Sumner Welles

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Sumner Welles

Sumner Welles (1892-1961) was an American diplomat who helped create the good-neighbor policy with Latin America during the 1930s.

Sumner Welles was born in New York City on Oct. 14, 1892. He was educated at Groton School and graduated from Harvard in 1914. Entering the diplomatic service in 1915, he served as chargé d'affaires in Japan. In 1921 he was placed in charge of Latin American affairs in the U.S. State Department. During his short term he undertook a special mission for the department in the Dominican Republic, assisting in the reorganization of Dominican finances. From this assignment came his most important literary work, Naboth's Vineyard, still the best history of the area.

In 1933 Welles was appointed undersecretary of state in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, an appointment made easier by his earlier association with Roosevelt. His service in this post for more than a decade was the most distinguished part of his career.

Welles was one of the architects of the good-neighbor policy aimed at a better understanding between the United States and Latin America. During one of his earlier assignments as ambassador to Cuba (troubled by revolution in 1932-1933), he seemed to toy with the idea of intervention, and he did play a part in removing the radical Grau San Martín regime from office. But as his career developed, he came more and more to advocate nonintervention. He attended the series of Latin American conferences that distinguished the Roosevelt administration—the conferences at Buenos Aires in 1933 and in 1936, at Lima in 1938, at Havana in 1940, and at Rio de Janeiro in 1942. In 1940 he also made a special trip to Europe by order of the President to assess the war situation and to talk with European leaders. Nothing came of this mission.

Welles was a highly competent diplomat, but he did not always get along well with Roosevelt's secretary of state, Cordell Hull, and his personal intimacy with the President was irksome to Hull. A serious dispute arose in the Rio conference of 1942 as to the form by which the nations of Latin America would declare their solidarity with the United States. Hull and Welles both appealed to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt sustained Welles's idea. The rift between Welles and Hull widened, and in the fall of 1943 Welles resigned.

During the last 18 years of his life, Welles wrote several books: A Time for Decision (1946), Where Are We Heading (1948), Seven Decisions (1951). He also edited, with Donald McKay of Harvard, an important series of volumes on the relations of the United States with Latin America. He died on Sept. 24, 1961, in Bernardsville, N.J.

Further Reading

A good account of Welles' career is Julius W. Pratt, Cordell Hull, in Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, vols. 12 and 13 (1964).

Additional Sources

Graff, Frank Warren, Strategy of involvement: a diplomatic biography of Sumner Welles, New York: Garland, 1988. □

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Sumner Welles, 1892–1961, American diplomat, b. New York City. Welles began his diplomatic career as secretary of the U.S. embassy at Tokyo (1915–17). Attached to the embassy at Buenos Aires (1917–19), he then served as assistant chief (1920–21) and chief (1921–22) of the division of Latin American affairs of the Dept. of State. As commissioner to the Dominican Republic in 1922, he helped prepare for the evacuation of American troops from that country; later he was sent to offer mediation in the Honduras revolution of 1924. He wrote a book on the Dominican Republic, Naboth's Vineyard (1928), and was an influential member of the Dawes financial mission to the Dominican Republic (1929).

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed him assistant secretary of state in 1933 and in the same year sent him as ambassador to Cuba. There he was unable to bring about successful mediation between the opposing groups in the revolution against Gerardo Machado in 1933, and in the midst of political turmoil he was recalled and resumed his duties as assistant secretary of state. He later (1937–42) was undersecretary of state and served as U.S. delegate to several Pan-American conferences. In 1940 he went on a confidential fact-finding mission to Europe, and he took part in the meeting at sea between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that produced the Atlantic Charter (1941). He resigned from public service in 1943. Some of his speeches were collected in The World of the Four Freedoms (1943); his other writings include The Time of Decision (1944), The Intelligent American's Guide to Peace (1945), Where Are We Heading? (1946), and Seven Decisions That Shaped History (1950).

See biography by his son B. Welles (1997).