Sumner Welles (1892-1961)

Sumner Welles was born into a wealthy New York family in 1892, the namesake of his great-uncle, Charles Sumner, the crusading abolitionist senator from Massachusetts. As a young man from a rich and socially important family, Welles followed FDR's educational path by attending Groton and Harvard before entering the foreign service in 1915.

Welles quickly distinguished himself as an eloquent foreign service officer and navigated the State Department's political waters so skillfully that he was promoted to acting chief of its Latin American Affairs Division after only a few years of field work. Welles' meteoric rise, however, also insured that he would quickly run out of promotions to seek, and as a result he did not remain at the State Department for very long. In March 1922, Welles resigned his position with the State Department to pursue a lucrative career in banking.

As a private citizen, Welles continued to study Latin America and to comment on international affairs, all the while maintaining a friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he had known since boyhood. After the election of 1932, FDR invited Welles to advise him on Latin American affairs, and in 1933 he became assistant secretary of state. Welles quickly achieved notoriety within the administration as the architect of the "Good Neighbor" policy, and when Cubans revolted against their government FDR quickly nominated Wells to the ambassadorship and dispatched him to Havana.

Despite his assignment to the American embassy in Cuba, however, Welles continued to be a member of the White House foreign policy inner circle and FDR's most trusted adviser on Latin America. As a result he was promoted to undersecretary of state in 1937, and helped to draft the Atlantic Charter, an Anglo-American declaration of principles, in 1941.

Even though he had a strong record at the State Department, Welles was unable to improve his relationship with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who felt that Welles' closeness to the president undermined his own ability to act as FDR's chief foreign policy adviser. Never completely comfortable with Welles as his deputy, Hull threatened resignation in August 1943 if Welles was not removed from the administration over allegations that he had engaged in homosexual conduct. FDR reluctantly agreed, and Welles tendered his resignation shortly thereafter.

In retirement, Welles continued to write and publish commentary, most of which related to international affairs and to his vision for a multilateral global community. He died in 1961 at the age of 68.


American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 9-11.

Graham, Otis L., Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander. Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, 287-288.

Welles, Benjamin. Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, 134, 155.