Franklin Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy And The Welles Mission (The World Of The Roosevelts), by J. Simon Rofe

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; 280 pp., $69.95 – ISBN 9781403980731)

For a short and fruitless mission, this book gives much background information, not all too relevant and some out of sequence. It seems well researched including some fairly recently released primary material, such as the Sumner Welles Papers at Hyde Park and the books written from those by Welles’ son, Benjamin, and my son, Christopher D. O’Sullivan. It does recap part of the pre-war situation that has some connection to the mission. The title is “Franklin Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy…” but the book doesn’t really cover that to any extent. The Introduction makes clear that the mission is the focus of the work and that the rest is included to help understand it. Some may be padding and distracting. Dr. Rofe (Lecturer in Defense Studies at King’s College, London) claims this is the first time a comprehensive explanation has been given of the mission, which I question, though he may have concentrated more narrowly and deeply on what others have put in a broader context.

I found the information on other “peace moves” at the time useful for remembering the setting of Welles’ task. The same is true of Welles’ proposed Diplomatic Conference of 1937 and 1938. The triangular relationship among FDR, Hull and Welles is worth examining, and Secretary of State Welles comes off better than in other accounts as representing a valid point of view. There are references to a Goring-Ribbentrop split during the Russo-Finnish War that suggest a possible lack of unity in the Nazi government at that time and that the Reich Air Marshal might have had a leaning toward a peaceful settlement. The book brings out FDR’s liking for personal diplomacy. The number of “peace moves” in 1939 is little known, and their discussion helps put the Welles Mission in perspective as one among many. There was little conviction that it would be successful, but it was believed that a gesture should be made to show a commitment to peace, which would do no harm (a feeling not shared by the Brits). The nature of the Phoney War gave some false hope that a high-powered peace mission might succeed. Little was known about the firm plans for a German Blitz in the near future. The announced purpose of the Welles Mission was to examine conditions in Europe, but the hidden agenda was to explore the possibilities of peace, to continue Italian neutrality and to prolong the Phoney War so as to limit the scale of the conflict.

The book brings out the opposition to the mission at home (Hull) and abroad (Chamberlain, et al). Many drew parallels with the House missions in WWI and their results. The unrealistic nature of FDR’s hopes is the mention (to Lothian) for the restoration of Czech and Pole freedom, after both had been fatally carved up. His real motivation and expectations are obscure, as he played this close to his vest and little was reduced to writing. What emerges is peace was not to be “at any price.” There was also a feeling that the defeat of France or Great Britain would bring the U.S. closer to war, but that American public opinion was still strongly against it. Another unpublicized purpose of the mission was to show the American people the differences between the Allies and Germany, hardly a neutral act. However, one of the planned destinations relished the prospect of a Welles visit. There were some at home who attributed the effort to a third-term bid and domestic politics. The initial concept evolved into a broader mission with a number of objectives. The aims continued to grow once Welles was in Europe.

The description of the visits to the four European capitals is a tale of frustration, though Welles’ expectations were realistic. Hitler was determined on war to achieve his aims, and this made the views of the other protagonists irrelevant. It is important to recall, however, that none of them foresaw the total disaster that would soon ensue. The U.S., however, intended to “leave no stone unturned” in its efforts. However, discussion of such things as disarmament was futile by this time. Giving Germany renewed colonial rights in Africa seem archaic now, but it was discussed then despite strong American commitment to ending such rule. In retrospect, it may seem odd that the Soviet Union was not included in the itinerary of the mission, but it was not seen as integral to that effort. The continued neutrality of Italy was more important.

In the end, Welles was successful in the announced objective of gathering information, but not in any part of the hidden agenda. Because of this failure to achieve anything dramatic, this story may have limited appeal to anyone except WWII aficionados who may enjoy filling in this niche in more detail. The book is not well edited, but this doesn’t detract from the readability.