When Norway’s Crown Princess Martha and her children escaped the Nazi occupation of their country, FDR sent a ship to rescue them.
The new PBS dramatic series Atlantic Crossing, tells the story. Norway’s King and Crown Prince, refusing to surrender to the German invaders, had escaped to Britain on a British heavy cruiser with much of the Norwegian government and their nation’s gold reserves. Crown Princess Martha was driven with her two daughters and 3 year old son, who’s Norway’s current King, to Sweden. She stayed with her uncle, the Swedish King.
But Sweden’s King, jealous of Swedish neutrality and having friendly relations with Hitler, was discomfited by her presence. He urged she return to Norway to collaborate with the Nazis, with her son as royal heir preserving the monarchy. Norway’s King from London angrily forbade any such collaboration.
Instead the Norwegian royals solicited an invite from FDR for Martha and the children to come to America. Martha and her husband the Crown Prince in 1939 had visited and charmed the Roosevelts at their Hyde Park, NY estate. FDR unhesitatingly sent an American transport ship to retrieve Martha and her children, with over 800 others fleeing the Nazis. Among them was young Danish comedian Victor Borge.
In the series, FDR is portrayed ordering large American flags painted on the sides of the American Legion so no German subs would mistake its identity as a neutral ship. Before leaving the Swedish Royal Palace in Stockholm to travel incognito to Finland, Martha’s regal mother prays a majestic Lutheran prayer over her daughter and grandchildren.
The Crown Princess and children journey to northern Finland to meet the American Legion, which will transit thru the Arctic. They’re accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, herself an imposing New York heiress, social reformer and former suffragist who became a confidant to Martha. Before they board a small transit boat at the dock, Martha is urged to avoid recognition by the many Norwegian fishermen in the harbor.
But the Norwegian fishermen on their boats do recognize their Crown Princess as she passes and they sing their national anthem “Yes, We Love.” In response, Martha lifts up into the air her little son the Prince so all may delight in the sight and hope of their future King. This story is true and movingly portrayed. No less true and no less moving is the next scene when the massive American Legion is seen at center in the Finnish harbor, a huge American flag emblazoned on her side. She will take the Crown Princess, her children and nearly 900 others through frigid waters to safety in America. It was the last neutral ship to escape. In 1940, as world war and totalitarianism covered much of the globe, America was the final safe harbor for those who could escape.
America in many ways has remained the final refuge and safe harbor in a world where lawful freedom is always in peril. There are many more democracies today than in 1940. And today’s tyrannies for all their malevolence and crimes still don’t equal the the genocides, repressions and aggressions of the great dictatorships in 1940.
Yet today’s democracies, as in 1940, ultimately look to America as their ultimate backstop. When all else fails, there is the American republic and its centuries of continuity and constitutionalism. Behind its political stability, habits of moderation and great wealth there is its incomparable military force, what FDR called the Arsenal of Democracy.
America’s global fleet, army, air force and, yes, the nuclear umbrella, sustained by American technology, remain central to democracy’s survival today no less than America’s military and industrial might did 80 years ago. The strategic reach of America is possible only because Americans are enlivened by audacity in the service of justice and order. Without this elan and its supportive ideals, the republic and its international democratic network could not endure as a counterweight to the world’s despotisms.
With the wave of their hand, American presidents, when speaking for their nation, can dispatch great ships across the oceans to rescue princesses, comedians, and every assortment of humanity fleeing skullduggery. The great and the ordinary have for centuries fled to America for safety, freedom and hope.
Crown Princess Martha and her children found safety, freedom and hope in America while her husband and father-in-law sustained resistance in Norway until liberation. She and others returned home triumphantly. But millions have fled tyranny and aggression to stay in America and to become Americans.
Refugees seeking to come to America in 1940 were often controversial. Many were welcome, and many tragically were not. Then and now there are material limits on America’s capacities. Welcome and generosity can survive only with limitations and prudence.
But America is audacious and globally indispensable chiefly because of its soaring ideals. And those ideals speak to the world in the measured but constant affirmation of benevolence and good will to all who reciprocate. May it always be good news when a mighty American ship anchors in a distant harbor in times of trouble.