Thanksgiving with the President in Cairo ’43

Originally published in the Stanford Advocate (Stamford, CT), November 24, 2016

“There are some on this Thanksgiving Day who will feel that everything for which they might be thankful is overshadowed by the loss of some young life, either in the process of training or in the actual fighting,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in her “Thought for the Day” column on November 25,1943.  “But even to those who are sad, there is reason for thankfulness in the thought that the cause for which their loved ones died is triumphing.”

            Half way around the world in Egypt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was celebrating Thanksgiving with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had brought two large turkeys from London for the occasion.  Roosevelt and Churchill had stopped in Cairo to meet with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek before travelling on to Teheran to meet with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 

            On the third day of the Cairo conference, a Thanksgiving celebration provided the perfect excuse to substitute platitudes for policy.  Both Churchill and Roosevelt spent the morning on business before they united with Chiang for a group photo.  By then, British civilian and military officials had become increasingly frustrated by Roosevelt’s obsession with China — to the obvious neglect of decisions that needed to be made for other theaters of war.  At lunch with Anthony Eden, Churchill confided that Roosevelt was “a charming country gentleman who was not given to business-like procedures.”

            The Chiangs declined to attend Thanksgiving dinner on account of Madame Chiang’s illness but agreed to meet for tea in late afternoon.  FDR’s guests gathered at his Cairo residence at 8 PM.  Guests included top officials and family members from both the United States and the United Kingdom delegations.  At dinner, Roosevelt declared: “This year, with the United Kingdom in our family, we are a large family, and more united than ever.”

            Churchill recalled: “The President’s guests included his personal circle, his son, Elliott, his son-in-law, Major Boettiger, 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 skills.  As we were about twenty, this took a long time, and those who were helped first had finished before the President had cut anything for himself.  As I watched the huge platefuls he distributed to the company I feared 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 own share.”

            “Speeches were made of warm and intimate friendship,” remembered Churchill.  “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 to play.  Sarah [Churchill] was the only woman present, and she had her work cut out, so I danced with [American General “Pa”] Watson…to the delight of his chief, who watched us from the sofa.”  With music provided by the Marine Band, Roosevelt sang the Marine Hymn.  “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.”  The celebration continued until about 10:30 when Roosevelt resumed his discussions about military aid to China with U.S. General Joseph Stillwell. 

            Five days later, on the last day of the Teheran summit, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill gathered at the British Embassy for another celebration — the Prime Minister’s 69th birthday.  Salmon and turkey were served, but the highlight of the meal was “Persian Lantern Ice,” an elaborate dessert confection which slid off its base and showered Stalin’s translator in liquid ice cream.  A top Churchill aide noted that the dessert “descended like an avalanche on his unfortunate head.  In a moment ice cream was oozing out of his hair, his ears, his shirt and even his shoes.” 

            A true professional, the Russian translator was unmoved, and he continued translating Stalin’s speech.

Lewis E. Lehrman, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, is author of “Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point” (Stackpole, 2008) and “Lincoln `by littles’.” (TLI, 2013).