Writing blogs about World War II (or even current events for that matter) can be a dispiriting enterprise at times. So much fear, anger, hate and death. And for what? I’ve tried on occasion to keep things a bit lighter by writing about such topics as oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon crullers, fish, and even Minnesota.
But every once and a while history itself provides some levity. And so it was with the “peace mission” undertaken by Sumner Welles in March 1940 at the behest of his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born Benjamin Sumner Welles in 1892, Sumner, as he preferred to be called (after his famous relative, Senator Charles Sumner of Civil War fame) came from the bluest of blue-bloods. Like President Roosevelt, who was ten years his senior, he was a product of Groton and Harvard. His second wife was painted by John Singer Sargent. And his personal connections to the Roosevelts went deep: at Groton he roomed with Hall Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s younger brother. He even served as a page in Franklin and Eleanor’s 1905 wedding.
Heeding FDR’s advice, young Welles joined the U.S. Foreign Service out of Harvard in 1914, and remained there until forced out by President Coolidge in the 1920s. With Roosevelt’s election he returned to government service in 1933 as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, and was promoted in 1937 to Under Secretary of State.
Welles set off on his peace mission with no concrete proposals, no fixed agenda. Rather, with all of Europe on the precipice of a wider conflagration, he was to listen to all the major players, in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain, to see if Armageddon could somehow be averted.
He departed for Europe by ocean liner, leaving on February 17, 1940 and arriving in Italy eight days later. His itinerary would take him to Rome, Berlin, Paris, London, and back to Rome (to meet the Pope) from whence he departed by ship 82 years ago today—March 20, 1940.
His mission was a failure—Germany was already too far down the road to war to turn back. Hitler had wanted war, and by God, he was going to get one. He had first instructed his generals as early as September 27, 1939 (before Poland had even been fully subdued), to prepare for an assault on France to begin less than two months later. (This date was subsequently pushed back several times; the attack was finally launched on May 10, 1940.)
As William L. Shirer explains, Welles’s mission was doomed from the start. The ambassador, Shirer writes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “must have got the impression [while in Berlin] that he had landed in a lunatic asylum—if he could believe his ears. Each of the Big Three Nazis [Ribbentrop, Göring and Hitler] bombarded Welles with the most grotesque perversions of history, in which facts were twisted and even the simplest words lost all meaning.” As evidence, Shirer points out that during his March 2 audience with Welles, Hitler emphasized his aim was only peace, whereas just one day earlier he had given final orders for the invasion of neutral Norway and Denmark.
As part of Welles’s mission, he met with as many senior political figures as possible, including Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Churchill in addition to Hitler and his Nazi cronies. In France that included President Albert Lebrun, Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Senate President Jules Jeanneney, and President of the Chamber of Deputies Édouard Herriot.
While Welles was in Paris, Jean Giraudoux, the Commissioner General for Information in the Ministry of Information, expressed major reservations about the American’s visit. Giraudoux, a well-respected poet and playwright, had been appointed to this important post in the Ministry of Information by Prime Minister Daladier in July 1939.
One would think that one of the primary missions of the Ministry of Information, indeed, its raison d’etre (to borrow a French phrase) was to provide its government with up-to-date, accurate and relevant information. Such information would permit French authorities to navigate in a dangerous, rapidly-changing world with maximum care and insight.
One would think.
But according to Clare Boothe Luce’s memoir, Europe in the Spring, the Ministry was “a vast place of labyrinthine confusions, organized, or rather disorganized, under . . . Giraudoux. . . . It now seems that no one person in France in a position of authority . . . really knew all the true facts about the state of French armament.”
As noted, this M. Giraudoux had strong reservations about the very character of Sumner Welles, the man President Roosevelt had sent to promote peace in Europe. Here’s how he expressed his concern to a friend:
“How very odd of America to send on a peace mission the man who had terrified the whole world by broadcasting a Martian invasion.” (Emphasis in original).
Is it any wonder, then, that France, with one of the largest armies in Europe, fell in only 45 days??
Whether the Welleses—Sumner or Orson—ever learned of this case of mistaken identity, and whether either ever got a chuckle out of it, remains unknown.
[With tip of the hat to that other Wells fellow, H.G., who started this whole imbroglio by writing about a Martian invasion in the first place.]