Sumner Welles

Benjamin Sumner Welles (October 14, 1892September 24, 1961) was an American government official and diplomat in the Foreign Service.

He was a major foreign policy advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as Under Secretary of State (the second-ranking position) from 1937 to 1943, during FDR's administration.

On the August 11, 1941, issue of Time, Welles was featured on the cover.

After a homosexual episode on a train in 1940, Welles's political enemies used it against him and, threatening a Senate investigation, forced Roosevelt to accept his resignation in 1943.

Afterward, he became a commentator and Author on foreign affairs.

Early life and career

He was born in New York City, the son of Benjamin J. Welles (January 11, 1857-December 26, 1935) and Frances Wyeth Swan (November 26, 1863-February 25, 1911). His sister was Emily Frances Welles (October 22, 1889-April 22, 1962), who married Harry Pelham Robbins.

Welles was born into wealth and privilege, with a family prominent in society. He preferred to be called Sumner after his famous relative Charles Sumner, a leading Senator in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Welles was a grandnephew of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. A sister of his paternal grandmother, Katherine Schermerhorn Welles, the high society, manners and rules of Mrs. William Astor's New York was dramatized by author Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920).

At the age of 10, Welles was entered in Miss Kearny's Day School for Boys on 42nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. In September 1904, a month before he turned 12, he entered Groton School in Massachusetts, where he remained for the next six years.

At Groton, Welles roomed with the brother of Eleanor Roosevelt. He was in her wedding party, where he met and became a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Welles then attended Harvard College, where he was a top student, graduating in 1914. Following the advice of Franklin Roosevelt, he went into the Foreign Service and won an assignment to Tokyo, Japan, where he was third secretary at the U.S. Embassy.

His first wife was the sister of a Harvard roommate, a Boston heiress descended from Samuel Slater, whose family owned a textile empire based in Massachusetts.

He and Esther "Hope" Slater were married on April 14, 1915, in Webster, Massachusetts, with the reception being held in Boston. They had two sons, Benjamin Welles (1916-2002), a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of his father's biography, and Arnold Welles (1918-2002). They were divorced in Paris in 1923.

He was married on June 27, 1925, in New York City, to Mathilde Townsend. She was a wealthy Washington, D.C., socialite whose first marriage (1910-1924), which ended in divorce, had been to Peter G. Gerry. Welles and Townsend's marriage ended with her death in 1949. She left him $200,000 in her will.

He was married for a third and final time on January 8, 1952, in New York City, to Harriette Appleton Post, a childhood friend whose paternal grandfather was architect George B. Post, who designed the New York Stock Exchange. She was married and divorced twice, to R. Thornton Wilson and Baron Emmerich von Jeszenszky, after which she resumed her maiden name.

Welles specialized in Latin America, was sent to Argentina in 1919, became fluent in Spanish, and proved a quick study in grasping the complexities of Latin American politics. In 1920, he became assistant chief of the Division of Latin American Affairs in Washington, and focused his attention on the Caribbean and Central America. He monitored closely the situations in Cuba and Haiti (then under American occupation).

In 1922, Welles briefly resigned from the State Department, upset with Republican high tariff policies and the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy. The Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, brought him back as a special commissioner to the Dominican Republic with the rank of minister and with direct access to the secretary. Welles remained in this post for three years, but failed to end American control of the nation's economy or to bring about the withdrawal of American troops there.


During the Cuban situation in 1933, President Roosevelt sent Welles as special envoy to Cuba. He arrived in Havana with a specific charge: mediate "in any form most suitable" an end to the Cuban situation. Welles’ role in these kinds of mediations was crucial. He started mediating and promising both sides of the Cuban opponents what they wanted to hear.

Welles promised President Gerardo Machado help of new commercial treaty to relieve economic distress if Machado reached a political settlement with the opposition. The government believed that the proposed mediation represented a clever form of continued support and a guarantee that Machado would serve a full length of his term.

Welles promised the opponents of Machado’s government a change of government, and participation in the subsequent administration, if they joined the mediation and supported an orderly transfer of power. The opposition believed that the mediation was an ingenious method by which the United States planned to remove Machado.

The mediation provided the United States the means with which to pursue several policy objectives at once. The mediations provided the means through which opposition groups could obtain their objectives and join the political process in an orderly, instructional fashion. Just as important as easing Machado out was the necessity of easing new political elements in. The mediation conferred on sectors of outlawed opposition a measure of political legitimacy, providing them with a vested interest in a settlement sanctioned and supported by the U.S. This served as a recruitment process, a method by which the U.S. determined which groups were "responsible" and which were not.

Not being able to influence Machado, Welles negotiated an end to his presidency, with support from General Herrera, Colonels Castillo and Delgado, et cetera (See Hugh Thomas ISBN 0-306-80827-7 and Enrique Ros). Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant in the Cuban Army Telegraph service was still not a player. In September 1933, Batista emerged on the public scene a leader of an enlisted man rebellion, and began to seize control. In January 1934, Batista transferred army support from Ramón Grau to Union Nacionalista leader Carlos Mendieta. Within five days, the United States recognized the new government.

Stimson Doctrine

Following the principles of Stimson Doctrine, on July 23, 1940, Welles made a declaration on the U.S. non-recognition policy of the Soviet annexation and incorporation of the three Baltic states—as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pactEstonia, Latvia and Lithuania. More than 50 countries later followed the U.S. in this position.

World War II

Roosevelt was always close to Welles and made him the central figure in the State Department, much to the chagrin of secretary Cordell Hull, who could not be removed because he had a powerful political base. Historians give the credit to Welles for designing the United Nations. FDR made Welles the key person and Welles had "a dominance over UN planning" that was "starting to embitter Hull." [1]

Resignation and later years

Welles did not have a political base, and his enemies finally pounced after they discovered a homosexual episode where he solicited black Pullman car porters in 1940.[2] As his rivalry with Welles intensified, Hull despatched an FDR confidant, William Bullitt, to leak details of the incident to Maine Republican Senator Owen Brewster. Brewster then threatened a Senate investigation.

Roosevelt was embittered by the attack on his friend, believing they were ruining a good man, but was forced to accept Welles' resignation in 1943.

Welles became a prominent commentator and Author on foreign affairs, but held no more government positions.

Sumner Welles died at age 68 in Bernardsville, New Jersey. He is interred in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C..


  • Michael J. Devine. "Welles, Sumner"; in American National Biography Online (Feb. 2000) online
  • Gellman, Irwin F. Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, and Sumner Welles. Johns Hopkins U. Pr., 1995. 499 pp., paperback edition Enigma Books, 2004.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher D. (2007). Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning, and the Quest for a New World Order, 1937-1943. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231142587. 
  • Welles, Benjamin (1997-11-01). Sumner Welles: Fdr's Global Strategist : A Biography (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History), Hardcover, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-17440-3 EAN: 9780312174408.  scholarly study by his son

Books by Welles include

  • Welles, Sumner (1944). The time for decision. Harper & Brothers. ASIN B0006AQB0M. 
  • Welles, Sumner (1972). Naboth's Vineyard: The Dominican Republic, 1844-1924. Arno Press. ISBN 0-405-04596-4. 


  • Fuentes, Norberto (2004). La Autobiografia De Fidel Castro. Mexico D.F: Editorial Planeta. ISBN 84-233-3604-2, ISBN 970-749-001-2. 
  • Gonzalez, Servando (2002). The Secret Fidel Castro: Deconstructing the Symbol. U.S.: Spooks Books. ISBN 0-9711391-0-5, ISBN 0-9711391-1-3. 
  • Kapcia, A. (2002). "The Siege of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba, 1933: A Reassessment". Journal of Latin American Studies 34: 283–309. doi:10.1017/S0022216X02006405. 
  • Lazo, Mario (1968). Dagger in the heart: American policy failures in Cuba. New York: Twin Circle. 
  • Phillips, R Hart (1935). Cuban side show, 2nd edition, Havana: Cuban Press. ASIN: B000860P60. 
  • Phillips, R Hart (1959). Cuba, Island of Paradox. New York, NY: McDowell Obolensky. ASIN: B0007E0OAU. 
  • Thomas, Hugh (April, 1998). Cuba or the Pursuit of Freedom, Updated Paperback edition, Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80827-7. 


  1. Stephen C. Schlesinger, The Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (2004) p. 41. see [1] for text.
  2. Welles, Benjamin (1997), Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 273–4, ISBN 0312174403 

External links

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