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1940

Sumner Welles makes a “peace proposal”

On this day, U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, after a meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, visits London to discuss a peacemaking proposal with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to prevent a widening of the European war.

Sumner Welles, a diplomat and expert on Latin America, spent his early professional life promoting the United States’ “Good Neighbor” foreign policy as attache to the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, chief of Latin American affairs of the State Department, and commissioner to the Dominican Republic. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him assistant secretary of state, sending him to Cuba, where Welles successfully mediated opposing groups attempting to overthrow the government of Gerardo Machado. He was promoted to undersecretary of state in 1937, serving as a delegate to several Pan-American conferences.

But in 1940, the stakes were raised for Welles. War had broken out in Europe with the German invasion of Poland, and Welles was sent on a fact-finding tour of Berlin, Rome, Paris, and London, in the hopes of keeping the war contained, at the very least, and ideally brought to an end. After a trip to Rome to chat with Benito Mussolini, Welles met with Hitler on March 1-3. Hitler feared that Welles would try to drive a wedge between himself and Axis partner Italy by convincing Mussolini to keep out of the conflict completely. As a result, the Fuhrer bombarded Welles with a propagandistic interpretation of recent events, putting the blame for the European conflict on England and France. Welles informed Hitler that he and Mussolini had engaged in a “long, constructive, and helpful” conversation, and that the Duce believed “there was still a possibility of bringing about a firm and lasting peace.” Hitler agreed that there would be peace-after a German victory in Europe.

Welles left Berlin and arrived in London on March 10. He briefed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on Hitler’s intransigence, arguing that the only hope for a lasting peace was the progressive disarmament of the belligerents, primarily Germany. Chamberlain’s foreign ministers were less than impressed with the suggestion, believing that even a “disarmed” Germany could still invade a smaller, weaker nation. In short, Welles’ trip accomplished nothing.

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