This week in the War, 26 Feb–3 March 1940: Sumner Welles

On 1 March 1940, United States Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, arrived in Berlin. This was his first visit to one of the belligerent nations. He had just visited Mussolini in (neutral) Italy and would be going on to London and Paris. His instructions from President Roosevelt were to seek a basis for peace and to offer the United States’ services as mediator. Unfortunately, World War II was not about to end that easily. Although Britain lacked the financial and industrial resources to sustain a long war, the Royal Navy ruled the seas. France likewise lacked resources, but had the largest army in Europe. Neither country was likely to agree to a settlement unless Germany relinquished her gains. Germany had a solid industrial base (plus iron ore from Sweden), an efficient army that had proved itself in Poland, and the world’s largest airforce. Hitler was in no mood to give up the conquered territory in Poland, or Czechoslovakia, or anywhere else.

Welles was fluent in German and needed no interpreter when talking with Hitler, whom Welles found to be ‘dignified.’ Churchill, he remarked, was overly loquacious and overly indulgent in alcohol. The goings-on around this period are described in an engaging and entertaining manner by Norman Moss in his book Nineteen Weeks—America, Britain, and the Fateful Summer of 1940 (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). By September 1940, Welles had resigned in the aftermath of a sex scandal involving Welles and two Pullman car porters on a train from Alabama to Washington.

The present-day structure of the United Nations owes much to the early influence of Sumner Welles.

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