THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
On June 11, 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attended a picnic at the Hyde Park residence of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The occasion would be best remembered for 'introducing' the British Royals to the Hot Dog, a memory immortalized by the following day's New York Times headline which read "KING TRIES HOTDOG AND ASKS FOR MORE". But behind the festivities of the day, that famous American Royal Picnic would turn out to be an essential moment in the Special Relationship, one which was key in the years to follow as the Second World War developed.
King George VI had only recently ascended to the British throne in 1936, after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII. The Royal couple were to travel to Canada in 1939 and when FDR was made aware of the plans he wrote a letter, dated September 17, 1938, inviting the Royals to visit the USA. Delivered by Joseph Kennedy, then US Ambassador to the UK, it said "I think it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations if you could visit the United States". The meeting would be especially important as the King and Queen's arrival on June 7, 1939 marked the first time a reigning British monarch had stepped foot on US soil since the American Revolution.
According to the FDR Library, "Americans heartily welcomed the British royalty with thunderous applause and adulation when the King and Queen arrived in Washington on June 8, 1939. Crowds lined the streets for a chance to glimpse the King and Queen as they traveled throughout the city. In Washington, the couple was treated to all the formalities one would expect from a State Visit. There was an afternoon reception at the British Embassy, followed by a formal evening of dining and musical entertainment at the White House."
After taking in the sights of DC, the trip also saw the King and Queen travel by presidential yacht down the Potomac to Mount Vernon, followed by excursions to the Fort Hunt CCC Camp and Arlington Cemetery, where they laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The remainder of the trip saw the Royals stay at the Roosevelt's estate in Hyde Park, New York. As the FDR Library wrote, "After two days in Washington, the tone of the royal couple's visit transformed from formal to informal as they accompanied the Roosevelts to their home in Hyde Park, New York. The King and Queen's stay in Hyde Park illustrated to the American people that although they were Royalty, they also enjoyed the simpler things in life. In contrast to the formal State Dinner at the White House, dinner at the Roosevelt's Home "Springwood" was described to the press as a casual dinner between the two families; their evening entertainment was simple conversation, unfettered by formalities."
The picnic took place on June 11 at the Top Cottage at Hyde Park (see picture). Along with Hot Dogs, the menu featured cold turkey, hot sausages, Virginia ham, cranberry jelly, salad, rolls, strawberry shortcake, with coffee, beer and sodas. The Royals spoke highly of the experience, with Queen Elizabeth (better known today as the Queen Mother) later writing that "They are such a charming and united family and living so like English people when they come to their country house". But despite the cordial social experience, there was a more important undertone to the friendly trip.
During 1939, war was edging closer in Europe, and the occasion served as an important opportunity for Roosevelt to communicate the warmth of his support for the UK, in spite of the United States' strong belief in staying out of the conflict. According to King George VI's handwritten notes after the trip, "On mentioning the Neutrality Act the President gave us hope that something could be done to make it less difficult for the USA to help us."
However, although the trip helped to sow the seeds for co-operation between the UK and the US, arguably its main importance was to alter the perception of the American people to the need to support Britain. The FDR Library recall that "When Great Britain declared war on Germany three months later, Americans, due in no small part to the King and Queen's visit, sympathized with United Kingdom's plight; Britons were no longer strangers or the evil colonial rulers from the past but familiar friends and relatives with whom Americans could identify."
That friendship wasn't just for the cameras though, there appears to have been a genuine warmth in the relationship between the Roosevelts and the Royals. Eleanor Roosevelt later wrote to Queen Elizabeth that "Ever since England was forced into the war I have wanted to write and tell you how constantly you and the King are in my thoughts. Since meeting you, I think I can understand a little better what a weight of sorrow and anxiety must be yours. We can but pray for a just peace and my warm sympathy is with you."
Queen Elizabeth wrote in reply that: "I must tell you how moved I have been by the many charming, sympathetic, and understanding letters which I have received from kind people in the United States. Quite poor people have enclosed little sums of money to be used for our wounded, our sailors, or mine sweepers. It really has helped us, to feel such warmth of human kindness & goodness, for we still believe truly that humanity is overall.
"Sometimes, during the last terrible months, we have felt rather lonely in our fight against evil things, but I can honestly say that our hearts have been lightened by the knowledge that friends in America understand what we are fighting for.
"We look back with such great pleasure to those lovely days we spent with you last June. We often talk of them, and of your & the President's welcome & hospitality. The picnic was great fun, and our children were so thrilled with the descriptions of the Indian singing & marvelous clothes - not to mention the hot dogs!"
So, did hot dogs help win the Second World War? In any case, they certainly played their part in the re-establishment of a Special Relationship which made a big difference in the War, and the following decades. Today, the Special Relationship remains important, and it's arguably the small moments like sharing a hot dog which have kept its flame alive.
To find out more about the British Royal Visit, and more about President Roosevelt, check out the FDR Presidential Library & Museum website.