Prajadhipok’s visit to the United States

In 1931 King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), accompanied by Queen Bharni, met President Herbert Hoover, becoming the first reigning monarch of an Asian state to enter the White House.

As a TIME reporter noted, Rama VII was, ‘the only monarch absolute both in theory and in fact…’ Just over 14 months later the ‘absolute’ part of monarchical power would be swept away in a coup and within four years Prajadhipok would become the only one of the ruling Chakri dynasty to have abdicated.

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Prajadhipok, King Rama VII, and Queen Bharni.

In April 1931 though, he was treated with a measure of respect and diplomatic protocol from President Hoover and his cabinet, and with some bemusement and not a little patronising from the American press.

In fairness, TIME did make a number of positive statements regarding the military preparedness and economic position of Siam at the time: ‘Today the Siamese Army is modern, mechanized. Siamese build all their own airplanes, importing only the motors. The Royal Siamese Air Mail bi-weekly service has been maintained for seven years, 44,000,000 pounds of mail and merchandise have been carried, with two accidents, no deaths. Siamese are proud that 91% of their paper money is covered by securities readily convertible into gold, almost a world record. They are proud that their budget has balanced for years, grateful that King Prajadhipok has cut the royal civil list 30%, pepped up princely officials by discharging dullards no matter how royal they may be.’

Prajadhipok had come to the United States by steamer, first paying a visit to Emperor Hirohito in Japan. While the emperor conversed with his fellow ruler in Japanese, Prajadhipok replied in English. Naturally, an interpreter filled in the blanks.

After leaving Tokyo, the royal steamer sailed across the Pacific, eventually landing for the first time in North America at Vancouver in Canada. Here they boarded the Canadian-Pacific’s private railway car Van Home, to which was attached another series of Pullman cars to accommodate the remainder of the royal entourage as well as security personnel.

In theory, King Prajadhipok was travelling incognito, passing himself off as the Prince of Sukhothai. According to the newspaper reports he would only officially become the King for a 48-hour period while in Washington.

The private train crossed into the United States at around midnight on 19 April 1931 at a place called Portal in North Dakota.

The chief reason for the trip, and hence one of the reasons for travelling incognito, was the monarch needed delicate cataract surgery on one eye. After fulfilling his official duties and being treated to a State dinner by President Hoover, Prajadhipok underwent surgery. It proved successful and he and Queen Bharni remained in the United States recuperating at the New York home of a wealthy widowed American lady.

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Queen Bharni (left) and King Prajadhipok (second left) during their visit to the United States.

The royal entourage returned to Bangkok in late October 1931. The TIME correspondent claimed the morning after his return King Prajadhipok was up early with plans to enact a new law to allow the citizens of Bangkok to elect their own municipal officers.

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