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 on Sumner Welles

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 Biography Sources

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