Norwegian royal visits, relevant then and now
Special ties that bind
Aboard the Oslofjord were two very distinguished guests in the spring of 1939, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha of Norway. They were sailing across the Atlantic with the purpose of reinforcing the close bonds between Norway and the United States with a 10-week tour, which spanned 15,000 miles and 34 states.
On April 27, they docked in New York harbor, with a slight complication. The dense fog caused the pilot boat to sink. On a brighter note, thousands came to meet them and a ticker tape parade down Broadway was held in their honor. They were even invited to be guests of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for two nights at their home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The friendship that developed between the two couples was fortuitous for what was to come. As were the words spoken by Crown Prince Olav during the royal couple’s visit to the famous 1939 World’s Fair in Queens to dedicate the Norwegian exhibit: “Unhappily, there is no sign of the probability of eternal peace being within the reach of tomorrow …”
Of course, a visit to the large Norwegian community in Brooklyn was on their itinerary. On July 6 at Leif Ericson Park, they dedicated a new monument designed by August Werner. It was a replica of a rune stone in Tune, Norway. Diagonally across from the stone, within eyesight, was the all-girls Bay Ridge High School (now known as Telecommunications High School), the only school in the New York City school system that offered Norwegian as a foreign language.
Eileen Johanssen was a student at the time. She recalled how the entire school emptied, went to greet the sovereign couple, and were present for the dedication, evidence of how important these royal visits were, are, and continue to be for the Norwegian-American community.
Tragically, about nine months after Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha returned home from this tour, the Nazis invaded their homeland. The crown prince’s words proved true for the Norwegian people, government, and royal family. Knowing she was unsafe in Norway or in her country of birth, Sweden, President Roosevelt invited the crown princess and her three children to take refuge in the United States. He even sent a ship to transport them to calmer shores.
While in exile, Crown Princess Märtha went on the most important royal U.S. tour Norway would ever see, albeit unplanned and unorthodox. Through the friendships she and her husband had developed on their recent trip (especially with the Roosevelts) and tireless persistence, she took on the mission of galvanizing American support for Norway. She, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other notables rallied an audience at a Red Cross fundraiser in Madison Square Garden with tremendous results. Together, they raised $5.1 million, a formidable sum today, and even more so in 1943.
Impressed by the crown princess, President Roosevelt found a way to gift Norway a warship, while still remaining neutral. It is believed that it was she and her tenacity that inspired Roosevelt’s famous “Look to Norway” speech.
The young prince, the future King Harald V, who lived in the United States through most of Norway’s occupation, always visits the Norwegian War Sailors Monument in Battery Park when on tour. Sometimes it was freezing. Sometimes the Viking Color Guard from the NYC Police Department would participate. The most moving time was a day when the king came alone with little to no entourage or fanfare. The war sailors gathered around him in a semicircle, sharing their stories and emphasizing their strong respect and gratitude for his father.
Even though the number of Norwegian emigrants to the United States has shrunk exponentially, their pride in heritage has not. In fact, a Norwegian renaissance or gjenfødelse (rebirth) is taking place in New York cultural life. Queen Sonja, an artist and avid art collector, has had a strong presence at Scandinavia House during her royal visits. She has enthusiastically opened art exhibits, including one where she shared her own collection.
Most recently this past December, the next generation of Norwegian royals, Crown Prince Haakon, toured the United States. It was a quick jaunt, from Dec. 7 to Dec. 9, split between New York City and Washington, D.C. In New York, the Crown Prince honored war sailor Karl Aksel Andresen for his service during World War II. It was especially moving to see these two sailors (the prince chose a navy career) side by side.
One may ask, are the Norwegian royals still relevant? I, for one, would say yes. First, because of the reaction their visits stirs—and not only from Norwegian-Americans. Second, because the family has been very effective in adapting and promoting Norway’s changing interests, while aligning the latter with those of the United States. For example, the first generation of Norway’s monarchs to visit here advocated for military support to save democracy. The next generation then shared Norway’s cultural significance and recognized the bravery of their compatriots during war, and Prince Haakon’s recent visit focused on renewable energy.
Our two countries still need each other. If the United States is no longer seen as a place offering employment and a home for Norwegian citizens, it is a place to grow markets, both in terms of business and culture. It is also a place to cooperate on critical world issues, the goal of peace, and climate change—and the Norwegian royal family still plays a very important role.
This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.