A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

FDR's Thanksgiving Dinner in Cairo, 1943: The First Cairo Conference, Part IV

This will be the last of my posts on the First Cairo Conference 70 years ago; next week we'll talk about the Tehran Conference and the Second Cairo Conference.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was aware that he would be away for Thanksgiving, which in 1943 fell on November 25. He had brought two turkeys from the United States: one was a gift of Under Secretary of State Edward L. Stettinius, and one donated by Joe Carter of Burnt Corn, Alabama.

Because the primary subject of the Cairo Conference was the war against Japan, I've primarily focused on the Middle Eastern sidelights, but there had been days of hard negotiations, particularly among the Combined Chiefs of Staff but also between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, especially over the war in the Burma theater. After much hard bargaining, all concerned were apparently ready for a party. Roosevelt threw a Thanksgiving dinner for Churchill (whose mother was American). It was a purely British and American affair; earlier, at 5 pm, the President had entertained .Generalissimo  and Madame Chiang Kai-shek for tea. Relations between Chiang and the others had been difficult. He made extravagant demands for Western aid an his lack of understanding of the outside world (unlike his Americanized wife and translator) was commented upon by other participants. But the Thanksgiving day tea seems to have been cordial and friction-free. Col. Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son, appears to have been the only other person present.

After the tea, Roosevelt conferred at 6:30 with Maj. Gen. Donald H. Connolly, Commander of the US Persian Gulf Service Command about the plans for the imminent visit to Tehran. At 8 pm the President's Thanksgiving guests were welcomed to the President's villa (which as I have previously noted was that of the US Ambassador to Egypt). This is the guest list from Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, p.350:

The invitees' identifications: the Americans: Presidential aide/friend/adviser Harry Hopkins; Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President; US Ambassador to Great Britain John Gordon Winant; US Ambassador to Turkey Laurence Steinhardt; US Ambassador to the USSR W Averell Harriman; US Ambassador (Minister) to Egypt Alexander C. Kirk (in whose villa Roosevelt was staying); Maj. Gen. Edwin "Pa" Watson, friend, crony, and Appointments Secretary to FDR; Rear Admiral Wilson Btrown, FDR's Naval Aide; Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, personal physician to FDR; Col. Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son; Major John Boettiger, husband of Anna Roosevelt and the President's son-in-law; Harry Hopkins' son Robert Hopkins.

The Churchill party: Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden; Churchill's personal physician Lord Moran; John Martin, Churchill's personal secretary; Commander Charles R. "Tommy" Thompson, Churchill's aide-de-camp; "Mrs. Oliver" is Churchill's daughter Sarah, the only woman along, who was serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

For the dinner, there are several reminiscences, including this one from FDR's personal diary in his own hand, from the FDR Library:
Fri Nov 26
Yesterday was a real Thanksgiving Day. The Chiangs to tea -- had the [next word unclear?] British to dinner - WSC - Sara - Etc. with 2 Turkeys I brought from home. It is an enormous satisfaction to have my mess crew from the Potomac and Shangri-La. Music by an Army band and later WSC cakewalked with Pa Watson.
Today I have wound up all that we accomplished
The Potomac was FDR's Presidential yacht. Shangri-La was the retreat now known as Camp David.

Here is Churchill's version from The Second World War, Volume V, Closing the Ring, pp. 340-341 of the American edition:
Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November, is a feature in American life. Every soldier in in th American Army is supposed to eat turkey on that day, and most of them did in1943. Ample supplies of turkeys for all the United States Staffs at Cairo had been brought out in the President's ship. Roosevelt invited me to join him at dinner in his villa. "Let us make it a family affair," he said. So Sarah was asked too, and also "Tommy" (Commander Thompson), to whom he had taken a great liking. The President's guests included his personal circle, his son Elliott, his son-in-law Mr. Boettinger, and Harry Hopkins and his son Robert. We had a pleasant and peaceful feast. Two enormous turkeys were brought in with all ceremony. The president, propped up high in his chair, carved for all with masterly, indefatigable skill. As we were above twenty, this took a long time, and those who were helped first had finished before the President had cut anything for himelf. As I watched the  huge platefuls he distributed to the company I feared that he might be left with nothing at all. But he had calculated to a nicety, and I was relieved, when at last the two skeletons were removed, to see him set about his om share. Harry, who had noted my anxiety, said, "We have ample reserves.'' Speeches were made of warm and intimate friendship. For a couple of hours we cast care aside, I had never seen the President more gay. After the meal was over we returned to the big room in which we had held so many conferences. Dance music — from gramophone records —  began ta play. Sarah was the only woman present, and she had her work cut out, so I danced with "Pa" Watson (Roosevelt's trusted old friend and aide), to the delight of his chief, who watched us from the sofa. This jolly evening and the spectacle of the President carving up the turkeys stand out in my mind among the most agreeable features of the halt at Cairo.
Roosevelt told the story of Thanksgiving to the British and he and Churchill exchanged toasts. At 9:30 Gen. Joseph Stilwell (US Commander in the China theater) arrived for a meeting with FDR. He was greeted by Harry Hopkins. Stilwell found the party still going strong and many of the guests already drunk, including Hopkins, so Stilwell talked with Churchill (who had an enormous capacity) until the guests left at 10:30, when Stilwell met with FDR.

There was another party that night, held by the American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff. General H.H. "Hap" Arnold, head of the US Army Air Forces describes it as a "merry party, tells an anecdote or two, on p. 463 of his memoir Global Mission, and notes that the chiefs then attended a special service put on by the British for the Americans at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. FRUS nites that there are no details on where or at what time the dinner was held. The Chiefs were mstly stayinbg at Mena House and it may may be been there; the cathedral then was on the corniche in Cairo, where it stood until torn donn in1978 for the new October 6 bridge,  so this would seem to suggest the dinner was in late afternoon or early evening.

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