Eighty years ago, FDR treats King George VI to culinary diplomacy



The visit of George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the US achieved great success when it reached Washington. The public gave an enthusiastic welcome and President Roosevelt made it abundantly plain that his guests were being received in the most friendly fashion. At his country retreat Hyde Park, the King and the President swam together in the pool that Roosevelt had had installed. Roosevelt served the King with the first hot dog he had ever tasted in an informal picnic that advertised a warm relationship between the heads of state better than any state banquet could have done. Introducing the British sovereign to US working class food - the gesture was widely publicised - had instant mass appeal; it showed that FDR was over-awed by his guests could impose modern American informality on the heirs to the country's former royal rulers. There would still be immense domestic political obstacles in the way of translating this goodwill into concrete diplomatic or military support, but it was impossible to deny the symbolic assertion that Britain and the US were friends.


In China the Japanese staged yet another challenge to the standing of the western powers, in this case Britain. Japan demanded that the British authorities in the western concession of Tientsin hand over four Chinese who had been implicated in the murder of the manager of a Japanese bank. They had already been temporarily detained by the Japanese and issued confessions to the crime under torture. They would almost certainly be executed if they once again passed into Japanese hands and the British declined to surrender them. The Japanese army then imposed a blockade on the concession to force the British to yield.


The British government finally admitted – albeit unofficially – that it was planning to set up a Ministry of Information (MOI) to respond to Josef Goebbels’s mighty operation, should an “emergency” arise. It had been an open secret that a MOI had been in preparation for a long time, but the scale of the savage Whitehall battle over the issue remained well hidden. The appeasers had been desperate to avoid news leaking of a move that the dictators would have recognised as being aimed against them. The nomination of a new director general designate for the MOI created a useful opportunity for the news to come out in a way that softened the blow to the dictators. The man chosen for the job was Lord Perth, who had recently stepped down as ambassador to Italy, where he had firmly supported the appeasement of Mussolini. He had striven, in particular, to suppress any public or private media comment hostile to Fascist Italy.


The Secretary of the Board of Trade faced sharp criticism in the House of Commons for granting Frank Buchman’s “Oxford Movement” – the evangelical Christian campaign sometimes labelled “Moral Rearmament” - the status of a limited company. This would make it able to benefit from gifts in people’s wills and to avoid the kind of legal challenge that had been used to block such a bequest a few months before. The judge in that trial had been critical of the group’s finances and expenditure such as the purchase of tickets for the coronation. Sir Horace Wilson, the prime minister’s senior adviser, was regarded as a supporter of the movement, but the precise reason for the political decision in its favour remains obscure.

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