President Roosevelt Comes To Ottawa

25 August 1943

Canada, the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire had been at war with Nazi Germany for almost four years. While the hostilities, which had already claimed the lives of millions, was far from over, there was a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel. After the entry of the United States on the side of the Allies following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the tide of war had slowly begun to shift. By the summer of 1943, Russian forces had finally broken the German line at Kharkov and were racing across the plains of Ukraine towards the Dniester River. Sicily fell to American, British and Canadian troops in mid-August. And out in the north Pacific, Kiska was retaken by American and Canadian forces who made an unopposed amphibious landing on the Aleutian island after Japanese forces secretly retreated. The Régiment de Hull was part of the Allied contingent at Kiska. The francophone soldiers were popular with the U.S. troops who adopted Allouette as their campaign song.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King, President Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Churchill, Quebec City, August 1943, Library and Archives Canada, 3194622.

Also that August, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met at La Citadelle in Quebec City at a meeting hosted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. There, leaders planned their next steps in the war against the Axis powers, including opening up a new front in Europe. There was also a focus on the Pacific theatre with a meeting with a representative of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist government. Other secret negotiations include cooperative work on the development of an atomic bomb. As well, leaders began to look toward post-war security and prosperity.

Following the successful conclusion of the Quebec Conference, Roosevelt came to Ottawa. It was the first visit to the nation’s capital by a sitting president of the United States. Roosevelt was no stranger to Canada, however. His family owned a summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, a place where he vacationed regularly prior to becoming President. Afterwards, owing to the rigours of the office, his visits became few and far between—only three trips in 1933, 1936, and 1939, respectively. He also visited Quebec for an official visit in 1936, and had met with Prime Minister King for the dedication of the 1,000 Island Bridge in 1938. On that occasion, he went to Kingston where he was awarded an honorary degree by Queen’s University. He also briefly stopped in Halifax in 1939 on his way back to the United States from Newfoundland.

His visit to Ottawa on 25 August 1943 was announced to the press the day before, though the exact timing of his arrival was kept a secret for obvious security reasons. However, a press report said that Ottawa citizens would have their first official glimpse of the President at 11:50am when the presidential car was scheduled to drive through the East Gate onto Parliament Hill. The historic event was also to be carried live over CBO radio staring at 11:30am.

Governor General Lord Athlone, President Roosevelt, Presidential Aide Rear Admiral Brown, and Prime Minister King. The president is holding the arm of Admiral Brown, Centre Block, Parliament Hill, August 1943, Library and Archives Canada 3194412.

Roosevelt arrived in his personal train, pulling up to a specially-built platform on Nicholas Street located at the Rideau Canal’s Deep Cut. He was greeted by thousands of Ottawa residents who had waited for hours to see the President in the flesh. The official greeting party included Lord Athlone, the Governor General, the U.S. Minister to Canada (Ambassador) Ray Atherton, and Ottawa’s mayor Stanley Lewis, wearing his gold chain of office. Accompanied by Lord Athlone, Roosevelt got into an open-air, black limousine for the short drive to Parliament Hill, preceded by a large motorcycle escort. Secret Service personnel stood on the car’s running boards and ran beside the vehicle. More than 1,800 Canadian service men and women lined the route. As the presidential car made its way to Parliament Hill, Roosevelt waved his white Panama hat in acknowledgement of the crowd’s cheers and applause. As the presidential motorcade swept through the East Gate to Parliament Hill, a mighty cheer went up. The RCMP band began to play The Star-Spangled Banner.

On the Hill, RCMP and Secret Service people formed a security cordon around the speaker’s podium set up in front of the Peace Tower. Facing the dais were seats for distinguished guests, including senators, members of Parliament and members of Ottawa’s diplomatic corps. Close to two hundred journalists also covered the proceedings. On the greensward in front of the Central Block, some 30,000 Ottawa residents, taking advantage of a half-day holiday, stood in the bright sunshine to hear the President speak. The crowds had actually began to assemble as early as 9am. People also lined up five deep behind barricades along the roads. Others leaned out of windows and stood on rooftops. Only two earlier visits rivalled the greeting given to the American President—that of the King and Queen in 1939 and Winston Churchill’s visit in December 1941. While this was a first time for most people to see the President, for many his voice was familiar owing to Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats” that he gave regularly to the American people. Like today, U.S. radio waves were easily picked up by Canadians who lived close to the border.

Prime Minister King introduced President Roosevelt to the cheering throng “as an undaunted champion of the rights of free men and a mighty leader of the forces of freedom in a world at war.” But, as described by the Ottawa Citizen, most Ottawans saw the visit as that of a “good neighbour.”

After the prime minister’s introduction, Roosevelt carefully approached the podium and its battery of microphones supported in part by the strong arm of his naval aide, Rear Admiral Wilson Brown. While it was no secret that his legs were paralysed owing to polio contracted during the 1920s, Roosevelt avoided being seen in public in a way that made him appear physically weak. The president stood to address the massive crowd in front of him. The Ottawa Journal commented that “no one who watched him being led slowly to the speaking stand could other than admire the sheer courage of the man in his victory over physical disability.”

Roosevelt reiterated his faith in what he called the “Four Freedoms” that he had originally articulated in 1941. These freedoms were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Looking to the future, his aim was a healthy, peaceful life for everyone in a world where no nation would be in a position to commit an act of aggression against a neighbour. He also stressed the United States’ “determination to achieve victory in the shortest possible time” through “the essential co-operation with our great and brave allies.” The crowds roared their approval when the president announced that Canadian, British and American fighting men had just won great victories in Sicily and at Kiska in the Aleutians.

In his folksy manner, he spoke of the recently concluded Quebec Conference. He said that he had sat down with Churchill and Mackenzie King “in the manner of friends, in the manner of partners, I may even say in the manner of members of the same family.” He likened the Axis powers to “a band of gangsters,” and that the Allies had been forced to call out “the sheriff’s posse to break up the gang in order that gangsterism may be eliminated in the community of nations.” At Quebec, he said, there was no secret that the leaders had discussed the post-war world, adding that concerted action can accomplish great things. He didn’t want to return to “the good old days,” which he thought weren’t particularly good. Instead, he wanted to aim higher to a world with a greater freedom from want ever yet enjoyed, and attain freedom from violence by driving out “the outlaws and keeping them under heel forever.” While this goal couldn’t be achieved immediately, he opined that “some day, in the distant future perhaps—but some day with certainty, all of them [the destroyers] will remember with the Master – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Roosevelt ended his speech with a few sentences in French in which he extolled the union of French and English in Canada seeing it as “an example to all mankind.”

The president’s words were greeted with great acclaim from the assembled crowds on Parliament Hill. People laughed and cheered when Roosevelt mocked the Axis leaders. But they saved their warmest response for when Roosevelt spoke of feeling at home in Canada, and that Canadians feel at home in the United States.

After speeches of thanks from the speakers of both the Senate and House of Commons, the president and his entourage were driven the short distance to the War Memorial. There a presidential aide laid a wreath of flowers while President Roosevelt stood at attention by the car. The RCMP band played the old hymn Abide With Me. This was followed by an official luncheon, hosted by the Governor General, at Rideau Hall.

After the luncheon, the president and his party were taken on a whirl-wind tour of Hull and the Gatineau Hills with a stop at Kingsmere, the prime minister’s country home, where King pointed out various sights of interest. There was one unscheduled stop along the way. On the Chelsea Road, the president changed from his open car to a closed one. The explanation given was that the president’s car was behaving oddly and the automobile change was precautionary. As in Ottawa, Western Quebec folk turned out in their thousands to watch the presidential motorcade.

The last engagement on the president’s Ottawa visit was a final conversation with the Prime Minister and the Governor General over tea at Laurier House, King’s residence.

At the end of a successful day, the President returned to his official car. With motorcycles leading the way, his motorcade swept up Nicholas Street to where the president’s train waited for his return to Washington.

Two months later, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill again met, this time with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Tehran, Iran, to co-ordinate their military plans against Nazi Germany and Japan, and to discuss the fate of Eastern Europe in the post-war era.

Sources:

Evening Citizen, 1943. “Roosevelt Ceremony Will Be Broadcast,” 24 August.

——————-, 1943. “Troops Joining In Welcome For The President,” 24 August.

——————-, 1943. “Welcome, Good Neighbor!,”25 August.

——————-, 1943. “F.D.R. Impressed with Great Sight Parliament,”

——————-, 1943. “30,000 People Gathered On Parliament Hill, Had Many Chances To Cheer,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Guard of Honor Was Provided By Armed Services,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Thousands Out To Welcome F.D.R. On Secret Arrival,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Uptown Region Is Packed With Holiday Throng,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Mr. King Terms F.D.R. Champion Of Freedom,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Four Departments United To Handle Traffic For Visit,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “Text Of Statement By Churchill, Roosevelt,” 25 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1943. “Roosevelt Cheered By Ottawa, Advises Axis Surrender Now,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “President Wins Crowd’s Affection,” 25 August.

——————-, 1943. “General Peakes Commends Hull Regiment,” 25 August.

U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Canada, 2020. Presidential Visits to Canada, https://ca.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/policy-history/presidential-visits-to-canada/.

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