In This Review

Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist . . . a Biography
Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist . . . a Biography
By Benjamin Welles
St. Martin's Press, 1997, 480 pp

An absorbing study of an enigmatic character who for nearly a decade after 1933, as Franklin Roosevelt's trusted adviser, wielded great influence over American foreign policy. The author, a retired correspondent with The New York Times and The Washington Post, was bequeathed his father's papers in 1961 and has returned by fits and starts to this biography ever since. Austere, formal, and even viceregal in public demeanor, Welles was also driven by private demons -- of drink and libido, what else? -- that led to scandal and forced him out of the State Department in 1943. Welles was particularly instrumental in introducing a new tone to relations with Latin America, which he and FDR treated with adroitness and respect, but his influence and idealism extended far beyond that domain. While the author treats convincingly the diplomatic episodes in which his father played a significant role, it is as a study in character that the book makes its most important contribution. "Angelic impulses and predatory lusts," wrote William James, "divide our hearts exactly as they divide the heart of other countries." So did they divide the heart of Sumner Welles.