Too Impressive to be Real

June 1, 1998 Topics: Society

Too Impressive to be Real

Mini Teaser: Two biographies clarify questions about Sumner Welles' long and spectacular career

by Author(s): Mark Falcoff

Benjamin Welles, Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

Irvin F. Gellman,  Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

In late 1933--and for a decade thereafter--pedestrians passing by the State Department (now the Old Executive Office Building) were treated to a spectacle promptly at 9:30 each work day morning. A chauffeured Rolls Royce would glide to a halt at the southeast corner, and an impeccably tailored gentleman would alight from the car. If, as in this case, it was winter, he would be wearing a double-breasted overcoat and brown fedora and bearing a cane. He would briskly ascend the granite steps and hurry to his office. Behind him would lumber a portly chauffeur, who would hand the gentleman's briefcase to a waiting State Department usher.

The arriving official was, unmistakably, Benjamin Sumner Welles, undersecretary of state and arguably the most important figure in American foreign policy during the first three administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, so central was Welles to U.S. foreign policy during those years that it has remained something of a mystery to the uninitiated why he never ascended to the top rung of the department, even after his equally long-lived chief, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, finally retired in late 1944. For years we have been awaiting a biography that would clarify these and other questions about Welles' long and spectacular career. Now, nearly four decades after his death, we have two. The first is by Welles' son Benjamin, who for decades was one of the leading foreign correspondents of the New York Times; the other, which is actually a multiple biography of Welles and his contemporaries (mainly, though not exclusively, of Roosevelt himself and Cordell Hull), is the work of Irwin E. Gellman, previously known for his studies of American diplomatic history.

For some years the American scholarly community has been awash with rumors about the fate of Welles' personal papers, and particularly about the unwillingness of his heirs to allow independent researchers access to them. The excuse, so it ran, was that Benjamin Welles himself was planning a biography of his father. But the project itself was so long delayed in publication that many began to think that the literary project in question was entirely fictitious--a dodge to prevent prying eyes from intruding into some of the embarrassing aspects of Welles' personal life. With the publication of Sumner Welles we can see that those allegations were entirely without foundation; drawing not only on personal papers but also on interviews with family friends and even descendants of his father's enemies, Benjamin Welles has provided a very complete portrait, a significant contribution to scholarship in its own right. Far from avoiding unpleasantries, he actually begins the book by putting his ugliest cards on the table--relating more or less in full what is known of an episode that allegedly took place on a train carrying a presidential delegation back to Washington from the funeral of House Speaker William Bankhead in 1940.

On that occasion, Welles, drunk and under the influence of barbiturates, supposedly propositioned (without success) several members of the dining car staff, all of whom in that era were, of course, black males. Although the episode led to an FBI investigation and was eventually leaked to Washington social and political circles, it was not until 1943 that Welles' many enemies in Congress, the State Department, and elsewhere succeeded in bringing about his resignation.
Such scorched-earth tactics against one's rivals and political opponents are a familiar feature of life in Washington. There is, however, one important difference: a half century ago no newspaper would print a word of the charges against Welles, even after, as Gellman recounts, Hull rather indelicately (and illegally) showed the FBI file to James Reston of the New York Times. Indeed, it was not until 1956 that two of Welles' enemies--one of them William Bullitt, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and to France--managed to plant the story of Welles' alleged sexual tastes in Confidential, a scurrilous precursor of today's (comparatively tame) supermarket tabloids. This was hardly the best way to remember Welles and his contribution to American diplomacy, so we can be grateful that his son's long-deferred biographical memorial has finally arrived.

Benjamin Sumner Welles was born to a well-to-do Massachusetts Republican family in 1892 and received the same kind of education--Groton and Harvard--as the President he was later to serve. Indeed, the Welles and Roosevelt families were so close that young Sumner was a page at the wedding of Eleanor and Franklin. Already as an adolescent he had mastered French and German, largely from periods of residence in Europe with his parents. He grew to be tall, handsome, self-assured, and extremely attractive to women. In 1915, recently graduated from Harvard, he married Esther Slater, heiress to a Massachusetts textile fortune. Shortly thereafter he passed the foreign service examination with a 93 percent score and was posted to Japan. The experience, though brief, was in many ways fundamental to Welles' subsequent world outlook. He became convinced that Japan represented a long-term threat to American interests, and during the 1930s was one of the very few officials in Washington who took seriously its expansion into Manchuria.

His second assignment, to Buenos Aires, 1917-19, was equally formative. He had already decided to make Latin America his area specialty, an unusual choice among ambitious American diplomats of that time (or now, for that matter). He quickly added Spanish to his battery of languages, and made himself entirely at home with an upper class as refined and worldly as his own. Argentina was then the last redoubt of British influence in South America; indeed, insiders in London casually referred to it as the "sixth dominion." As a result, much of Welles' time there was spent trying to counteract the activities of British intelligence, whose mission was not merely to eliminate German economic influence but to forestall American entry into markets temporarily closed to the United Kingdom due to a shortage of merchant shipping and other wartime exigencies. (A somewhat similar double game was played by Whitehall during the Second World War, a fact that Welles found impossible to impress upon the opaque, provincial Hull, who insisted on venting his spleen on the Argentines.)

The election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 put Charles Evans Hughes at the helm of the State Department, a fortunate outcome for Welles, inasmuch as Hughes was a friend both of his family and that of his wife. But Welles' rapid advance in the service was due to demonstrated merit; he actually became acting chief of the Latin American division in 1920, several months before Hughes' accession. As Undersecretary Bainbridge Colby wrote, Welles was "brilliant, tireless. When there is work to be done--the clock does not exist." Another observer thought Welles was "overwhelmed by his own dignity." Both were probably right.

During his period at the Latin American division Welles began an affair with Mathilde Townsend Gerry, the immensely wealthy wife of a Democratic senator from Rhode Island. In 1923, wounded by her husband's infidelity, Esther Welles sued for divorce; the following year Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, who did not approve of divorced people, dismissed Welles from the foreign service. After a long and passionate courtship Mathilde finally left her husband and married Welles. Following a prolonged honeymoon in Paris, the newlyweds returned to Washington and established residence in Mathilde's palatial townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue (today the Cosmos Club). During 1927-28 Welles wrote Naboth's Vineyard, a two-volume history of the Dominican Republic, a country he had come to know well as a mediator of contending factions during his Latin American watch in the early 1920s. He also built a country estate at Oxon Hill, Maryland, entered Maryland politics, and renewed contact with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, having recovered from his first bout of polio, was preparing to re-enter public life.

Indeed, during these years Welles became the most influential voice in the Democratic Party on Latin American issues, which in this period centered on debt collection, intervention, and the politics of recognition. Under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904), the United States took it upon itself to intervene in the financial affairs of some of the smaller Caribbean states with a view to forestalling European intervention to collect unpaid obligations. As a result, by the 1920s customs receiverships or other forms of veiled protectorate existed in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua, often under the watchful bayonets of the U.S. Marines. In Cuba, the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene under the Platt Amendment (1901) to preserve "life, liberty, and property"--a privilege that Washington had exercised no fewer than three times prior to FDR's inauguration in 1933.

Both Roosevelt and Welles believed, quite rightly, that armed intervention did not resolve the basic problem of political instability in these countries. Moreover, once U.S. troops were introduced, under whatever fiction, it was virtually impossible to withdraw them without losing face. The solution, they believed, was a combination of diplomacy and concrete economic benefits. On the one hand, the United States should avoid unilateral actions whenever possible and consult with the Latin American "majors" (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile); on the other, positive steps--lower tariffs to provide U.S. markets for Latin American exports, education, and constitutional rule--should be taken to create an environment in which intervention of any kind would prove unnecessary. This was the germ of FDR's subsequent Good Neighbor Policy.

The issue of diplomatic recognition was a major point of division between Welles and Roosevelt, on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other. Under President Wilson, the United States refused to send ambassadors to Latin American governments that had come to power by force and violence. Coolidge and Hoover reversed this course, and were criticized by their opponents for, in effect, propping up dictators. However, Latin American governments of whatever provenance adhered to the Estrada doctrine, which granted automatic recognition to any regime in effective control of national territory. Indeed, as Welles was later to learn, the use of recognition to express support or disapproval of any Latin American government--regardless of its qualities or lack of them--was deeply resented by our southern neighbors as a veiled form of intervention.

This last point was brought home to Welles with a vengeance in 1933, when President Roosevelt sent him to Cuba as ambassador to mediate between the dictator Gerardo Machado and his enemies. Once on the island, Welles realized that Machado's days were numbered, and saw his task as one of persuading the Cuban strongman to step down so that new elections could take place in an orderly fashion. Before this could happen, however, the Cuban armed forces sent Machado packing. Unfortunately for Welles, his hand-picked provisional president, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, never took hold. Within days of his assumption the non-commissioned officers of the Cuban army ousted their superiors and--horror of horrors--linked up with the Student Directorate at Havana University. This unholy alliance replaced Céspedes with a physiologist and professor of surgery, Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín.

Welles' steadfast refusal to recognize Grau's government led to a division within the student-soldier coalition; eventually, Sergeant-Stenographer Fulgencio Batista reached an understanding with the American ambassador, dispensed with Grau, and produced a civilian puppet sufficiently palatable to Welles' taste. Batista thus became "our man in Havana", and remained so for the next twenty-five years. This episode, recounted at considerable length in both books, reflects little credit on Welles. In spite of his son's attempt to provide a balanced appraisal, it seems clear that his management of the Cuban upheaval of 1933 was the one great failure of his career, one for which we (and, in a much more serious way, the Cuban people) are still paying the price. Roosevelt's subsequent embrace of the Estrada doctrine prevented a repetition of this fiasco, but, paradoxically, it also assured comfortable berths for Caribbean dictators for many years to come--not only Batista, but even more egregiously, Anastasio Somoza, Sr. in Nicaragua and Generalíssimo Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. If Welles' career to this point demonstrates one thing with clarity, it is the degree to which all U.S. policies in the circum-Caribbean--recognition or non-recognition, aid or embargo--were by their very nature double-edged swords.

Returning to Washington in late 1933, Welles was appointed assistant secretary of state for Latin America, and four years later, undersecretary of state (at that time the department's second-highest berth). This period was arguably the most productive of his career. Its principal highlight was the 1936 Buenos Aires Conference of American Republics, which laid the groundwork for subsequent meetings in Lima (1938) and Panama (1940), where Welles was able to work out a cooperative arrangement for hemispheric defense. Unlike Hull, Welles understood the considerations that led Argentina to remain aloof from the inter-American security community--matters relating to its economic and cultural ties to Western Europe, not (as Hull persistently imagined) sympathies for the Axis.
As time went on, Roosevelt relied increasingly on Welles for all important foreign policy projects; it was Welles, not Hull, whom he dispatched to Europe in 1940 to sound out Hitler and Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier on the prospects for peace. Likewise, it was Welles, not Hull, who accompanied Roosevelt aboard a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941, and who produced the draft of what the world later came to know as the Atlantic Charter. Once the United States entered the war, Welles' portfolio expanded to include relations with the Free French and with Chaim Weizmann and the Jewish Agency, as well as plans for a postwar organization to keep the peace. By 1942 or 1943, Hull had become something of a figurehead secretary--a stark contrast to his workaholic deputy, who enjoyed the President's intimate confidence. When asked why he preferred this peculiar arrangement, Roosevelt said of Welles, "One, I trust him. Two, he doesn't argue with me. Three, he gets things done."

Hull's problem was not indolence so much as physical incapacity. Gellman's book reveals that for many years the secretary had suffered from tuberculosis, a disease at that time so dread that all those who carried it felt obliged to keep the matter secret. FDR presumably knew about Hull's problem, but chose to keep him on anyway, not only because he needed the secretary's influence with Congress, where he had served for more than two decades, but also because Hull's image with the public was one of extraordinary gravitas. Aristocratically handsome, with a full thatch of silver-white hair, his appearance projected integrity, maturity, and moderation, much like Andy Hardy's father--also a judge--in the films of the period. Today such advantages would be undercut by television, which would clearly convey the fact that Hull wore an ill-fitting pair of false teeth and spoke with a lisp.

The secretary's limitations were many. He spoke no foreign languages; he had little experience of foreign travel; and except for a long-time interest in trade and tariffs, had no preparation for the substance of foreign relations. In his own mind (and even more, that of his socially ambitious wife), he was the ideal successor to FDR, even though he spent much of the latter's third term at the Bethesda Naval Hospital or at various spas for distinguished invalids. Inevitably, his outsized vanity clashed with that of his deputy, and eventually Hull linked up with other enemies of Welles--most notably Ambassador Bullitt, who himself aspired to be Hull's successor.

Shortly after the train incident Bullitt went to FDR to confront him with what he believed to be the facts of the case. Roosevelt, whose own marriage was somewhat irregular, and who in any event felt a certain sense of class loyalty to Welles, was unimpressed. He announced that he would assign a bodyguard to Welles so that such incidents could not occur in the future, and, to placate Bullitt, named him a special assistant to Hull. Unfortunately for Welles, this did not put an end to the matter. Thanks to a whispering campaign, within a matter of months all official Washington knew (or thought it knew) something of the undersecretary's private life. Meanwhile, Arthur Krock of the New York Times repeatedly fed his readers with stories of the "mess at the State Department"--the inability of Welles to get along with his chief. The proximate cause of Welles' resignation, however, was Hull's insistence in August 1943 that Roosevelt choose between the two of them. Fearful of losing a major political asset and already weakened by the strain of wartime leadership, the President finally caved in.

At the time Welles was only fifty-four years old and at the height of his powers. Unfortunately for him, his diplomatic career was definitively over. In the years immediately after World War II he became a noted columnist, radio commentator, and author. Two of his books, Time for Decision (1944) and Where We Are Heading (1946), became best-sellers, and he was in high demand on the lecture circuit. As time went on, however, depressed by the course of the Cold War and his own personal situation, he lapsed into alcohol and drugs, particularly after the death of Mathilde in 1949. In 1951 he married socialite Harriet Post, whom he had known since childhood. The final decade makes for melancholy reading. He died in 1961 of cancer of the pancreas, probably the product of a lifetime of excessive drinking.

Welles was a difficult and contradictory figure. Time magazine described him in a cover article as "too impressive to be real: glacially dignified, ramrod stiff, and reserved as a box at the opera." But he was also, Time added, "precise, imperturbable, accurate, honest, sophisticated, thorough, cultured, traveled, and financially independent." With his guards-officer mustache, London-tailored clothes, and retinue of servants, chauffeurs, and bottlewashers, he could not help but irritate some of his contemporaries and provoke envy and resentment on the part of many more.

On the other hand, he was a remarkably creative and worldly member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment--one of those quintessential dead white males whose departure we are now instructed to celebrate. To have shaped the Good Neighbor Policy, drafted the Atlantic Charter, and managed much of American diplomacy during World War II is a record any functionary might well envy, regardless of his social or ethnic origins. Gellman's very full portraits of Hull, Bullitt, and other foreign policy players during the New Deal and World War II provide an instructive contrast, one that suggests that Welles was, indeed, almost too impressive to be real.

Essay Types: Book Review