Atlantic Crossing: The Christmas Visit

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD. 

The PBS miniseries Atlantic Crossing tells a story of a princess stealing the heart of the president of the United States in a made-for-television drama about the World War II relationship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Norwegian Crown Princess Martha.  It is, as they say, based on true events.  It is not history, as PBS itself admits.  Parts of the story, however, are true.   

After Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olav evacuated to London where they established a government-in-exile that the United States recognized as the legitimate government.  Crown Princess Martha and her three children fled to Sweden and then came to the United States on the U.S. Army transport ship American Legion along with hundreds of American evacuees.  After arriving in the U.S. in late August, the Crown Princess and her family stayed at the President’s home in Hyde Park, New York, for a while before relocating to an estate called Pook’s Hill near Washington, DC.

In the show, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess are very unhappy about being separated by the Atlantic Ocean.  The Crown Princess is shown to be upset when her husband informs her that he will not be able to see her until the war is over.  Their children are unhappy, too.  In the fourth episode, the Crown Prince makes a surprise visit for Christmas 1940.  What the miniseries does not show is that President Roosevelt was instrumental in making that visit happen.

In late November, President Roosevelt, who was at his home in Hyde Park, sent the following memorandum to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles as a telegram through the White House:

FDR writes to Crown Prince of Norway insisting he fly to DC for Christmas as it would make his family happy
Telegram from President Franklin Roosevelt to HRH The Crown Prince of Norway, Nov 22, 1940 (NAID 302021)

Welles replied almost immediately that he had transmitted the message to the Crown Prince through the U.S. embassy in London.  The embassy reported several days later that the Crown Prince expressed “his deep appreciation for the President’s kind message” and accepted the “gracious” invitation if two seats could be secured on the Pan Am Clipper flight from Lisbon. The Crown Prince also “expressed the hope that there might be no prior publicity given to the visit and that the Crown Princess not be advised until after he landed in the United States.”

The day the embassy’s message arrived, Under Secretary Welles informed President Roosevelt.  He also asked the President if he should have “arranged confidentially” with the head of Pan American Airlines, Juan Trippe, for the seats.  Roosevelt responded with the following note:

FDR relaying message to hold 2 seats on Pan Am flight for the Crown Prince, and not have it publicized
Memo from President Franklin Roosevelt to Sumner Welles, Nov 29, 1940 (NAID 302021)

Subsequently, Welles made arrangement through Trippe and then sent a message, approved by Roosevelt, to the Crown Prince through the embassy in London.  Pan Am reserved two places on two different flights to make sure the Crown Prince reached the U.S. in the event of bad weather.  Pan Am also assured Welles that there would be no publicity.  The Crown Prince and his aide Lt. Col. N.R. Ostergaard travelled incognito as Norwegian army officers Col. Alexander Carlsen and Lt. Col. Petter Einarsen.

That this aspect of events did not make it into the show is surprising.  It is a prime example of FDR’s concern with the royal family and is a real example of the actions he took on their behalf.


Sources: 

  • All in 1940-44 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State:
    • President Roosevelt to Sumner Welles, November 22, 1940 and Sumner Welles to President Roosevelt, November 22, 1940, file 857.0011/104-1/2
    • Department of State to U.S. embassy in Great Britain, Telegram 3557, November 22, 1940, file 857.0011/104A
    • U.S. embassy in Great Britain to the Department of State, Telegram 3879, November 28, 1940, file 857.0011/106
    • Welles to Roosevelt, November 28, 1940, Roosevelt to Welles, November 29, 1940, Welles to Roosevelt, November 29, 1940, Department of State to U.S. embassy in Great Britain, Telegram 3644, November 30, 1940, file 857.0011/106
    • U.S. embassy in Great Britain to the Department of State, Telegram 4014, December 10, 940, 1944, file 857.0011/107 
  • For a history of the first 50 years of U.S. relations with independent Norway, see Wayne S. Cole, Norway and the United States, 1905-1955: Two Democracies in Peace and War

One thought on “Atlantic Crossing: The Christmas Visit

  1. I watched the PBS series with interest, despite the advance criticism of it. Nice to see some supporting documents.

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