Before Congress: Peter II’s Speech at the Capitol in 1942
By Carl Savich
A highlight of Peter II’s 1942 official state visit to the U.S. was his speech before the U.S. Congress. That speech solidified and affirmed Yugoslavia as an ally of the U.S. during World War II.
Following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued a statement in support of Peter II and the Yugoslav government.
FDR’s message of April 8, 1941 emphasized that the U.S. would provide aid and assistance to Yugoslavia:
“The people of the United States have been profoundly shocked by the unprovoked and ruthless aggression upon the people of Yugoslavia. The Government and people of the United States are witnessing with admiration the courageous self-defense of the Yugoslav people, which constitutes one more shining example of their traditional bravery.
“As I have assured Your Majesty’s Government, the United States will speedily furnish all material assistance possible in accordance with its existing statutes.
“I send Your Majesty my most earnest hopes for a successful resistance to this criminal assault upon the independence and integrity of your country.”
After the U.S. entered the war on December 8, 1942, Yugoslavia became an ally of the U.S. Pursuant to that alliance, Peter was invited on an official state visit to the U.S.
Peter arrived in the U.S. unannounced on Sunday, June 21, 1942 aboard a British bomber from the UK. He had planned on coming on a transatlantic clipper. He stayed in Hot Springs, Virginia where he spent several days incognito. From here he went by train to Washington, DC, greeted there by U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Then by car they went to the White House where FDR met them. Crown Princess Martha of Norway was also introduced to him.
The welcoming committee on the White House lawn included, in addition to FDR and Cordell Hull, Vice President Henry A. Wallace, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Harlan F. Stone, Democratic Texas Senator Thomas Connally, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sol Bloom, Democratic Representative from New York, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the House of Representatives, and members of FDR’s cabinet.
They stood at attention as the national anthem of Yugoslavia, Boze Pravde, God’s Truth, and The Star Spangled Banner were played by the U.S. Army Band.
A company of the 176th Infantry of the U.S. Army, a composite company of Marines and a composite company from the U.S. Navy stood at attention. Peter was wearing an all-white Yugoslav naval uniform that U.S. media described as being too large for him. He also wore a white-topped, peaked cap with the Yugoslav Air Force badge and matching white shoes. FDR wore an all-white suit and was shown with a cane. The braces on his feet were inconspicuous but could be seen in photographs when he was seated. The two U.S. naval officers also wore all-white uniforms in the background.
FDR told him: “I’m glad to see you — you look just like your picture.” He spoke with FDR on the lawn then went into the White House where Mrs. Cordell Hull served tea. Mrs. FDR was in New York. In the evening, a State dinner was held in the State dining room of the White House. At the dinner, FDR proposed a toast to the Yugoslavian people and to Peter. Peter then toasted the American people and FDR. FDR stated his admiration for the Yugoslav struggle against aggression. He expressed his sympathy for the trials experienced by the Yugoslav nation and people. He stated that the heroic actions of Yugoslavs today were the hallmarks of a people that had fought for five hundred years for liberty. They had opted for liberty at a time when the forces against liberty and justice where dominant.
Peter expressed his appreciation for the understanding and moral support given to Yugoslavia by the U.S. He emphasized the strength of the bond between the two nations and the hope and gratitude that Yugoslavs had. He stated that this bond would grow stronger and help in the final victory and the peace that would follow.
At the State dinner in the White House, present were Peter, Constantin Fotich, the Yugoslav Ambassador to the U.S., Momcilo Nincic, the Foreign Minister, Radoje Knezevic, Minister of the Royal Court, Major Svetislav Vohoska, an aide-de-camp to Peter, and Ivan Subasic, the Ban of Croatia, who was also a member of the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile.
In addition to FDR, members of his cabinet and other officials were present at the dinner, Vice President Henry A Wallace, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Post Master General Frank C. Walker, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones, Senator Tom Connally, Senator Warren R. Austin, Rep. Sol Bloom, Rep. Charles A. Eaton, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, Donald M. Nelson, Chairman of the War Production Board, Norman H. Davis, Chairman of the American Red Cross, Stanley Woodward, of the U.S. State Department, Captain John L. McCrea, Naval Aide to FDR, and Captain John L. Callan and Colonel Thomas J. Betts, Naval and Military aides to King Peter on his visit to the U.S.
After the dinner, Peter met with FDR and Winston Churchill, who was also in Washington at that time, with whom he had a long talk. He spent the night at the White House. Foreign Minister Momcilo Nincic was also in attendance. The meeting lasted from 12:05AM to 1:25AM. Peter met with FDR that morning from 10:20AM to 10:40AM in the White House Study before his speech before Congress in the afternoon.
Winston Churchill had arrived in the U.S. two days earlier than Peter, on Friday, June 19, 1942, at the Anacostia Naval Air base in Washington, DC. The Second Washington Conference was held during Peter’s visit to the U.S. between FDR and Churchill from June 19 to 25, 1942. A primary focus of the conference was finding the best ways to help the Soviet Union, which was taking the full brunt of the German assault in 1942. Churchill had flown to FDR’s residence at Hyde Park in New York on June 20. The next day they both traveled to Washington by train.
The next day Peter moved to Blair House, a four-story “guest house” acquired by the U.S. Government as a residence for foreign diplomats and visitors. From here, Peter read a statement and answered questions at a press conference.
He described the plight of Yugoslavia and the efforts and inspired leadership of General Draza Mihailovich. He stated that this was his first visit to the U.S., which he said represented “a symbol of the promised land” to all the people of Europe. He noted the diversity and tolerance in the U.S., quoting the Four Freedoms. Like in America, Yugoslavs were equal in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia would be a model of the U.S., where democracy and equality would be paramount. He emphasized the role of Draza Mihailovich: “General Drazha Mihailovich, my devoted friend and Minister of War, continues the fight on our native soil. He is fighting with thousands of our men who are making sacrifices so great as to humble all of us with pride and realization of their heroism.” He noted the hardships that not only they endured but also their families who were held hostage and executed in reprisal. He wanted them to know that the U.S., and other countries were supporting them.
He then answered questions from reporters. The first question was about Draza Mihailovich and whether he received help from the U.S. Peter answered: “He is receiving help, but not much.” This was because air drops were difficult because his forces were constantly on the move. He was asked if the deliveries were by plane. Drops were by bombers with parachutes. Was he in communication with Mihailovich? Peter said that he received news from him, but did not want to go into details because he did not want to reveal sensitive information that could endanger him and his forces. He was asked what kind of postwar Yugoslav government he expected after the war. He deferred to Yugoslav Government-in-Exile Foreign Minister Momcilo Nincic to answer. He said that a military and economic union of the Balkan countries would be the goal. Peter was asked whether he planned to tour war plants. He told them that he did plan to do so. Peter was then asked if he planned to visit California. He answered that he would like to because he had heard so much about it. One reporter queried if he wanted to have fun on the visit. Peter replied: “I expect to have some fun.” He was impressed with everything in America. The trains, the food, the friendliness.
After the interview, he went to Capitol Hill where he was scheduled to make a speech before the House of Representatives at 12:20 PM. He was well-received in the chamber when he arrived. He was given a “hearty ovation”. Speaker of the House Sam T. Rayburn, Democrat from Texas, sat to the right of Peter. There was a large U.S. flag behind them under a clock. On the left side there was a portrait of George Washington and the right a portrait of Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier.
Peter was introduced by U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Wearing his white suit, Peter then delivered his speech from prepared notes placed on a lectern:
“It is with profound emotion that I speak today to the Congress of the United States. In this hall of historic wisdom the experience of your statesmanship has guided the destinies of this great country. It has always striven to conduct its foreign policies with friendship to all nations. For that unfailing friendship which you have ever shown towards my people, both in times of peace and of war, I wish to express my gratitude. Today the people of Yugoslavia, who have without stint paid their contribution to the common cause, continue to fight for their deliverance. They fight alone, barred from contact with their fellow soldiers from other lands, but they fight in confidence that the United States and her their other powerful allies will support them in this struggle. From these silent warriors of the faraway mountains I bring a comradely salute to the people of the United States.
“A short week ago I was in London. Where all who have found sanctuary, as has my Government, draw strength and inspiration from the quiet patience and the grim determination of the British people to persevere until the inevitable victory is won.
“By a cruel twist of fate I have never been able to address the representatives of my own people. A few days after the beginning of my reign all our homes and our institutions were shattered by a ruthless invasion. In the days of my early youth I had always looked forward to the moment when, like my father, I should stand in the modest Parliament building in the city of Belgrade and speak to the elected representatives of the Yugoslav people.
“Fate had willed otherwise. Our people, together with the other United Nations of the world, have been thrown into a struggle, the outcome of which will decide for many centuries whether these nations are to live in freedom or eke out a miserable existence in slavery. This war is indivisible, and there can be no freedom anywhere if even the smallest country in any part of the world is enslaved. We did not choose it this way. The ruthless leaders of Germany, Italy, Japan and all their accomplices told us that we must be destroyed. They are all our enemies; all of them must be defeated, and all of us must be victorious. That is why the soldiers of the United Nations are all fighting the same battle. They may never have seen each other or even heard of each other, but they are all united by the same destiny — the warriors of General Mihailovitch, who fight in our gorges; the gallant British soldiers and sailors, who die in the defense of freedom; the brother people of Russia, who have stirred the imagination of the entire world by their historic resistance, and the brave American fighting men, who are giving their lives in every ocean and on every continent of the globe. With them are the men and women of every freedom loving nation, united in their purpose, united in their determination to defeat the common enemy.
“It is for all these reasons that I do not feel a stranger in the Congress of the United States. The Congress represents the will of the American people, but it is also a champion and a guardian of those ideals and principles for which we all fight.
“Yugoslavia, like the United States, is a country composed of simple, hard working men. Before this war was thrust upon us, sixteen million Serbs, Croats and Slovenes lived together, bound by the same customs, speaking the same language and striving in common for peaceful progress and protection of all our citizens. Gradually, the different elements of our nation learned to respect and trust each other. Some adjustments and reforms have been needed and these would have been made. We needed time to erase all our differences and to correct the mistakes of the past. But time was not given us. The conspiracy of Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria wrecked the patient work of decades. Faced with choice of resistance or dishonor, we accepted war and were obliged to abandon our peaceful task of creating a more perfect union.
“Hundreds of thousands of our men have already fallen in battle or been massacred in cold blood. The sacrifice of these men will inspire and guide me in my reign. I shall, with God’s help, devote all my efforts to assuring those for whom they died a life worthy of this great sacrifice. Many who were not killed or enslaved by the Germans, Italians, Bulgarians and Hungarians continue to fight under the indomitable leadership of my first soldier and devoted friend, General Drazha Mihailovitch. I think that I can say to them, with your approval, that the might of the United States stands firmly by their side.
“We shall win this war. But we must also win the peace that will follow it. Never again must we permit the calamity of war to fall upon us. Never again must we permit a band of tyrants to plunge the entire world into misery and disaster. A lasting peace can never be attained until we purge the nations, which today are ranged against us, of wicked men whose lust and greed has wrecked many a peace loving country such as mine. It is only when nations, great and small, no longer fear the specter of aggression that they will be able to devote all their energies to the pursuit of peace among the nations and of security and welfare within them.
“We have welcomed and willingly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter with all its vast implications. In international relations we have already put its provisions into effect by signing a treaty of close political and economic union with our friend and neighbor, Greece. We hope that in the future this treaty will be adhered to by our other neighbors after they have rid themselves of those who are responsible for the crimes which have been committed in their names.
“The four freedoms, which your great President pledged to his own people, will be the aim for which we will strive. We shall judge our citizens not by their political views, not by their racial or religious affiliations, but by their conduct in this present struggle. Whoever fought with us shall share with us in the blessings of victory.
“My country has set her standard in the forefront of those who fight for freedom. We do not count the sacrifices and suffering, we do not measure the want and toil. We look only to the goal — the victory which once was dim and distant but to which we now draw near.”
After the speech, he was escorted by Democratic Texas Senator Tom Connally from the speaker’s rostrum. Peter noticed a glass of water and took a quick drink. Grinning, he then drank the remainder.
The speech echoed similar themes as the press statement. He stressed the cordial diplomatic relations and friendship that had always existed between Yugoslavia and the U.S. He emphasized that Yugoslavia and the U.S. were engaged in a “common cause”. Yugoslavs had made sacrifices. The U.S. and the other Allied countries had supported Yugoslavia.
He thanked Great Britain as a “sanctuary” whose people fought with “silent patience and grim determination”. He attributed it to “a cruel twist of fate” that the U.S. Congress was the first parliamentary body that he had spoken to being prevented from speaking before the Yugoslav parliament due to the German invasion.
The war was thrust upon Yugoslavia, which opposed war. Germany, Italy, and Japan are the enemies of all countries. The United Nations are fighting them together, “all united by the same destiny.” He listed “the warriors of General Mihailovitch, who fight in our gorges.” The “gallant” British soldiers and sailors were praised “who die in the defense of freedom”. He thanked the Soviet Union, “the brother people of Russia, who have stirred the imagination of the entire world by their heroic resistance.” Finally, he spoke of “the brave American fighting men who are giving their lives in every ocean and on every continent.” Peter acknowledged the Big Three, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. This was not an ideological conflict. The capitalist democracies were allied with a Communist government. The focus was the defeat of the common enemies.
Like in the press statement, Peter emphasized that Yugoslavs were the same as Americans, “simple, hard working men.” Like the U.S., Yugoslavia strives for equality, diversity, tolerance, and liberty. “Reforms” needed to be made in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was striving to meet these goals but needed more time.
Yugoslavia made the decision to fight rather than submit to force: “Faced with the choice of resistance or dishonor, we accepted war.” The war prevented Yugoslavia from “our task of creating a more perfect union.” Here Peter invoked a phrase from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution in the Yugoslav context.
He noted the “hundreds of thousands” killed in the fighting in Yugoslavia. He emphasized that many “continue to fight under the indomitable leadership of my first soldier and devoted fried, General Drazha Mihailovitch.” The U.S. was behind them.
He stated that victory was inevitable: “We shall win this war”. He also emphasized that the peace must also be won by preventing aggression in the future. He noted that Yugoslavia had accepted the terms of the Atlantic Charter and had already implemented its provisions by signing a treaty with Greece. Finally, the Four Freedoms, announced by FDR in 1941, the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, were what Yugoslavia strived for.
In conclusion, he stated that Yugoslavia was at the forefront of freedom, fighting for ultimate victory in the war, “to which we now draw near.”
After the speech Peter was photographed on the steps of the Capitol. On the sides was a cordon made up of an honor guard of U.S. soldiers with rifles at attention. He was photographed with Rep. Joseph William Martin, Jr., Republican from Massachusetts, the Minority Leader of House of Representatives, and John W. McCormack, Democrat from Massachusetts, the Majority Leader of the House, and Sol Bloom, Democrat from New York, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House. He descended the steps where he was taken by limousine in a convoy to the Yugoslav Embassy where members of his exile government met with U.S. department heads and attended a luncheon.
At the luncheon, Peter sat next to and spoke with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Also in attendance were Constantin Fotitch, Edward Stettinius, Jr., the Lend Lease Administrator, Frank C. Walker, Claude R. Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture, Donald M. Nelson, Elmer Davis, the Director of the Office of War Information, Norman H. Davis, Adolf A. Berle, Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State, James Clement Dunn, State Department Adviser on Political Relations, Joseph Davies, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Sir Ronald Campbell, Minister of the British Embassy, and Milosh Trifunovitch, Yugoslav Exile Government Minister of Public Instruction.
Peter’s speech received coverage in the U.S. media but it was not a front-page story in most newspapers. The accounts were favorable and positive, with the emphasis placed on his “stage fright” and dry throat in many accounts of the speech. Some newspaper accounts also featured reports of his relationship with Alexandra of Greece. The Los Angeles Times, Friday, June 25, 1942, page 10, focused on his stage fright: “King Gets Stage Fright Addressing Congress. Boyish Ruler of Yugoslavia Finishes Speech and Then Reaches Quickly for Glass of Water. Even kings get stage fright.”
The Lubbock, Texas Morning Avalanche for Friday, June 26, 1942, page 11, focused on his dry throat: “Even Kings Get That Bone-Dry Feeling In Their Throats, Young Peter Demonstrates” by Ruth Cowan, Associated Press Staff Writer. She wrote: “Even kings get stage fright with that bone-dry feeling in the throat.” He received “a spontaneous, sympathetic hand” and the “applause was prompt”. Peter was “smiling and flushed” as he turned over the final page of his speech on the lectern.
The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky, page 17, noted that his voice became “sure” and “firm” as he continued: “Confident of Victory. His voice, almost boyish at the start, became sure and firm as he read on.” He was introduced by House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “King Peter spoke to the Senate after delivering his address in the House, where Speaker Rayburn introduced him as “a kingly young man” and as the ruler of a people who, for centuries, have “stood in the forefront fighting for what they conceive to be human liberty.”
The Detroit Free Press for Friday, June 26, 1942, on page 2, reported that Peter spoke to both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House, first before the House, then to the Senate in the article “Will Talk on War. King Peter Gets Stage Fright in Greeting U.S. Congress.” Peter emphasized the guerrilla warfare in Yugoslavia: “In his speech, he spoke of his homefolks who were carrying on the fight in guerilla warfare, and said: ‘From those silent warriors of the far away mountains I bring a comradely salute to the people of the United States.’”
In the U.S. media, Peter’s age was erroneously given as nineteen. He was actually eighteen at the time of the 1942 visit. Born in 1923, he would be nineteen on September 6, 1942.
Peter’s speech before the U.S. Congress represented the high-water mark and apex of Allied support for the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile headed by Peter II and the guerrilla forces under the command of General Draza Mihailovich. History, however, does not stand still; it is not static. By the next year, Allied support would shift from Mihailovich to Josip Broz Tito, effectively ending the monarchy by recognizing the Partisans as in de facto control on the ground in Yugoslavia at the Tehran Conference held from November 28 to December 1, 1943 by the Big Three leaders, FDR, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. By 1944, Peter would himself be effectively removed from power with the Tito-Ivan Subasic Agreement, which replaced him with a Regency Council. The Yalta Conference held in Crimea from February 4-11, 1945 by the Big Three ratified and affirmed the marginalization of Peter’s role in post-war Yugoslavia. By 1945, the Communist regime in Yugoslavia would abolish the monarchy. Peter would become a king without a country, a monarch without a monarchy, the third and last king of Yugoslavia.