Welles, Benjamin Sumner (1892-1961)

Welles, Time magazine, 1941

American statesman and diplomat, who served as an Under-Secretary of State from 1937 to 1943 and was President Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor on Latin America.

Welles was born on October 14, 1892 into a wealthy New York family. As a young man from a socially prominent family, he followed the same educational path as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whom he knew from boyhood), attending the famous Groton school and Harvard University. Welles entered the foreign service in 1915. He served as the Third Secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo from 1915 to 1917 and in Buenos Aires from 1917 to 1919. In 1920, he became an assistant head and soon head of the Latin American division of the Department of State. In early 1922, he resigned to pursue a career in banking. He continued to study Latin America and to comment on international affairs, however, as well as to maintain a friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the 1920s, Welles was an early advocate of promoting greater regional economic integration and political unity in the Western hemisphere – as a prerequisite for expanding U.S. leadership in the world beyond the Americas.

After Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he invited Welles to advise him on Latin American affairs, and in 1933 Welles became Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. He is known as the architect of the “Good Neighbor” policy, which aimed to distance the United States from its earlier interventionist policies in Central and South America. When Cubans revolted against their government in 1933, Welles was dispatched by Roosevelt to Havana as an ambassador, but simultaneously remained the president’s most trusted adviser on Latin America overall.

In 1937, Welles was promoted to Under-Secretary of State and became the central figure at the Department of State – to the irritation of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. No less important than Welles’s diplomatic efforts was his work in helping to shape the vision of a postwar world order. “He not only maintained an iron grip on the State Department bureaucracy and advised the president, but he also played a defining role in the genesis of policy and in its presentation to Congress and the public… Even before the United States entered the war he emerged as the administration’s strongest voice advocating a U.S.-led international order founded upon a new world organization.” 1 Welles is given credit for his role in drafting the British-American Atlantic Charter in 1941, as well as in paving the way for the creation of the United Nations.

Welles was an early and articulate advocate of long-term planning for postwar reconstruction. He urged President Roosevelt to establish a secret advisory committee to begin work on all aspects of postwar planning, including the design of an international organization – and “hoped to guide this effort personally and use it to create a blueprint for a new order for the postwar world.” 2 Central to Welles’s vision of an American-led future was a U.S. leadership role in a postwar international organization. He is often credited with playing a major role in drafting the Declaration by the United Nations, which was signed on January 1, 1942 by the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China and twenty-two other nations. Welles became the head of an international organization subcommittee, which from July 17, 1942 was meeting weekly on Saturday mornings in his office. He remained a strong influence on the United Nations creation months and even years after the subcommittee was disbanded.

Despite his prominence and his influential role in the Roosevelt administration, Welles had to retire in September 1943 because of soured relations with Secretary Hull and allegations of homosexual conduct. In less than a year, he published his best-selling book, The Time for Decision, which coincided with the peak of the debate over the postwar world. Among the widely-read and discussed sections of Welles’ book was his chapter on Soviet-American relations, entitled “The Constructive Power of the USSR.” Welles argued that, in its quest for security, Moscow had a legitimate need to create a system in Eastern Europe comparable to America’s sphere of influence in Latin America. He wrote that the “maintenance of world peace and the progress of humanity is going to depend upon the desires and the capacity of the peoples of the [United States and the USSR] to work together … It will depend upon their ability to replace their relationship of the past quarter century, which has not only been negative but marked by fanatical suspicion and deep-rooted hostility on both sides, with one that is positive and constructive.” 3

After his retirement, Welles continued to write and publish commentary on international affairs — and on his vision for a multilateral global community – until his death in 1961, at the age of 68. 4

  1. Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning, and the Quest for a New World Order, 1937-1943, by Christopher O’Sullivan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007 (http://www.gutenberg-e.org/osc01/frames/fosc03.html).
  2. Ibidem.
  3. The Time for Decision, by Sumner Welles, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944. Cit from: http://www.gutenberg-e.org/osc01/osc08.html
  4. Sovetsko-Americanskie otnoshenija: Gody nepriznanija, 1927-1933; Dokumenty. Mezhdunarodnyi fond “Demokratija”: Moskva, 2002, s. 677. (Soviet-American Relations: The Years of Non-Recognition, 1927-1933; Documents. The International Foundation “Democracy”: Moscow, 2002, p. 677); The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, “Sumner Welles.” Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, et. al. (Hyde Park, New York: Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, 2003). http://www.nps.gov/archive/elro/glossary/welles-sumner.htm (Accessed November 17, 2009.)