Benjamin Sumner Welles was born in New York City, the son of Benjamin J. Welles (1857–1935) and Frances Wyeth Swan (1863–1911). He preferred to be called Sumner after his famous relative Charles Sumner, a leading Senator from Massachusetts during the Civil War and Reconstruction. His family was wealthy and connected to the era's most prominent families. He was a grandnephew of Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, known as "the Mrs. Astor". Among his ancestors were Thomas Welles, a colonial Governor of Connecticut, and Increase Sumner, Governor of Massachusetts from 1797 to 1799.
The Welles family was also connected to the Roosevelts. A cousin of Sumner Welles married James "Rosy" Roosevelt, Jr., half brother of future President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). At the age of 10, Welles was entered in Miss Kearny's Day School for Boys in New York City. In September 1904, he entered Groton School in Massachusetts, where he remained for six years. There he roomed with the brother of Eleanor Roosevelt. He served as a page at Franklin D. Roosevelt's wedding to Eleanor in March 1905 at the age of 12.
Welles attended Harvard College where he studied "economics, Iberian literature and culture," and graduated after 3 years in 1914.
Sumner Welles married Esther "Hope" Slater of Boston, the sister of a Harvard roommate on April 14, 1915, in Webster, Massachusetts. She came from a similarly prominent family that owned a textile empire based in Massachusetts. An heiress, she was descended from industrialist Samuel Slater and granddaughter of the Boston painter William Morris Hunt. Sumner and his wife had two sons, Benjamin Welles (1916–2002), a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, later his father's biographer, and Arnold Welles (1918–2002). Mrs. Esther Slater Welles obtained a divorce from Sumner Welles in Paris in 1923 "on grounds of abandonment and refusal to live with his wife."
Welles occasionally gained public notice for his art dealings. In 1925, for example, he sold a collection of Japanese screens that had been on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for several years.
Welles married Mathilde Scott Townsend (1885–1949), "a noted international beauty" whose portrait had been painted by John Singer Sargent, on June 27, 1925, in upstate New York. Until World War II, the Welles lived on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., in the landmark Townsend Mansion, designed by Carrère and Hastings, later the home of the Cosmos Club. She died in 1949 of peritonitis while vacationing in Switzerland with her husband.
Welles spent the bulk of his time a few miles outside of Washington in the Maryland countryside at a 49-room "country cottage" known as Oxon Hill Manor designed for him by Jules Henri de Sibour and built on a 245-acre property in 1929. He entertained foreign dignitaries and diplomats there and hosted informal meetings of senior officials. FDR used the site as an occasional escape from the city as well.
Welles married Harriette Appleton Post, a childhood friend, in New York City on January 8, 1952, in the bride's home on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
In September 1940, Welles accompanied Roosevelt to the funeral of former Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead in Huntsville, Alabama. While returning to Washington by train, Welles solicited homosexual sex from two African-American Pullman car porters. Cordell Hull dispatched his confidant, former ambassador William Bullitt, to provide details of the incident to Republican Senator Owen Brewster of Maine. Brewster in turn gave the information to journalist Arthur Krock, a Roosevelt critic, and to Senators Styles Bridges and Burton K. Wheeler. When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would not release the file on Welles, Brewster threatened to initiate a Senatorial investigation into the incident. Roosevelt was embittered by the attack on his friend, believing they were ruining a good man, but he was obliged to accept Welles' resignation in 1943. FDR particularly blamed Bullitt.
In August 1943, reports that Welles had resigned as Under-Secretary of State circulated for more than a week. The press reported it as fact on August 24 despite the lack of an official announcement. Writing in the New York Times, Arthur Krock said that opinion in Washington saw Welles' departure as an attempt to end factionalism in the State Department: "The long-existing struggle disorganized the department, bred Hull and Welles factions among its officials, confused those having business with the department and finally produced pressure on the President to eliminate the causes". Despite the "personal fondness" of the President and his wife for Welles, he continued, the President sided with Hull because supporting a subordinate would promote revolts in other government agencies, Hull was politically connected and popular with Congress, and the Senate, he was told, would not support Welles for Secretary of State or any other office. Krock added a cryptic explanation: "Other incidents arising made the disagreements between the two men even more personal. It was those which aroused the Senate to opposition to Mr. Welles that was reported to the President".
While Welles vacationed in Bar Harbor, Maine, "where he held to diplomatically correct silence", speculation continued for another month without official word from the White House or the State Department. Observers continued to focus on the Hull-Welles relationship and believed that Hull forced the President to choose between them to end "departmental cleavage". Others read the situation politically and blamed FDR's "appeasement of Southern Democrats." Without confirming his resignation or speaking on the record, Welles indicated he would accept any new assignment the President proposed. Finally on September 26, 1943, the President announced the resignation of Welles and the appointment of Edward R. Stettinius as the new Under-Secretary of State. He accepted Welles' resignation with regret and explained that Welles was prompted to leave government service because of "his wife's poor health." Welles' letter of resignation was not made public as was customary and, one report concluded, "The facts of this situation remained obscure tonight." Time summarized the reaction of the press: "Its endorsement of Sumner Welles was surprisingly widespread, its condemnation of Franklin Roosevelt and Cordell Hull surprisingly severe." It also described the resignation's impact: "In dropping Sumner Welles [Hull] had dropped the chief architect of the US's Good Neighbor Policy in South America, an opponent of those who would do business with Fascists on the basis of expediency, a known and respected advocate of U.S. cooperation in international affairs. The U.S. still awaits a clarification of its foreign policy and the forced resignation of Sumner Welles made an already murky issue even more obscure".
In 1956, Confidential, a scandal magazine, published a report of the 1940 Pullman incident and linked it to his resignation from the State Department, along with additional instances of inappropriate sexual behavior or drunkenness. Welles' explained the 1940 incident to his family as nothing more than drunken conversation with the train staff.
He died on September 24, 1961 at age 68 in Bernardsville, New Jersey. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Winston Churchill, who made the phase "No comment" famous, cited Welles as his source for the cryptic response.
Welles' papers are held by the National Archives at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York.
Burial: Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, District of Columbia, District Of Columbia, USA
Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist by Benjamin Welles
Hardcover: 437 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (November 15, 1997)
Amazon: Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist
In 1915, Sumner Welles, the son of an aristocratic family, began to work for the US State Department. Welles quickly showed an aptitude for the delicate job of international negotiation. His early successes in Japan later brought him to the attention of FDR who brought him into his administration as Under-Secretary of State. While Welles provided FDR with invaluable information about Europe and Japan, his main achievement was the development of US relations with Latin America. His bright career, however, was not to last. In 1940, FDR and his cabinet traveled to the funeral of William Bankhead, Speaker of the House. Welles traveled with them and, on the return journey, he propositioned a black Pullman car porter, allowing an aspect of his life that was heretofore hidden, to emerge. The scandal was made public and Welles resigned in 1943, thereby ending his career. This life of Sumner Welles is candidly written, for the first time, by his son, Benjamin Welles. Anyone interested in the accomplishments of this great man, the history of his time and the presidency of FDR, will want to read this beautifully written book.
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2006)
Amazon: The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
In Cold War America, Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed tremendous support in the fight against what he called atheistic communism. But that support stemmed less from his wild charges about communists than his more substantiated charges that "sex perverts" had infiltrated government agencies. Although now remembered as an attack on suspected disloyalty, McCarthyism introduced "moral values" into the American political arsenal. Warning of a spreading homosexual menace, McCarthy and his Republican allies learned how to win votes.
Winner of three book awards, The Lavender Scare masterfully traces the origins of contemporary sexual politics to Cold War hysteria over national security. Drawing on newly declassified documents and interviews with former government officials, historian David Johnson chronicles how the myth that homosexuals threatened national security determined government policy for decades, ruined thousands of lives, and pushed many to suicide. As Johnson shows, this myth not only outlived McCarthy but, by the 1960s, helped launch a new civil rights struggle.
Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War by K.A. Cuordileone
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Routledge (April 2, 2004)
Amazon: Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War
Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War examines the way in which a cult of toughness shaped the politics of the early cold war. Delving into the cultural origins of this preoccupation with masculinity, Cuordileone shows how the excessive emphasis placed on masculine virility in political life reflected acute mid-twentieth century anxieties about manhood and sexuality as well the ideological imperatives of the cold war. Reading major public figures like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Adlai Stevenson, J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, Norman Mailer, David Riesman, William Whyte, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy as well as many lesser know experts and cultural commentators, Cuordileone reveals how deep anxieties about a decline in American masculinity shaped the political dynamics of the time and inspired a reinvention of the liberal as a cold warrior in the figure of JFK.
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