American Tragedy

<i> James Chace teaches international relations at Bard College and has completed a biography of Dean Acheson that will be published by Simon & Schuster in August</i>

This is one of the saddest stories of a good soldier that I have ever read. Until 1943, Sumner Welles, an often arrogant patrician who had attended Groton School and Harvard College a decade after Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the most distinguished members of the interwar foreign service, rising to become undersecretary of state in Roosevelt’s administration. He had elaborated the Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, which renounced direct U.S. military intervention in the Latin American countries; he wrote the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Winston Churchill endorsed in 1941 and became the cornerstone of the United Nations. Later he drafted the United Nations charter and supported the creation of Israel as a national homeland for Jews. When Cordell Hull, Roosevelt’s longtime secretary of state, resigned in 1944, the president would almost surely have preferred to replace him with Welles, whose competence and loyalty were unquestioned. Unfortunately, scandal destroyed Welles’ career, and he died many years later, broken in spirit and ravaged by alcohol.

According to “Sumner Welles,” a compassionate but ruthlessly honest biography by his son Benjamin, Welles made a fatal misstep on a journey from Jasper, Ala., to Washington, D.C., in September 1940. The president and his entourage had gone to attend the funeral of House Speaker William Bankhead (the father of actress Tallulah). It had been a sweltering day in Alabama, and the presidential party was exhausted. On the return trip, Welles, a hard drinker, sat up in the dining car with his colleagues until 2 a.m. Two hours later, he staggered to his compartment and rang for coffee. A sleepy member of the Pullman staff came by to serve him, at which time he allegedly offered money to the man for what his son terms “immoral acts.” The porter turned him down but recounted the story to his fellow workers; other porters then answered Welles’ calls and reported “indirect” advances. The news soon reached the dining car manager, the conductor and other officials of the railroad as well as the chief of the president’s Secret Service detail.

The Southern Railroad’s head of security ordered the employees to say nothing except to the proper authorities and to put nothing in writing. Within 24 hours of the incident, reporters knew of Welles’ behavior. Not long after, these reports circulated in the Senate. They were largely spread by William Bullitt, FDR’s former ambassador to France, who coveted Welles’ job.


Welles did not need publicity like this. He was already heartily disliked by Hull. Welles’ icy manner was not calculated to win him many friends, and Hull, in particular, detested him because of his access to FDR, at whose wedding Welles had been a page. Hull, a former senator from Tennessee, was useful to Roosevelt in gaining congressional support for his policies, and Hull, as Roosevelt well knew, was obsessed with pushing through “reciprocal trade agreements” between nations to avoid the disastrous “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies that helped deepen the worldwide Depression of the 1930s. Otherwise, Hull had little influence on policy.

The position of secretary of state did not assume great importance under FDR. Not only did the president prefer to act as his own secretary of state, but he generally kept his decisions to himself and hesitated to deal with his subordinates in an open and direct manner. But Welles wisely understood that political considerations were of defining importance in shaping FDR’s foreign policy decisions. Roosevelt, in turn, trusted Welles never to criticize him behind his back. It was this relationship that distinguished him from Hull and made him so valuable to Roosevelt.

By 1940, Welles had been married twice and had two sons, the eldest of whom became a journalist and is the author of this biography. Neither harsh nor apologetic, Benjamin Welles shows a deep understanding of his father’s character; the analysis of his policies is less rigorous. Welles seems to have been a stern but affectionate father and was devoted to his second wife, Mathilde. But he was surely bisexual as he entered puberty. Perhaps it was his fear of homosexuality that led him to withdraw behind such a rigid and controlled manner; he had been a sensitive boy, very close to his mother and distant from his rather ineffective father; he was very unpopular both at school and at college. As a young man, his sexual behavior took the form of frequent visits to brothels. Despite the dissipation and sexual escapades, which most often occurred after drinking bouts before and during his marriages, he was an extremely hard worker, subject to heart attacks and depression.

When FDR first became aware of the Pullman porter reports some time after the 1940 election, he was determined that this would not ruin Welles’ career. After discussing the reports with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who suggested that the president assign Welles a bodyguard for his future travels, FDR was satisfied. As the biographer puts it: “No prude himself, FDR viewed sexual frailty on a par with financial or political frailty--especially when alcohol was involved.” If a man was drunk, he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. Roosevelt ordered the FBI reports to be locked up in a safe in the White House, and that would be the end of it.

But Bullitt was not prepared to let the matter drop. He believed that if he could leak enough stories about Welles to the press and the Senate, then FDR would eventually have to get rid of Welles and give Bullitt his job. In Hull, Bullitt found an invaluable ally. Marginalized by the president, Hull burned with resentment over Roosevelt’s dependency on Welles to frame his policies.

By the fall of 1942, Bullitt, angered that Roosevelt would not use him in a high post in the war effort, pursued his vendetta against Welles. He discussed the affair with the vice president, Henry A. Wallace, and also made sure that Hull had become aware of the “nasty scandal.” Hull then called in Hoover and asked for further information; Hoover informed him that the reports were locked in a safe in the White House. By January of the next year, after having read the FBI reports that he obtained from FDR’s military aide, Hull was demanding Welles’ resignation.


Welles and Hull were barely speaking, but FDR intended to keep Welles. Determined to force Roosevelt to fire Welles, Hull warned him that “everyone” in the Senate knew the story of the train incident and that had made Welles vulnerable to blackmail. The president still refused to do anything, telling Atty. Gen. Francis Biddle, another fellow Grotonian, that Welles was the “only man in the State Department who really knew what was going on.”

The denouement came at a meeting in the White House on July 27, 1943, when Bullitt finally met with the president. A violent quarrel ensued; Roosevelt shouted to Bullitt that his behavior was “un-Christian” and then angrily rang his bell and had himself wheeled out of the Oval Office. Later Roosevelt told a State Department aide an anecdote to illustrate his attitude toward the entire affair: Two men went before St. Peter at the pearly gates. Welles confessed to his misdeeds and was admitted. Bullitt also confessed, but St. Peter said, “You have betrayed a human being. You can go down there.” Roosevelt claimed he ordered Bullitt out of his office and told him never to come back.

Despite the president’s intention to keep Welles, he finally had no choice but to let Welles go after the New York Times printed a front-page story about the bitter rivalry between Hull and Welles nine days after Roosevelt’s blowup with Bullitt. Hull decided that the appearance of the news story meant that it was time to force the issue: Roosevelt could accept Welles’ resignation or his own. Politically, Roosevelt could not afford to lose Hull. Welles immediately offered to go; Roosevelt, however, was still reluctant to lose him, especially as he wanted Welles to represent the government at a forthcoming foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow. Nonetheless, Hull had put the administration in an impossible position. In September, Welles resigned with his career in shambles.

Never again did Roosevelt have a man of comparable foreign policy expertise at his side. Welles would almost certainly have tried to make sure that FDR did not agree to what Welles later called his “haphazard” political and territorial concessions to ensure Stalin’s cooperation at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Welles did not oppose the broad outlines of FDR’s policy of seeking an accommodation with the Soviet Union in postwar planning, but his rigorous intellect might have prevented the fatal ambiguities over the future of Germany and Poland that marked the Yalta summit and gave rise to the Cold War.

As for Bullitt, he never again served in the U.S. government. To be rid of him, FDR hinted that he might back him if he ran for mayor of Philadelphia, and Bullitt fell into the trap. The story goes that as Bullitt prepared for a mayoral campaign, Roosevelt sent word to the party bosses in Philadelphia: “Cut his throat.”