In 1938, with global war simmering, Great Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were making plans to visit Canada. At the time, the United States was trying its best to stay out of the impending conflict—World War II was ultimately a dispute between foreign nations, and there was no reason for us to get involved, both officials and citizens believed. President Roosevelt understood his isolationist tack was no longer sufficient, and that the American public needed to be persuaded to help their British cousins defend themselves.
FDR came up with a plan and wrote to the royal couple. “I think it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations if you could visit the United States,” he suggested. Along with a formal visit to Washington D.C., he added, “It occurs to me that you both might like three or four days of very simple country life at Hyde Park—with no formal entertainments and an opportunity to get a bit of rest and relaxation.” The letter was dated September 17, 1938, and was delivered to the King by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.
The royals accepted, and sailed over the following June. It was the first visit by a reigning British monarch to the U.S., ever, including colonial times. Indeed, relations between the cousins were still frosty at best. FDR wanted to thaw that frost, and believed that humanizing the King and Queen would help. What better way to do that, he knew, than a good old-fashioned picnic complete with hot dogs and beer?
According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “FDR planned every minute detail of the visit to ensure the King’s success in winning over the sympathy and support of the American people.” While in Washington, he hosted a reception at the British Embassy, a State Dinner with musical entertainment at the White House and sightseeing, including a trip on the presidential yacht down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon, Virginia.
The royal couple and the Roosevelts then moved to the Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home, Springwood, for a heavily scripted “casual dinner.” FDR created the menu and, though his mother objected vehemently, he insisted that hot dogs be included. The Queen, who was confounded when she saw the mystery meat, asked her hosts, “How do you eat this?” She went with knife and fork, but the King followed FDR’s advice to grab and go. The next day, The New York Times put the picnic fare on its front page:
“King Tries Hot Dog and Asks For More; and He Drinks Beer With Them.”
The plan worked brilliantly. The visit, according to the FDR Library and Museum, “changed the perceptions of the American people, which in turn allowed [FDR] to do more for Britain. 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 the 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.”