the Nazi threat.  For several years, FDR had seen world war as inevitable.

In the masterful movie The King’s Speech, Americans have been introduced to this gentle, shy sovereign who had come to the throne reluctantly, reflecting the virtue of selfless devotion to public duty, when his elder brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936, to marry the woman he loved. For a time, the House of Windsor looked bad, very bad.  As it turned out, it would have looked a lot worse had Edward remained king.  It is well known that Edward and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, consorted with Nazi sympathizers.  In the fall of 1937 the Duke and Duchess of Windsor even made a trip to Germany as special guests of Hitler.

There were many reasons for FDR and King George to respect each other.  Not least was that both had overcome a significant disability as they were called upon to lead their countries.  The King had been a stutterer since childhood, who was to labor for decades to overcome his speech impediment.  The President, ever since an attack of polio when he was 39, had been a paraplegic.

On June 10, 1939, having been entertained at the White House the evening before, King George and Queen Elizabeth traveled to New York and visited the World’s Fair, then motored to Hyde Park, FDR’s family home.  (FDR had written to King George VI, in November 1938: “If you could stay with us at Hyde Park for two or three days, the simplicity and naturalness of such a visit would produce a most excellent effect.”) The crowds along the route were enormous.   The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, was traveling with them.  He noted in his diary that the party sat down to dinner at 10 pm (“most enjoyable… a sort of family affair”), and then the ladies retired early and the three men had a frank and open discussion that went on until 1:30 am.

Mackenzie King, deeply impressed with FDR, wrote in his diary: “His whole conversation with the King was to the effect that every possible assistance short of actual participation in war could be given.  He added that he hoped he might get freed of the Neutrality Act.  Was not sure how long Congress might continue to delay its consideration…”

The King said that the Germans had been spying on England for years, and he believed that his German relatives had been used to wring information from other members of the royal family.  He said that his father, George V, had vowed never to shake hands with the German Ambassador again.   Clearly, he did not bring up his elder brother, the Duke of Windsor.

King George then spoke “very intimately” about Winston Churchill.  He held him accountable for the tragic disaster of Gallipoli in World War I.  The Canadian Prime Minister noted in his diary: “The King indicated he would never wish to appoint Churchill to any office unless it was absolutely necessary in time of war.”  The Prime Minister added:  “I confess I was glad to hear him say that because I think Churchill is one of the most dangerous men I have ever known.”

Less than three months later, World War II began.  Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty.  Eleven months later, Churchill became Prime Minister.  During the war, King George and Churchill became trusted comrades, with deep respect for each other.  Churchill and FDR needed each other, and relied on each other.  Churchill’s wartime speeches record for all time the valiant courage of his leadership, which – along with that of FDR – helped save the western world from Nazi barbarism.

When the King died in February 1952, Winston Churchill was again Prime Minister, left with the solemn responsibility of welcoming a new Elizabethan Age.  He and the King had become trusted comrades with deep respect for one another.  Each had played their historic roles to perfection.  “Without ambition or want of self-confidence” George VI had assumed the heavy burden of the Crown.[1] Winston Churchill became his most loyal minister.

As we all know, history could so easily have taken different turns.


[1] Winston Churchill’s Eulogy for King George VI, The Parliament, February 7, 1952.

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