The Roosevelts and the Royals by Will Swift
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Dr. Will Swift
A conversation with Will Swift, author of The Roosevelts and The Royals

Q: What drove you to write the first book about the Roosevelts and the British Royal family?

A: While doing research for an article about the relationship between the presidency and the monarchy for Majesty magazine, I realized that the king and queen’s role in cementing Anglo-American relations and in saving democracy had not been given its proper place in history. At a time when the "special relationship" between Britain and America is getting so much attention in today’s press, I thought it was a particularly important time to uncover the historical roots of this powerful relationship.

A: The King and Queen were an integral part of the British propaganda campaign, which focused on winning America to support Britain in the war that would erupt three months later. They intended to weaken the strong isolationist sentiments of the American people and the U.S. Congress, to reinvigorate the long-standing ties between the two countries, and to foster sympathy for the British position in a perilous world, perched on the edge of war. What better way to accomplish this than to come to America themselves and show the American public that the British were much like themselves-modern, flexible and democratic. They also wanted to develop a firm bond with the Roosevelts, whom they saw as crucial allies for a beleaguered Britain.

Q: What was the American perception of the British prior to World War II?

A: The American public perceived the British as elitist and old-fashioned. They believed that the British people felt superior to Americans or were anti-American. Many U.S. citizens were angry that England had not repaid its First World War debts, while others were concerned about Britain’s imperial ambitions.

A: The Roosevelts believed that entertaining the King and Queen at their family home with an all-American hot dog picnic would humanize the royals in the eyes of the American public. Americans were wary of their mother country, but the State visit was deliberately styled to make the British look more egalitarian.

A: Absolutely. The king and queen helped draw Americans closer to Britain; suspicions about Britain relaxed, and the majority of Americans felt more connected to their mother country, with whom they shared a common heritage. The American people began to see the British as being democratic and modern- more like themselves. The visit was a crucial moment in solidifying the powerful relationship between Britain and America that still steadies the world today.

A: The Queen Mother’s mouth was too small to put the whole hot dog in. Although it was kept secret, she had to have her hotdog cut up for her.

A: Eleanor used her "My Day" column to humanize the royal couple, and to calm America’s insecurities about the royal visit. When there was an uproar about serving hot dogs to the king and queen, she devoted a column to the controversy, explaining why it made sense to offer the royal couple hot dogs at the Hyde Park picnic. To solidify the Anglo-American alliance, Eleanor cultivated a friendship with the king and queen and supported them during their darkest hours during the war. In 1942 she traveled to England to visit the royal family, shore up the morale of the troops, and learn how women were contributing to the war effort. She was acclaimed for bringing the British people a genuine appreciation of the American spirit.

A: The close political and personal friendship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush has its roots in the very similar friendship between Churchill and FDR. The mutual goals that brought them together are the same today as they were then. The two nations aim to work together intimately to foster democracy, freedom, and human rights throughout the world just as they did during World War II. And the Anglo-American leadership of wartime coalitions in the Gulf War and the Iraq War relies on a similar interchange of top level intelligence and military cooperation that the two countries shared in World War II.

A: It is too easy to assume that the formidable Anglo-American alliance has long been as smooth and reliable as it is now. It is crucial to recognize that this relationship, like any other, has had its ups and downs, and requires constant tending to keep it vibrant and effective. Studying the history reveals the vulnerable points around which tensions can develop.

A: I was most surprised by the extent of Britain’s propaganda campaign, focused on winning America to Britain’s side and into war, and by the king and queen’s role in it. I was also amazed to discover that there had been an assassination attempt against the Duchess of Kent in London the day before their Majesties entered the United States. This heightened the already intense security preparations for the State Visit. The present Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent had no idea that there had been an attempt to assassinate their mother, the late Duchess of Kent.

A: As the king and queen rode by train from Buffalo to Washington DC, they were nervous about their upcoming meeting with the Roosevelts and with isolationist congressmen, but also haunted by the specter of the Duke of Windsor’s spectacularly popular American visits. When the anxious queen stepped off the train in Baltimore, she nearly fainted when her worst fear seemed to be realized: she saw her archrival, the Duchess of Windsor, approaching her with flowers. She recovered enough to realize that this might be only a relative of the duchess and then realized the lady was only a dead-ringer. It took her a while to calm down.

A: On the Roosevelt side, I spoke to Eleanor and Franklin’s grandson Christopher Roosevelt about his experiences with the Queen Mother. He was kind enough to put me in contact with a number of his cousins who shared memories. On the royal side, I had corresponded with the Queen Mother’s private secretary, Sir Alastair Aird, about a New York exhibition I curated in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday. I later interviewed Sir Aird, and he submitted questions to the Queen Mother, who had been very pleased by my exhibition. I also spoke with a number of British historians including Hugo Vickers, Sarah Bradford, Kenneth Rose, and Theo Aronson and Roosevelt historians including William Leuctenberg, David Woolner, and Chris Breiseth.

A: Believe it or not: charm and duty. FDR and the queen were two of the most charming personalities of the twentieth century, but they were also bound by a powerful sense of duty. Queen Elizabeth used her celebrated charm on American crowds in Washington and New York, and on congressmen and socialites alike, with the single-minded purpose of shoring up an alliance that could save Britain in the coming war. FDR was celebrated for his personal charm, which he regularly used to convince politicians and foreign leaders, some of whom he detested, to further his New Deal policies and to support him in saving democracy. Charm is too often celebrated for its own sake while not enough attention is paid to how potent a political weapon it can be, when blended with a sense of responsibility, in accomplishing positive changes in society—and yes, even foreign policy.

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The Roosevelts and the Royals
Franklin and Eleanor, The King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History

by Will Swift
John Wiley & Sons: June 2004; ISBN: 0-471-45962-3; Hardcover; 384 pages
Now available at Amazon, BN.com, or your local bookstore

 



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