Today (April 12) in London History – “the most Anglo-phobic president of the 20th century”

Today, April 12th, is the 74th anniversary of the unveiling of the statue of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Grosvenor Square. It’s the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


“What inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford.”

And there you have – in ten words – the London Walks colours.

The colours we’ve nailed to the main mast of the Good Ship London Walks.

Or if you prefer – those ten words – “what inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford” – that’s our anthem.

And where’d those ten words come from? Where’d we get them? Ah, you probably guessed: Charles Dickens.

There’s no two ways about it: Dickens hit one for six when he put it that way.

And what’s lovely about that phrase is you can riff with it.

For example, what inexhaustible food for speculation the statues of London afford.

Their tally is impressive. Apparently, there are about 1500 statues or monuments in London. How’d you like to review that Honour Guard? You’d be in for a long walk. Or here’s a morsel for you – London has twice as many statues of animals as it has of named women. 

And sure enough it’s not a statue of a woman that we’re reviewing in this podcast. It’s the statue of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today – April 12th – has to be the day. For this Today in London History podcast at any rate. 

Because it was April 12th, 1948 that the statue was unveiled in Grosvenor Square. Perfect place for it. And the perfect date. Grosvenor Square because during World War II it was chock-a-block with American military and civilian personnel. So many Americans Grosvenor Square came to be known as Little America. London cabbies – always less reverent – took to calling it Eisenhowerplatz. On one side of the Square you had the American embassy, on the other side Eisenhower’s headquarters. 

In the Northeast corner the house – it’s still there – the house occupied by John Adams, the first United States Minister to the Court of St. James’s. John Adams lived in the house from 1785 to 1788. A decade later he would become the second President of the young Republic.

And of course there’s the marvellous story about the West side of the Square. The then new – this was 1960 – American embassy occupied the whole of the West Side of Grosvenor Square. It’s a fine building. It was one of the last projects by the American architect Eero Saarinen. He’s the architect who designed the Gateway Arch in St Louis and the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado. Saarinen’s purpose-built Grosvenor Square Embassy did its duty for nearly 60 years. The U.S. Embassy has now decamped to its new complex in Wandsworth in southwest London and Saarinen’s building is getting a new lease of life as a luxury hotel. 

But let’s not forget the marvellous story about that Grosvenor Square location. Saarinen’s Embassy was the only U.S. embassy worldwide that stood on land that wasn’t owned by the U.S. government. The landlord of that patch of ground and some 200 other acres in Mayfair is the Grosvenor Estate, belonging to the Duke of Westminster. The second wealthiest landowner in the country after Her Majesty. The U.S. Government did its due diligence back in the 1950s, decided they’d like that site – the West Side of Grosvenor Square – for their new Embassy, they approached the Grosvenor Estate and said, “we’d like to buy it from you, we understand it’s worth however many millions –  will you accept our cheque for it.” The Grosvenor Estate said we’ll get back to you in a fortnight with a counter offer. 

Two weeks later the two sides are around the negotiating table. The Grosvenor Estate said, “we’ll sell you the West side of Grosvenor Square for the price you’re proposing on condition that you return to the Grosvenor Estate its lands in Virginia that you illegally seized in the 1770s.” The American government said, “oh, I don’t think we can see our way to that – could we have it on a long lease instead.” And that’s what happened. The U.S. government got it on a 999-year lease but in – well, it’ll be 927 years from now – the land and the property on the land will revert to the Grosvenor Estate.

That’s how these ancient, titled, British land-owning families. As far as they’re concerned, those lands in Virginia are theirs – and they’ll get them back sooner or later. I think we can safely say, it’ll be later. 

Anyway, getting to our statue – and here’s where we approach “inexhaustible food for speculation” territory – in 1947 the Duke of Westminster donated land in the centre of the square as a memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And 160,000 of his countrymen  – his hard-up countrymen I hasten to add – dipped into their pockets to pay for the statue that was erected on this day, April 12th, 1948. Three years to the day President Roosevelt died. 

The statue – the sculptor was Sir William Reid Dick – was unveiled by President Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor. She unveiled it to the strains of the U.S. national anthem. In the silence which followed King George VI walked forward and placed a wreath at the foot. His Majesty then made a speech, which was heard not just by the crowds thronging the square, but by millions of people all over the world, a speech in which his Royal Highness described the statue as a fitting memorial to a great man and a great friend.”

And now we’re there – spread out before us is some serious inexhaustible food for speculation. 

The man the King of England described as “a great friend” was, in the words of the eminent American historian Walter Russell Mead, “the most Anglophobic president of the 20th century.” President Roosevelt certainly didn’t want Hitler to win the war but he also had a strong dislike of the British Empire and British financial supremacy. President Wilson’s rallying cry was America First. But it was no less President Roosevelt’s principle. President Wilson said he wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Roosevelt’s aim was to make the world safe for America. In the words of Winston Churchill biographer Geoffrey Wheatcroft,  if indirectly or later directly combatting Germany could also mean impoverishing Great Britain and weakening her empire, then so much the better. The great friend of Britain even proposed sending an American cruiser to the Simonstown naval base at Cape Town, the nearest British equivalent to Fort Knox, to collect gold bullion as down payment for the American aid delivered by the Lend-Lease Agreement. An American writer described that Rooseveltian proposal as being akin to a looter stealing the watch and wallet from a dying trooper.

You agree? Food for speculation? It’s five loaves and two fishes feeding the 5,000. In a word, inexhaustible.

Anyway, so much for the “special relationship” and a “great friend” having your back.

The fact of the matter is you can peer into phrases like ‘special relationship’ and into statuary and into commemorative ceremonies and there’s some really gritty meaning that you can see deep inside there. That phrase ‘special relationship’ for example. It’s used much more by British politicians than it is by American politicians. A lot of it is wishful thinking on the part of a country that is no longer a superpower, a country that was long ago overtaken by its youthful, other-side-of-the-Atlantic offspring. Similarly, do a statue count. How many American presidents are there statues of in London. Six. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan. 

How many statues are there of British kings or British Prime Ministers in Washington DC? One. Winston Churchill. Outside the British Embassy. Ok, there’s a statue of Margaret Thatcher on the campus of Hillsdale College in Michigan. And you’ve got a statue of Queen Ann an hour’s drive from downtown D.C. but none of them are even remotely close to being headline acts the way the American presidents are in London. 

Bottom line: it couldn’t be further from a relationship of equals. Those American presidents in London, it’d be an exaggeration to say that’s Robin to Batman. No, that’s forelock tugging – look it up if you don’t know what that idiomatic expression means – that’s a retainer paying tribute to the main man. 

Another way of putting that, it’s not 1850 anymore. It’s 2022. Somebody’s been well and truly planted. And I don’t say that with any satisfaction at all. This country’s a fine place. I love it. But facts is facts. Might is might. Power is power. 

And on that note, goodnight from London. Good night from London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Postscript. Yes, this was the London Walks podcast. The Today in London History Podcast. Oh, almost forgot – a Today in London recommendation. Has to be – in the circs. – a visit to the Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street. Just a stone’s throw away from Trafalgar Square. And for that matter, a stone’s throw away from the statue, in Trafalgar Square, of George Washington.

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