What did I know about Sumner Welles? I knew he was involved in the Roosevelt administration, and I knew he wrote a book called The Time for Decision, which, I think because it was a Book of the Month Club selection, you find at most used books stores (and which I am sure no one has bought for decades). That is it.
Then I stumbled upon a biography of him written by his son, Benjamin Welles, who was a New York Times reporter. The book was published in 1997, about 5 years before the author’s death. Welles, the father, died in 1961, at the age of 69.
The book was very interesting. On a professional level, Welles (who came from an aristocratic American family, and who was in fact a ring bearer at the FDR/Eleanor wedding) was an extremely able diplomat, and a man of generally quite progressive thinking. His expertise was originally centered on Latin America, and he was the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America as well as Ambassador to Cuba. He the became the Deputy Secretary of State, and his field necessarily broadened.
He is considered the architect of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America, was supportive of assistance to the Jews prior to the start of World War II and a supporter of Jewish settlement and then statehood in the Middle East. He wrote the Atlantic Charter, which presaged the United Nations. He was involved with the creation of the United Nations. He was supportive of enabling democracies to take root in South and Central America. He was in favor of overall planning for the end of World War II, with the primary pieces being American security and international cooperation. He was very disappointed that most of his ideas did not outlast his government service.
His service ended in 1943 after he was accused of, some years earlier, propositioning two black railroad porters on a train (with the presidential party) heading back to Washington from Senator Bankhead’s (Tallulah’s father) funeral in Alabama. His son is quite forthright in believing that the allegations were true, although his father was quite drunk at the time.
Welles was apparently bi-sexual, although there is no description of other homosexual actions, and had three wives. In his youth, he was quite the ladies’ man. His health was never good, and he suffered a series of heart attacks, a la Dick Cheney.
After he retired from government service, he was, for the most part, at loose ends, which led to alcoholism and isolation, and at least one attempted suicide attempt. He died of pancreatic cancer. His story is that of someone with extraordinary diplomatic gifts and promises, whose career was cut short abruptly, and who entered a steep decline afterwards that lasted about 15 years, but could not be stopped.
The part of the book dealing with the personal Welles is interesting, but the portions dealing with the professional Welles is more so, as Benjamin Welles provides you with an excellent perspective on so many events (some of which I did not know about) of the 1930s and 1940s.