President Biden attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday, with press reports minutely analyzing his arrival time, seat placement, and First Lady Jill Biden’s hat choice. The dissection of American decorum and treatment of British monarchy is nothing new; on this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Mad About Monarchy,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman examined the long and often tense blend of monarchical pomp and diplomatic intrigue. In May 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s trip to London – his first overseas trip in office – offered a particularly triumphant combination of foreign policy, pageantry, and national jockeying that has so often defined the American-British dynamic.
President Carter landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on the night of May 5th, 1977, flanked by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal. Carter’s foreign and economic policy hands betrayed the primary purposes of his visit: a high-pressure G7 meeting and an entwined NATO-hosted European Economic Summit.
At Heathrow, Carter was greeted by Prime Minister James Callaghan, a Labour Party veteran called “Sunny Jim” for his positive air. Long-beloved for his working-class roots, Callaghan was staring down 16% inflation and the intensification of a cynical turn in British culture, blasted over the airwaves by the burgeoning punk movement.
Carter’s visit, then, was a much-needed respite. “It’s not an accident that this is my first overseas trip, because of the historical ties that have always bound the United States of America and the United Kingdom together in a special and very precious relationship,” Carter said in a brief tarmac speech.
Carter was almost immediately tied up in Callaghan’s domestic political wrangling. Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher increasingly had Callaghan on the ropes; local elections the day that Carter landed had seen a significant victory for the Thatcherites. The PM, in turn, had asked Carter to fly the next morning, May 6th, to the Newcastle area of Northeastern England to cheer up the Labour base. Carter assented.
In Newcastle, 30,000 enthusiastic fans, many with American flags in hand, greeted the American leader. In brief remarks outside of the Civic Center, Carter bellowed a popular local “Geordie” phrase, “Ha’way the lads!” The crowd exploded. When Newcastle’s Lord Mayor presented Carter with a parchment proclaiming the President’s honorary citizenship, Carter fired back with a quip rife with Revolutionary War implications: “I’ve asked the Lord Mayor to make sure I don’t have to pay taxes, but all the other privileges of citizenship I accept with a great deal of pleasure.”
Next, Carter and Callaghan stopped at the nearby Washington Old Hall, George Washington’s ancestral home, where Carter planted a tulip poplar tree flown specially from Mount Vernon and known to be an offspring of one that Washington himself planted.
Having fulfilled his Callaghan-adjacent duties, Carter returned to London for his meetings with G7 Leaders, dubbed “The Downing Street Summit,” at Callaghan’s residence at 10 Downing.
Energy dominated the agenda. A month earlier, in April 1977, Carter had spoken publicly about an already-existent pause on American exports of enriched uranium amid a larger quest to reform nuclear safety policies. The proclamation, hailed in the U.S., caused particular unease with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was working on transferring the German power grid to nuclear energy amid the unpredictability of the Middle Eastern oil markets.
On the eve of his trip, Carter had agreed to keep the uranium flowing, but asked the other G7 nations to work on some reprocessing regulations – an act of micromanagement that the other nations did not particularly appreciate.
As Carter recounted in his diary, “The national pride of nations like France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and Italy prevent their acceptance of intrusion into their right to reprocess and do as they please with the reprocessed fuel, which does contain plutonium suitable for bombs.”
Despite the tension, Carter wrote that the two three-hour sessions on May 7th “alleviated a great deal of misunderstanding.” He also saw that the other leaders noticed his popularity both domestically and on the world stage; unlike most European leaders, Carter could claim an 80% approval rating and an unemployment rate at 7% and falling. “They recognize that at least for the moment I’m quite strong politically,” Carter admitted in his diary.
After the morning session, Carter – who had made waves for walking down Pennsylvania Avenue during his inauguration that January – suggested to the other leaders that they walk through St. James’s Park to Lancaster House, the site of their lamb, asparagus, and white wine luncheon. “Walk By 7 Nations’ Heads Startled London,” wrote the Baltimore Sun the next day.
The new President had handled the domestic errands for Callaghan. He was well on his way to charming the G7. And on his second full night in the United Kingdom, Carter headed to Buckingham Palace for another test: greeting the monarchy.
Information about the more tumultuous aspects of Carter’s royal visit has emerged over the years. Officially, he sat between Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, and across from then-Prince Charles, the Queen Mother, and Prince Philip. The other G7 leaders sat nearby. Carter told reporters who waited up outside the Palace that the edifice was “one of the most beautiful places” he had ever seen and that he talked with the Queen about the “need for world peace.”
Over time, though, certain awkwardnesses emerged about Carter’s visit. The most shocking accusation came from the Queen Mother, who included Carter in a 1983 “anti-toast” against people she disliked during a dinner at her Clarence House residence in London. Carter’s company in the diss? Radical member of Parliament Tony Benn and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. One guest bravely asked the Queen Mother why Carter belonged on the list. The response: “Because, he is the only man, since my dear husband died, to have had the effrontery to kiss me on the lips.”
The Queen Mother elaborated to her biographer William Shawcross in a book not published until 2009, explaining that one of the “banes of [her] life” was her propensity for reminding middle-aged men of their mothers, which she said triggered “a sort of glazed look of memory.” She recalled to Shawcross of the moment of impact: “I took a sharp step backwards…Not quite far enough.”
The Queen Mother was not the only royal who had interesting interactions with Carter. The President also revealed in his diary – published in 2010 – that he talked about fitness and diet with Queen Elizabeth II: “She pointed out that her waist had to be watched very closely because she had seven different tunics, her uniform to wear for the seven different guard troops, and that she couldn’t afford to change the costumes and had to wear the same size for a number of years,” Carter wrote. “Just jokingly we decided that when we shift to the metric system we’ll measure waist dimensions in inches and everything else in centimeters. And that seemed to suit her well.”
After his complicated – but outwardly joyous – night with the royal family, Carter headed back for the second day of the Downing Street Summit. At the conclusion of the talks, the leaders headed to Banqueting Hall, the one-time home of British monarchs, for closing speeches.
During their orations, the leaders stood below Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens’ famed ceiling, which showcased epic scenes from the early-17th-century rule of King James I. Carter focused, though, on James’s son and Rubens’ patron for the ceiling, the tragic King Charles I, who was executed in 1649 for refusing to accept a constitutional monarchy.
Carter saw a lesson in the sad tale: “There was a king of England who considered himself to be more influential than the actual fact. 328 years ago, he had a struggle with Parliament and he came to this building. When he left on the orders of Parliament, he was beheaded in the street. I think this may not happen to us, but we have to remember that making decisions is not a guarantee that our decisions will be consummated.” The other leaders – even the suspicious Schmidt – burst into laughter.
Carter’s trip still had some high-intensity moments ahead; he next headed to Geneva for a session with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, before returning to London for a speech at the NATO Summit. The triumph of his first trip abroad, however, was set.
On May 10th, as Carter prepared to return to the United States, syndicated Washington Star political columnist Mary McGrory raved about just how much the British loved the new American leader: “They hail him everywhere as a ‘man of the people’ – a no-nonsense chap who arrived with a fat-free entourage, who slashes at waste and trappings. But they welcome signs of his weakness for glory. They are a nation of socialist monarchists. A populist-royalist is entirely to their liking.”
Yet McGrory acknowledged that Carter’s power in part resulted from the fact that he operated – at least stylistically – so far from Kings and Queens. “It has crossed many minds that if he were running the country – and many plainly wish he were – he would select as his first target the beloved monarchy.”
Carter’s lovefest with Britain and the G7 would hit some serious rough patches as the American economic recovery receded, but for that one brief moment in May 1977, Carter had captured the British imagination. Now, as President Biden attempts to navigate a similar set of challenges – shifting British domestic politics, a transitional relationship with the monarchy, and another moment of particular intensity over international energy and trade – the success of Carter’s first international trip seems all the more staggering.
For a deeper look at U.S.-U.K. dynamics during the Carter presidency, check out Thomas K. Robb’s 2016 Jimmy Carter and the Anglo-American Special Relationship.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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