Welles, Sumner (1892–1961)

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Welles, Sumner (1892–1961)

Sumner Welles was a career diplomat from the United States who became assistant secretary of state (1933–1937), undersecretary of state (1937–1943), and a principal adviser on Latin American affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After several minor assignments, in 1922 Welles went on a special mission to the Dominican Republic, where he negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from the country. In Naboth's Vineyard (1928), Welles argued that the Dominican Republic could govern itself despite traditional U.S. assumptions about Dominican "immaturity" or the influence of foreign powers. He sharply criticized the Taft administration's policy of Dollar Diplomacy and U.S. interference in Dominican elections. He argued that U.S. military occupation generated resistance rather than pro-U.S. sentiment or economic development, and he bemoaned U.S. officials' ignorance of local customs and wishes.

On a mission to Cuba in 1933, Welles veered back toward interventionism when, following the ouster of President Gerardo Machado y Morales, he advised against recognition of the revolutionary government and called for the stationing of U.S. warships in Cuban waters. His actions made him persona non grata in Cuba and led to his recall in December 1933. Aside from the Cuban episode, Welles remained one of the main architects of the Good Neighbor Policy.

Earlier U.S. administrations had sought diplomatic solutions to crises in Mexico and Nicaragua, but the Roosevelt administration went farther in seeking to abstain from direct intervention in Latin American affairs in any form. Welles persuaded Roosevelt to remove the last U.S. forces from Haiti and the Dominican Republic and abrogate the Platt Amendment, which permitted U.S. intervention in Cuba. The withdrawal of the U.S. military was easier because pro-U.S. dictators enforced order with their own forces, but the Good Neighbor Policy was not merely rhetorical. When Mexico nationalized U.S. oil installations in 1938, Roosevelt neither dispatched troops nor backed the oil companies, forcing them to settle with Mexico.

Welles also helped make Washington officials more amenable to a series of inter-American agreements during the 1930s that enshrined the principle of nonintervention in formal declarations. Welles led a small group of State Department diplomats who had years of experience in Latin America, sophisticated understanding of inter-American affairs, respect for the sovereignty of Latin American nations, and a tendency to emphasize local conditions and actors when analyzing the causes of political developments. Welles's friendship with Roosevelt, and the president's respect for his intelligence and decisiveness, gave him easy access to the White House. Following his resignation in 1943 over policy disputes with Secretary of State Cordell Hull (and under the cloud of a sex scandal), Welles criticized U.S. interference in the election of Juan Perón in Argentina in 1945. Many Latin American diplomats shared the view of Colombian president Carlos Lleras Restrepo, who remarked in 1983: "Of all the North American public officials of this century, none has known Latin America better and wished to serve her with such sincerity as Sumner Welles" (p. 291).

See alsoGood Neighbor Policy; Perón, Juan Domingo; Platt Amendment; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano; United States-Latin American Relations.


Primary Work

Naboth's Vineyard: The Dominican Republic, 1844–1924. 2 vols. New York: Payson and Clarke, 1928.

Secondary Works

Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933–1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Lleras Restrepo, Carlos. Crónica de mi propia vida. Vol. 2. Bogotá, Colombia: Stamato Editores, 1983.

Woods, Randall Bennett. The Roosevelt Foreign-Policy Establishment and the "Good Neighbor": The United States and Argentina, 1941–1945. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.

                              Thomas M. Leonard

                              Max Paul Friedman

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