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A wartime Thanksgiving in Cairo: A lesson for our COVID era

A wartime Thanksgiving in Cairo: A lesson for our COVID era
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“Let us make it a family affair,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt — trying gamely to muster up some holiday spirit — said to Winston Churchill when he invited the British prime minister to Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 25, 1943. It was a disquieting holiday season, an unsteady and baneful time not unlike today. 

Two years had nearly passed since America's sudden entry into World War II. On the battlefields, the Allies had gained new momentum in the preceding months, but the final course of the war remained uncertain. A tactical strategy for the Allied invasion of Europe had not yet been determined, and whatever would be decided loomed as a precarious and bloody operation, audacious but with no guarantee of success.

It also was a holiday when both men were far from their homes — and in harm’s way. They had bravely ventured across German U-boat-infested waters, flown through skies patrolled by Luftwaffe fighters, crossed North African battlefields where ruined tanks lay scattered and the pungent smell of cordite lingered, to arrive four days before Thanksgiving in Cairo.

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Cairo, too, had its dangers. It was a city, observed the apprehensive head of FDR’s security detail, “filled with Axis spies and the price of a life was even cheaper than at Casablanca. … For twenty dollars you could hire two thousand native agitators.” No less a threat, squadrons of enemy bombers were stationed in Greece and Rhodes, a disconcertingly short flight away; the Giza pyramids were landmarks that could unfailingly guide the Luftwaffe to nearby Mena House, where the high-level sessions between the Allied leaders convened.

Adding to the woeful, weary mood, the earlier meetings in Cairo had not gone well. Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek of China had been invited to this conference and, to Churchill’s impatient mind, his opportunities to confer with the American president “were distracted by the Chinese story, which was lengthy, complicated, and minor,” he later wrote.

The tedious sessions, even FDR would eventually acknowledge, were a time-consuming sideshow to the more momentous meeting that would take place in Tehran only two days after the holiday. Soviet leader Josef Stalin would join them in the Iranian capital — the three Allied leaders in the same room for the first time in the war — and the agenda to be debated was as contentious as it was consequential: the end game of the war, and the foundations of the future peace. The approaching challenges were enormous.

Yet Thursday was Thanksgiving, and FDR was determined that they would celebrate. The dinner was convened at the sprawling villa which the president had borrowed from Alexander C. Kirk, the American ambassador. The setting was majestic, on the banks of a tranquil canal, the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx silhouetted in the Levantine moonlight. The food was ample and distinctively American: turkeys and cranberries that had crossed the Atlantic along with the president aboard the colossal battleship, the USS Iowa, with pumpkin pies baked by the Filipino cooks from the president’s mess.

And it was, as FDR had urged, “a family affair.” Despite the demands and complications of the war, FDR’s son Elliot, who’d been serving in North Africa, was present, as well as the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Capt. John Boettiger. The prime minister was accompanied by his daughter, Sarah. And Harry Hopkins, the president’s friend and invaluable confidant, brought his son, Robert, an army photographer.

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What a party it was! With some fanfare, two large roasted turkeys were brought into the dining room and placed in front of the president. His legs may have been paralyzed, but that did not deter FDR from his duties as host. “Propped up high in chair,” an impressed Churchill observed, “the president carved for all with masterly, indefatigable skill.” Heaping platefuls of turkey were distributed, so bountiful that the prime minister grew concerned that only the well-picked skeletons of the huge birds would remain by the time the president got around to carving his own supper. “We have ample reserves,” Hopkins assured the fretting guest and, as if on command, another roasted turkey was quickly placed on the table.

When the meal was over and the toasts were a memory, the dancing began. There was a Victrola, and since Sarah Churchill, the prime minister’s vivacious daughter, was the only woman present, she had “her work cut out,” as her father dryly noted. To lessen her load, the prime minister danced merrily with Edwin “Pa” Watson, the normally dour U.S. Army major general who was the president’s military adviser and close friend. (Less than two years later, Gen. Watson died from a cerebral hemorrhage while returning with FDR from the Yalta Conference.) Seated on the sofa, FDR roared with delight at this incongruous spectacle. The prime minister had never seen the president “more gay.”

“For a couple of hours we cast care aside,” Churchill would recall. Yet he knew, as did the president, that this “jolly evening” would be only a brief interlude before they returned to grappling with formidable realities. Forty-eight hours later they’d be in Tehran, together confronting a stony Stalin for the first time. The fragile hope of steering their increasingly contentious alliance through a devastating war and into a shared, lasting peace seemed not just a challenge but an impossible mission.

Yet, on that Thanksgiving, they found the will and the discipline to put these dispiriting concerns aside. 

I share this story because, on this Thanksgiving, as our nation grows overwhelmed by a pandemic’s grim and seemingly relentless mathematics, by the mounting tallies of the infected and the dead, some might feel it would be impossible, if not inappropriate, to celebrate. Or to give thanks. Or to be hopeful.

However, imbedded in this piquant bit of wartime history, I believe, is an insight, one that is as salutary as it is instructive: Let us give thanks when we can; let us celebrate when we can; let us find reason to be hopeful when we can. These rare moments have an energizing power that perhaps can help lead us through whatever lies ahead.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His latest book is “Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin” (2020, HarperCollins).