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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 282

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This is the grave of Sumner Welles.

Benjamin Sumner Welles was born in 1892 to a New York elite family. In fact, Sumner, his preferred name, came from his ancestor Charles Sumner. Close to FDR from growing up together in elite New York circles, although the future president was a decade older, Welles went to Harvard and then on FDR’s advice, went into diplomacy. Although he served briefly in Japan, Welles became an expert on Latin America. By 1921, he was head of Latin American Affairs in the State Department. He was only 29 and the youngest division chief in the State Department’s history. I assume this is still true. Coolidge had him mediate an election issue in Honduras that was threatening civil war. He succeeded. But then Welles married Mathilde Scott Townsend, who had recently divorced one of Coolidge’s good friends. Based on that, he effectively fired Welles.

Welles certainly didn’t need the money from working. He returned to his gigantic Maryland estate and wrote a long and not very popular book on the Dominican Republic that strongly criticized the default position of American foreign policy to use the military to invade that and so many other Latin American countries on any given whim.

Welles was still close to FDR and as the future president planned to rise in power, Welles served as an unofficial policy advisor, particularly on Latin America. He was a member of FDR’s shadow cabinet as New York governor, laying the groundwork for his 1932 presidential run. The new president brought him back into government in 1933 as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs and then Special Envoy to Cuba. There, Welles worked out the details to end the presidency of Gerardo Machado, who faced a revolutionary movement to get rid of him. Machado hated Welles because he gave credence to the opposition. This long process allowed the U.S. to reevaluate its entire Cuba foreign policy and the next year, it revoked the Platt Amendment, which had kept Cuba in a semi-colonial state since 1902. Part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, this hardly ended U.S. imperialist behavior toward Cuba, lord knows, but it was still a quite positive step. Far less positively, Welles thought Fulgencio Batista was the man to run Cuba, which laid the groundwork for the Cuban Revolution and the long Castro era. Moreover, his own hypocrisy was exposed when the brief Grau era took over Cuba and moved it toward democracy, leading Welles to call for the military intervention he theoretically opposed. Luckily, Roosevelt rejected this advice. Like much of the Good Neighbor Policy, it was beneficial to Latin America only superficially and still demanded American control over its southern neighbors. To his credit though, he learned from his mistakes in Cuba and did play a useful role in limiting the American response to Mexico’s nationalization of oil in 1938, among many other Latin American issues during the decade.

Welles became Undersecretary of State in 1937. He, highly unfortunately, opposed expanding Jewish emigration from Germany in the face of Hitler, which was easily the most popular position in the U.S. concerning the issue at this time. His argument was basically that allowing more Jewish immigration would lead to more anti-Semitism in the U.S. or any other country. In 1940, he issued the Welles Doctrine, which criticized the Soviet conquest of the Baltic nations, which greatly angered Stalin, but the U.S. never backed down on it. He also tried to mediate peace in Europe in 1940, visiting both Mussolini and Hitler to see what could be done, but Hitler thought Welles was trying to get Mussolini to betray him by staying out of the war entirely. The visit was, obviously, a failure. A 1941 Time feature on Welles noted that he was the functioning Secretary of State at this time, with Cordell Hull sick with tuberculosis and diabetes and more of an administrator anyway. On the other hand, Hull and Welles hated each other and basically ran different coteries in a very divided State Department, which was how much of the government operated during the Roosevelt administration. FDR would have preferred Welles in the job, but Hull had a huge power base in the Democratic Party and could not be easily moved out. Meanwhile Welles received all sorts of fawning news storied due to his close relationship with the powerful journalist Drew Pearson, which drove Hull nuts.

Welles career in the government came to an end in 1943 because he, a closeted bisexual, propositioned some male porters on a train for sex while very drunk in 1940. FDR knew this almost right away (they were sharing a train on the way back from attending the funeral of Alabama congressman and former Speaker of the House William Bankhead) but believed that the behavior of any man while drunk should not be held against him, a problematic position regardless of the particularities of this incident. Eventually, Hull found out and went in for the kill, ginning up gossip among the anti-FDR Democrats. Welles became a sacrifice to the conservative elements of the party and was forced to resign.

Welles remained publicly active on foreign policy issues. As early as 1943, he was calling for some sort of world organization that would look like what the United Nations became and an end to colonialism and the neo-colonialism of U.S. policy toward Latin America. His 1944 book The Time for Decision, became a best-seller, arguing for the division of Germany into multiple states and an economically cohesive Europe. He followed that with his 1948 book We Need Not Fail, arguing for two states in Palestine with peace kept by the United Nations. He fell under Joseph McCarthy’s suspicion and appeared before HUAC during the Alger Hiss case. But he mostly managed to stay out of the anti-communist spotlight. In 1956, trash magazine Confidential published the story of Welles and the porters, even though by this time, he was long out of power. The end of his life was not real happy. He married three times but died alone. He attempted suicide after the Confidential piece came out. He was also a hopeless alcoholic by this time.

Welles died in 1961, at the age of 68. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to profile more foreign policy makers of the New Deal era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Cordell Hull is at the National Cathedral in Washington, which I have never visited, for example. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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