Today, the close relationship between the United States and Great Britain remains one of the strongest alliances between two nations. Because of alliances in World War 1, World War 2, and on countless issues since the 1940's, many people assume that these two countries have always been close.
But in 1939 things were different -- though the United States and Great Britain were by no means enemies, the two countries were not yet fully allied against Nazi Germany.
The U.S. public did not support entering the war
Though many in the United States sympathized with those in Europe who were quickly falling under the shadow of Nazi aggression, most of the American public was adamant that the United States needed to stay out of European wars at all costs. After World War 1, Americans began to question whether or not the cost of entering the war was worth it. Over 50,000 Americans had lost their lives, and at the time many believed the economic cost of war contributed to the Great Depression.
Many began to blame bankers and the arms industry, some of whom profited greatly from World War 1, for "tricking" the U.S. public into entering the Great War. In 1934, Congress established the Nye Committee - a committee to investigate the effect that private economic interests had on U.S. entry into the war. Though the committee never found anything conclusive, their investigation produced many sensational headlines and greatly contributed to U.S. isolationist sentiment. Though U.S. opinion would begin to turn in 1940, in 1939 the vast majority of the public was very against getting involved.
FDR deftly navigated U.S. domestic politics to get Great Britain badly-needed aid
The public wasn't convinced that America needed to participate in the war in 1939, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. Roosevelt began secretly communicating with Winston Churchill in 1939 - an unusual move, considering that at the time Churchill wasn't Prime Minister. But Churchill was well-known for opposing then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Hitler and had been speaking out about the threat Hitler posed to the world for years.
While the idea of entering a war overseas was too unpopular for him to bring up openly, FDR did what he could -- he gently advocated for aiding those fighting to protect democracy and made sure to clarify that he believed the Axis powers were in the wrong.
When war broke out in September of 1939, FDR addressed the American public: "This nation will remain a neutral nation. But I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or close his conscience."
He cleverly convinced Congress to allow a "cash and carry" sale of war materiel. In theory this was a neutral policy, anyone, even Nazi Germany, could purchase munitions or equipment as long as they paid in cash and came to America to carry it off. In practice, this only aided Great Britain, who had naval superiority over Nazi Germany and could prevent any German ships from reaching the U.S. In the coming months, FDR continued to slowly sell the American public on aiding the Allies, until America was providing all but direct military intervention.
King George VI visited the United States in June of 1939
At the invitation of FDR, King George VI became the first ever reigning British Monarch to visit America, even including the Colonial Era. The move was a calculated gamble by FDR, who hoped to improve public sentiment towards Great Britain. By displaying close ties to English royalty, FDR risked losing support from the large number of isolationists in the U.S. - they could have viewed the move with great suspicion, believing the the King and Queen were here to lobby the U.S. for support.
King George VI rides with President Roosevelt from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to the White House
King George VI chats with President Roosevelt, while Eleanor Roosevelt speaks with Queen Elizabeth.
The King and Queen at the 1939 New York World's Fair, being saluted by a troop of scouts.
King George VI, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister King of Canada ride back from Sunday morning services in Hyde Park, NY.
Instead, the visit was a great success -- FDR planned every last detail of the trip, which effectively endeared the Royal Family to the American public. Crowds of Americans enthusiastically greeted the King and Queen in New York City and Washington D.C. The couple then joined the Roosevelt's at his estate at Hyde Park in New York -- the location of a much publicized picnic, in which the King and Queen were controversially served hot dogs.
Thanks to the public appearances of the King and Queen in 1939, the American public was more sympathetic to the British cause and would eventually come around to aiding them in war.
Many people from the U.K. moved to America in 1939 to avoid the coming war
As war became more and more of a certainty for the citizens of Great Britain, some decided to leave their country and ride out the coming conflict in North America. Several thousand children were evacuated to be settled in the U.S. and Canada, but others left also.
British-American actress Elizabeth Taylor's parents decided to move her and her mother to the United States in April 1939. Her father joined them in November of the same year.
Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock moved to the United States in June of 1939, though it wasn't necessarily to avoid the war -- he began working in Hollywood under contract with producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock would become a U.S. citizen in 1955.
Notably, the King and Queen did not leave the U.K. to ride out the war. Many people tried to convince them that remaining in the U.K. would be hazardous, but they refused to leave their people. They rode out the bombing in London, and their presence served as a great morale boost for the British.
Economic relations were tense between the formerly close trading partners
In an effort to rescue the United States from the Great Depression, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930. This act raised tariff levels to their highest in over 100 years, reducing American imports and exports by more than 50%. The idea was to encourage domestic industry and protect U.S. labor. Great Britain retaliated by issuing by raising their own tariffs against outside countries, while giving special preferences to Commonwealth countries. This drew Canada away from the United States and it became a closer economic partner to Britain.
In 1933, Great Britain held a global economic conference in London, which featured talks between the United States, Great Britain and France on how to stabilize the relationship between international currencies (a contributing factor to the global depression). Roosevelt, ultimately acting out of nationalist interest, rejected Britain's proposal, infuriating Britain and France, but winning favor with the American public.
These events contributed to a very cool relationship between the United States and Great Britain in 1939, but this would soon be alleviated by FDR's success in opening up U.S. arms trade to Britain that year. During the war and soon after, the two countries became close economic partners.
Which side of the pond were your relatives on in 1939? Wherever they were, Findmypast can help you tell their story!