The Welles Mission to Rome: February-March 1940
FDR’s Diplomatic Initiative
to Mussolini

©Robert L. Miller, 2008

Lecture given at the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò NYU
May 27, 2008

Historians addressing the Welles Mission of February-March 1940 have concentrated on President Roosevelt’s need to obtain a first hand assessment of the situation in Europe, in view of supporting England and France against the Axis. The only book dedicated exclusively to the mission concentrates mostly on the London segment and relations between the United States and Great Britain. There is no detailed study about the decision to place Fascist Italy on top of the list and the specific results of the Rome trip.

On February 9, 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the following statement at his regular press conference:

“At the request of the President, the Under Secretary of State Mr. Sumner Welles, will proceed shortly to Europe to visit Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain. This visit is solely for the purpose of advising the President and the Secretary of State as to conditions in Europe. Mr. Welles will of course be authorized to make no proposals or commitments in the name of the Government of the United States. Furthermore, statements made to him by officials of Governments will be kept in the strictest confidence and will be communicated by him solely to the President and the Secretary of State.”

An element of mystery still surrounds the Welles mission. Both FDR and Sumner Welles offered multiple explanations for the long trip but historians are not entirely satisfied by those statements. I will attempt to focus on the Welles Mission to Italy and a few ancillary issues.

White House correspondents were informed that Mr. Welles intended to sail from New York on February 17 on the Italian Line’s passenger flagship Rex scheduled to arrive in Naples on the 25th and from there proceed immediately to Rome. The choice of the Italian luxury liner, then considered a major symbol of Fascist Italy’s national pride, was clearly intended as a powerful signal of good will toward the duce, Benito Mussolini and Italian public opinion. As expected, the gesture was surprisingly well received and clearly appreciated by the Italian leadership.


The context of the visit was key to its possible success or failure. But from the outset both FDR and Welles agreed that a positive result was a one thousand in one chance at best.

Europe was in the so-called “phony war” period since the end of September when Poland was defeated with no military action in the west but many operations at sea. French and British soldiers remained idle behind the Maginot Line.

The Soviet Union was conspicuously absent from Welles’ itinerary. Stalin’s Russia was viewed as an ally of Nazi Germany since the Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939. The Red Army occupied eastern Poland on September 17 and proceeded to arrest thousands of Polish army officers, state employees, landowners and other “bourgeois enemies” of Communism. The Soviets stationed large military units in the Baltic States that were annexed in the summer of 1940 following the fall of France. On November 30, 1939 Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack Finland and that war would end in March 1940 while Welles was in Europe. The British and French began planning military action against Soviet Russia in the Caucasus to deprive Germany of critical oil supplies and in the Arctic across Norway and Sweden to cut off iron ore supplies and assist Finland. By late February and early March Stalin had reason to fear an attack from both the north and the south and became convinced that an uprising in Poland and the Baltic States was in the making. On March 5, 1940 he and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed the order to the NKVD to proceed immediately with the execution of 15,000 Polish officers and other “Polish counter-revolutionaries” at Katyn Forest near Smolensk, in a massacre that would remain secret until 1943. American public opinion condemned Soviet Russia for the Winter War against Finland and the Administration issued some weak protests and doubled up on FBI surveillance of Soviet espionage in the United States with some results to follow in 1941. Fascist Italy, in the name of anti-Communism, also supported Finland and was critical of Nazi Germany’s close relations with Stalin. Roosevelt worried about American isolationist opinion and had therefore initially limited the Welles mission to the belligerent countries: Germany, France and Great Britain. But as soon as he discussed the trip with Welles privately, the under secretary convinced FDR to place Italy not just on the itinerary but at the top of the list of countries to visit. The president therefore agreed to the approach to Mussolini as the most important part of the mission. The document showing Roosevelt’s handwritten addition of Italy on the original draft of the press release is in the President’s Secretary’s File at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. The key diplomatic players at the time were: Prince Ascanio Colonna, a career diplomat, the Italian ambassador to Washington since 1939 when he replaced Fulvio Suvich. Colonna was well liked by the president and the state department.

Since 1936 Count Galeazzo Ciano Fascist Italy’s foreign minister was also Mussolini’s son-in-law having married his oldest daughter Edda. Ciano started out by being very pro-Nazi with a disturbingly thuggish side: he was later connected to the gruesome double murder of the anti-Fascists Carlo and Nello Rosselli in France in 1937 and the annexation of Albania in April 1939, a brutal action that was condemned by the United States and the democracies. According to his diary, Ciano became bitterly disillusioned with Nazi Germany when Hitler revealed his intention to attack Poland. Of course we still can’t tell whether Ciano was being truly candid since he heavily edited certain parts of his diary. The German–Soviet Non–Aggression Pact convinced Ciano that the Nazis had willfully deceived Italy whose interests were no longer within the Axis alliance. This at least is what he claims in his diary. He also wrote that he told Mussolini as much but that the dictator persisted in his worship of German military power.

The U. S. ambassador to Rome was William Phillips, a wealthy Boston “Brahmin” and a career diplomat who was on friendly terms with Roosevelt and Sumner Welles. Mussolini had refused to receive the American ambassador for a whole year for political reasons prior to Welles’ visit. Rumors filtered back to FDR from Germany in the fall of 1939 hinting that Hermann Goering and a few German generals were opposed to an offensive in the west and favored seeking peace terms with France and England. The president was less satisfied with the information from occasional business travelers or even from his ambassadors: Joseph P. Kennedy in London, was useful at first but became a vocal appeaser, and by 1940 he was predicting that England would lose the war.

FDR also relied on reports from William C. Bullitt, his ambassador to Paris who was resolutely anti-Axis. But Bullitt often had wild mood swings that affected his judgment. Roosevelt decided that a credible emissary was required to take a fact finding trip to the countries at war. The remaining question was picking the right person for the task and defining the scope of the mission. By January 1940, FDR was hesitating between Assistant Secretary of State for Security Adolf A. Berle; a businessman like James Mooney of General Motors; or Sumner Welles, the under secretary of state. Berle was immediately taken off the list because of his notorious Anglophobia making him unacceptable in London. Roosevelt dropped the idea of sending Mooney, who had too many business interests with the Nazis.

Sumner Welles. Photo by Yousuf KarshUnder Secretary of State Sumner Welles, the president’s close diplomatic confidant and the number two man in the State Department, was the best candidate. International travel was made difficult by the submarine war and the very effective British naval blockade, and the Welles voyage announced with such fanfare by the White House became a spectacular event with extensive news coverage. Sumner Welles was consistently described as a very dower and highly respected diplomat—he was known for never smiling or cracking a joke-- only a few newsmen like Drew Preason who was a personal fried of Welles, knew about the tensions within the state department between the undersecretary and his boss, the secretary of state.


Cordell Hull,Welles’ nominal superior, was the quintessential American selfmade man, rising from rural poverty to become a judge, a congressman for twenty years and a Senator from Tennessee. A supporter of Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan, he had long standing friendships and influence in the house and senate making him a natural candidate for president in 1940. But Hull had little foreign policy experience, spoke no foreign languages, had almost never traveled outside the country until 1933 when he went to London. In 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him he said that he intended to be is own secretary of state and Cordell Hull didn’t object. The press and probably even the very well informed Drew Pearson didn’t know that the secretary of state suffered from tuberculosis, then considered highly contagious and incurable. FDR was almost certainly unaware of Hull’s medical problems. The president was highly susceptible to infection in his condition as a victim of polio and would have avoided even meeting with Hull had he been informed. Sumner Welles functioned as “acting secretary of state” every time Hull was absent for health reasons. The fact that Hull’s wife Frances was of Jewish ancestry was also kept secret, since such a revelation in 1940s America could preclude the Democratic Party’s nomination. FDR relied increasingly on the advice of Sumner Welles, a career diplomat since 1915, who came from the same social class of very wealthy New York protestant families. Welles was ten years younger than FDR and like the president had attended the Groton school and Harvard University. By 1928 Welles had married the very wealthy Mathilde Townsend and lived in a stately mansion in Washington; he was also a financial contributor and the top foreign policy adviser to Roosevelt’s campaign for governor of New York. Welles was ambassador to Cuba in 1933 and the main architect of the “Good Neighbor” policy in Latin America where he had spent most of his career. Secretary Hull was unhappy with his appointment as under secretary in 1937, and Welles logically expected to replace Hull at some point. Welles spoke good French and German, apparently better than FDR, and was of course fluent in Spanish. In September 1939 Roosevelt asked Welles to head a secret study group for postwar planning modeled on Woodrow Wilson’s Inquiry Commission. The postwar planners eventually created the blueprints for all the international institutions including the United Nations that exist today. By 1940 the relationship with Hull was badly strained mainly because Welles, having direct access to the president, routinely failed to inform the Secretary of State about his discussions at the White House. It was also typical of FDR’s working habits to bypass his cabinet officers and not inform them of his decisions.

Welles & Cordell Hull at the State Department, 1940 
--Library of Congress Archives

In February 1940 friction with Cordell Hull, was alluded to in the press probably because of the rumors and innuendo spread by William Bullitt who was bitterly opposed to the Welles mission. The Chicago Tribune, an anti-Roosevelt newspaper, criticized the Welles trip calling it an election year move. That article and other hints prompted an unusually emphatic statement by Secretary of State Hull on February 14:

“As to Mr. Welles, I regard him as one of my most trusted personal friends and loyal co-workers, and it is always in that spirit that we discuss the various phases of our duties and problems. I do not think that a more capable person could be sent upon the proposed European mission than Mr. Welles.”

Roosevelt had a number of reasons to seek either a settlement or at the very least to delay a widening of the war: the need to help England and France improve their military preparations; the alarming lack of military preparedness of the United States Army; growing isolationist opinion—65% in 1940-41; and the political calendar since 1940 was to be the year of FDR’s official retirement and he appeared ready to support one of several contenders for the Democratic Party nomination. Vice President John Nance Garner was disliked and faded quickly; Jim Farley, an Irish Catholic and Tammany Hall politician didn’t have Roosevelt’s support; Harry Hopkins, was chronically ill; Henry Wallace was rumored as the New Deal candidate and would become FDR’s new vice president; Joe Kennedy made some hints from London but in the end it was Cordell Hull, who appeared to be the likely nominee. Roosevelt dropped hints among his inner circle that he might reconsider and accept the nomination for a third term should the democracies be threatened by Nazi Germany. As late as May 8, 1940 Adolf A. Berle wrote that FDR would support Cordell Hull at the July convention. Some writers claim that FDR intended to run for a third term all along. The Welles Mission was interpreted as a move to justify FDR’s running for a third term and we can speculate that his decision may have been affected in part by the inconclusive results of the trip. The Welles mission was discussed in Berlin and Rome as nothing more than an American electoral ploy since anything published in the isolationist press was thought by the Axis to reflect the true state of U.S. public opinion.

Mussolini informed Hitler that Italy could not join the battle in September 1939: its military and raw material stocks were depleted and Italy’s financial position was close to bankruptcy. Such considerations would no more stop the Duce than they would the Führer who was more or less in the same situation. Yet there was genuine hesitation on Mussolini’s part. During the weeks that preceded the German attack on Poland, Italian police chief Arturo Bocchini ordered a thorough and impartial analysis of Italian public sentiment regarding the war. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of neutrality with Fascist Party functionaries and other careerists the only ones demanding that Italy enter the war immediately on Germany’s side. Fascist Party Secretary Achille Starace also produced his own poll reaching the opposite and clearly biased results. The two men, Bocchini and Starace then met by accident in the waiting room outside Mussolini’s office where they traded colorful verbal insults and almost came to blows. Mussolini, in a moment of lucidity, chose to believe his police chief and eventually fired the much hated Starace in October 1939.

Italy remained, as Mussolini –who detested the word “neutral” --- preferred to say, “non-belligerent.” The United States deplored a number of decisions: the alliance with Nazi Germany, Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia and Albania and the Fascist anti-Semitic laws of 1938. Italian diplomats were regularly reporting that American public opinion was deeply divided and that over 25 million Americans, were tuning in to Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, a strict isolationist and anti-Semite who was consistently favorable to the dictators. The Roosevelt Administration was also annoyed by Italy’s growing friendship with Japan. Nevertheless, on the surface, relations between the two countries appeared somewhat cordial. According to Renzo De Felice, during the “non-belligerent” period, Ciano made a few moves with Mussolini’s approval having an anti-German slant, and Welles was aware of at least some of them. For example: in August 1939 Ciano told the French and British that Italy would not go to war on Germany’s side; in December he passed on to the French and American press details of German atrocities in Poland where thousands of Polish civilians, Jews and Gypsies had already been executed; on December 30, he informed Crown Princess Marie José of Savoy—the sister of King Leopold III of Belgium-- that Germany had plans to invade Belgium. The most obvious move was Ciano’s speech of December 16, 1939 correctly interpreted by Ambassador William Phillips in his report to Welles as having anti-German overtones. The speech was possibly the single most important motivation for Welles to insist on going to Rome. Also in December 1939 Ambassador Phillips asked Ciano and Mussolini to stop the deportation back to Nazi Germany of 3,500 Jewish refugees from Poland and Germany who had found refuge in Italy while hoping to emigrate to either the United States or Palestine. Unfortunately some of them were later deported to their deaths in Germany in 1943-44.

Ciano specifically requested that Fascist Italy’s agreement be kept secret presumably to avoid any friction with Hitler. The British and French were aware that Ciano had become anti-German while Mussolini, as Ciano noted in his diary on February 7, 1940, “…intends to keep the obligations recently confirmed with Germany…” FDR had a conversation with Ambassador Colonna on January 6, 1940 where he stressed that American public opinion was pleased that Italy had chosen to remain neutral and could therefore play a role in the search for peace. American power and prestige remained at a low point in early 1940 and America was not thought to represent an immediate threat to the Axis. Nazi racist ideology insisted that America was a decadent, racially mixed country, no longer capable of fighting Germany or the Axis. In private conversations Mussolini and Ciano were more realistic about American power and Ciano remarked to Welles how impressed he was when seeing American marines in action in Shanghai in the early 1930s. Italy was the only country to voice a favorable reaction to the Welles mission. The British remained negative: Chamberlain was adamant that no peace moves should be made and France followed England’s lead with a few nuances On February 16, the day before Welles sailed, rumors that the Vatican informed the Polish ambassador of the government in exile that Goering had sent a message to Mussolini that Germany was ready to negotiate on the following terms: “1. protectorate for Austria; 2. home rule for Czechoslovakia; 3. re-creation of a Polish state a little larger than the Duchy of Warsaw.”


These rumors, like many others were kept secret. Sumner Welles finally boarded the Rex , the symbol of the Fascist Regime, in New York harbor on February 17. He was traveling in grand style accompanied by his wife Mathilde, her traveling companion and cousin Thora Ronalds and their two chambermaids, a State Department aide and typist Hartwell Johnson, the chief of the European Division Jay Pierrepont Moffat, Welles’ English valet James Reeks, and finally his favorite West Highland terrier dog named ‘Toby.’ By coincidence Myron Taylor was also en route on the same ship to become the American representative to the Vatican. There was speculation about a peace move connected to the Holy See, but Welles immediately denied it. The under secretary of state also carried a secret diplomatic code allowing him to communicate confidentially and directly with FDR. Cordell Hull didn’t have access to those messages nor was he privy to the code but must have known about the arrangement adding to his irritation. The original report Welles wrote to FDR also given to Hull was later published after being edited and can be found in the 1940 volume of Foreign Relations of the United States. In 1944 Welles published a book The Time for Decision where he describes the mission in hindsight modifying his original assessments. In 1946 he also wrote an excellent introduction to the Ciano Diary where he changed his views of Count Ciano and Mussolini to far less laudatory terms than one reads in his original reports. Upon arrival in Naples on February 25, Welles was greeted by Ambassador Phillips and given red carpet treatment in a special saloon car attached to the regular train. The courtesy was provided by Count Ciano allowing Welles and his entourage to travel to Rome in the comfort and luxury normally provided to heads of state, a gesture that greatly impressed Ambassador Phillips. Naturally the West Highland terrier Toby promptly relieved himself against one of the marble statues to everyone’s embarrassment.

The next day Welles visited first with Ciano who impressed him favorably as being cordial, “quite unaffected” and able to speak in “colloquial English.” He told Ciano how much the American government and the people appreciated Italy’s neutrality and stressed all the traditional reasons for friendship between Italy and the United States. Then they talked at length about the war. After candidly showing Welles his famous red leather bound diary and reading a few passages from it, Ciano said: ‘We did everything we could to prevent the invasion of Poland, but we were never given any real chance to exert any influence upon Hitler to prevent it.’ Throughout our conversation--wrote Welles-- Count Ciano made no effort to conceal his dislike and contempt for Ribbentrop or his antagonism towards Hitler.” This information was obviously considered extremely important by FDR. Later that afternoon Welles and Phillips accompanied by Ciano went to the Palazzo Venezia to visit Mussolini in his office, as Welles reported to the President: “The Duce met me very cordially at the door, saying he was particularly happy to welcome me, and walked with me the length of the hall to his desk. He greeted the Ambassador very pleasantly, making no reference whatever to the fact that he had been unwilling to receive him for over a year. I was profoundly shocked by the Duce's appearance. In the countless times I had seen him in moving pictures and in photographs, and in the many descriptions I had read of him, he had always seemed to me as an active, quick-moving, exceedingly animated personality. The man I saw before me seemed fifteen years older than his actual age of fifty-eight. He was ponderous and static, rather than vital. He moved with an elephantine motion. Every step appeared an effort. He is very heavy for his height, and his face in repose falls into rolls of flesh. His close-clipped hair is snow white. During our long and rapid interchange of views, he kept his eyes shut a considerable part of the time, opening them with his dynamic and oft-described wide-open stare only when he desired particularly to underline some remark. At his side was a large cup of tea which he sipped from time to time. Mussolini impressed me as a man laboring under some tremendous strain; physical unquestionably, for he has procured a new and young Italian mistress only ten days ago; but in my definite judgment, mental as well. One could almost sense a leaden oppression. Count Ciano commenced the conversation by saying that Mussolini desired him to act as interpreter, since in view of the importance of the conversation he would prefer to speak in his own language rather than in French or in English.”

The comment about the “young mistress,” presumably a reference to Claretta Petacci, was omitted in the book Welles published in 1944 The Time for Decision, as were a few other private comments and descriptions intended for the president’s reading only that clearly showed how the two old boys from Groton and Harvard shared the same culture. The personal letter from Roosevelt to Mussolini ended with the President writing: “I still hope to meet you some day soon!” and Mussolini concurred and hinted at a possible meeting half way which Welles interpreted as meaning at sea, and quickly alluded to the Azores. A meeting between FDR and Mussolini had been discussed in 1937 with Ambassador Fulvio Suvich at the White House. Mussolini later claimed to Ciano that this was proof that Americans were “superficial” and didn’t have the sophistication required to deal with Europeans since by half-way he obviously meant politically rather than geographically thereby branding Welles as “naïve.” Mussolini then made the following comment: “You have just come to Italy on the Rex. You were held up at Gibraltar by the British and mails and passengers were taken off. In the western Mediterranean you have seen for yourself that we are the prisoners of the British. Do you also realize that an Italian cannot send a ship from Trieste, an Italian port, to Massowa, [sic] another Italian port, without having the British take off half the cargo? How would you like it if the British did that to your ships plying between New York and New Orleans?” Welles asked: “Do you consider it possible at this moment for any successful negotiations to be undertaken between Germany and the Allies for a real and lasting peace?” His answer was an emphatic “Yes.” He said that of one thing he was profoundly certain, and that was that none of the peoples now at war desired to fight. The situation now in that regard was utterly different from that which existed in 1914. He went on, “But I am equally sure that if a ‘real’ war breaks out, with its attendant slaughter and devastation, there will be no possibility for a long time to come of any peace negotiation.” Welles and Mussolini agreed to meet again at the end of his tour of Europe and this may be called a very unusual occurrence in an official visit that indicates –on the surface at least— that both sides were showing interest.

Mussolini accompanied Welles to the door chatting with him in English and then in French to say that he still went horseback riding but had now discovered tennis, which he used to think of as being a game for girls and that he enjoyed it very much. Clearly the personal contact with Mussolini and Ciano appeared satisfactory to Welles who had based his initiative on the possible consolidation of Italy’s neutrality. However, Mussolini’s comments about the British blockade and Great Britain’s aggressive presence in the Mediterranean could possibly signal major concessions if Britain and France were ready for serious horse-trading. Welles was not surprised by what he found in Rome and he agreed to have more meetings with Ciano and Mussolini. Mussolini’s private reaction to Welles was negative and biased according to Ciano: “Between us and the Americans any kind of understanding is impossible…” Mussolini remained narrowly anti-American often referring to the United States with vulgar racist remarks such as “the land of Jews and Negroes” in his conversations with Ciano which were duly recorded in the foreign minister’s diary. The reaction in Berlin to the Welles visit was of hostile acceptance. Welles met with Ribbentrop and Hitler and in his report to FDR based on his talks with Ciano he noted that: “…if the Duce approaches Hitler directly and secretly, it will have decisive influence. If Ribbentrop knows of the approach, he will do his utmost to block it.” Welles had a private meeting with Hitler in the new Reich Chancellery—the one built by Albert Speer. He gave Roosevelt his detailed impression of the Nazi dictator who remained a mystery to most people:

“Hitler is taller than I had judged from his photographs. He has, in real life, noneof the somewhat effeminate appearance of which he has been accused. […] His voice in conversation is low and well modulated. It had only once, during our hour and a half's conversation, the raucous stridency which is heard in his speeches--and it was only at that moment that his features lost their composure and that his eyes lost their decidedly “gemutlich” look. He spoke with clarity and precision, and always in a beautiful German, of which I could follow every word […]”

After more useless meetings with Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring who repeated almost verbatim the same words used by Hitler and Ribbentrop, Welles met with Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the former finance minister who was then out of favor, at the private home of American chargé d’affaires Alexander Kirk. “He gave me to understand that a movement was under way, headed by leading generals, to supplant the Hitler regime. [….] Dr. Schacht referred to Hitler as the ‘greatest liar of all time,’ and as a genius, but an amoral, a criminal, genius. […] Dr. Schacht further said that the atrocities being committed in Poland were far worse than what was imagined, as to beggar description.” The Nazis insisted that Germany was seeking only a military victory, and negotiations were out of the question. In Paris Welles met with President Albert Lebrun and Prime Minister Edouard Daladier. The French president is described as forgetful and barely competent a fact later confirmed by his lethargic attitude during the fall of France and the government crisis of June 1940. Daladier stated forcefully that France considered that Italy was key to bring about peace and that he was ready to make major concessions toward Mussolini’s long standing territorial demands: Djibouti, a participation in the Suez Canal and a say in the status of the Italians in Tunisia could all be discussed. “…he instructed Léger in my presence and in the most categorical manner to see to it that every possible consideration was given from now on to the sensibilities of both Mussolini and Ciano…” Interestingly the forceful manner Daladier used with Alexis Léger was probably because of Léger’s long standing anti-Mussolini attitude that discouraged considering any concessions to Fascist Italy.

In London from March 10 to 13 Welles met with King George VI and most of the top leaders in the British government including Lloyd George who was then 77 years old. Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty stands out as the most impressive. In the confidential report to the President there is a sentence omitted by the editors of the Foreign Relations of the United States but available in The Time for Decision, and quoted by Benjamin Welles: “He was sitting in front of the fire, smoking a 24-inch cigar and drinking a whisky and soda. It was obvious that he had consumed a good many whiskies before I arrived.” High octane alcohol didn’t cloud Churchill’s mind nor did it prevent him from delivering a brilliant two hour analysis of the war at sea and his views on how to defeat Germany. Prime Minister Chamberlain insisted that while talks with Italy were possible and should be undertaken he was strongly opposed to offering any territorial incentives to Mussolini as an inducement to remain neutral. Welles understood that the British were still wary about his trip, that Britain was not ready for negotiations with Germany and that France would follow the same line. The main conclusion from the Paris and London visits was that the Allies were convinced that even the hint of any kind of negotiated peace at that point would end up favoring Nazi Germany.

While Welles was in Paris and London, Ribbentrop suddenly arrived in Rome on March 10 to confer with Mussolini and Ciano. The visit came after a long silence between the Axis dictators. The cooling of relations between Italy and Germany began on August 23, 1939 with the Non-Aggression Pact with Moscow but still not cooled enough for Italy to pull out of the Axis.

Since Hitler believed that Ciano had tipped off the French and British ambassadors that Italy would remain neutral in the event war was declared, the Führer held Italy and Ciano personally responsible for the Anglo-French declaration of war on Germany. From late August to December 1939 while Mussolini felt that Italy could not enter the war and that the Italian people were reassured by the non-belligerent position, the Duce loathed neutrality since it kept him out of a war he thought was necessary and that could easily be won.

Glory on the battlefield was one of Mussolini’s great cravings and he suffered pangs of jealousy every time Hitler would score a new victory. Mussolini had a laundry list of culprits for Italy’s fundamental weakness as a nation, namely all those who opposed Fascism: the Catholic Church, the King and his court, the bourgeois middle classes, the army High Command, the aristocracy. Only “the people” as a vague anonymous concept were viewed favorably in his heroic Italian vision. Giuseppe Bottai noted in his diary that Mussolini was convinced that neutrality would result in a net loss for the Fascist Regime whose power was based upon: “…prestige and a military and warlike stance.” According to R. De Felice, a majority of the Fascist Party leadership along with Ciano and his entourage had exerted strong pressure on the dictator forcing him to grudgingly accept neutrality. Mussolini feared a small number of Fascist Party leaders who were openly critical of the Axis and opposed going to war on the German side. These were mainly Italo Balbo, thr governor of Libya, Dino Grandi, Emilio De Bono and Cesare Maria De Vecchi, all of whom except for Balbo who died in 1940, would conspire with Ciano in 1943 to bring about Mussolini’s downfall. Naturally the pro-German Fascists were also very influential particularly Roberto Farinacci, Achille Starace and Under Secretary of the Interior Guido Buffarini-Guidi and Alessandro Pavolini.

The Duce called a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council on December 7, 1939 where Ciano made a long statement in favor of neutrality that was critical of Germany. One week later the same theme reappeared in his major public speech to the Italian parliament that alarmed the Germans. Mussolini wrote a private letter to Hitler on January 5, 1940 where he backtracked on Ciano’s position and repeated that Italy would enter the war on Germany’s side. He also offered his personal mediation for a compromise peace that would include the creation of a new Polish state allowing Britain and France to save face. Hitler remained silent for two months until Ribbentrop came to Rome on March 10. It was only the catastrophic collapse of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in May and June finally encouraged Mussolini to declare war on Great Britain and France. One may speculate also that had the German army been stopped in 1940 as in 1914 the likelihood of an Italian intervention would have become very difficult for Mussolini to justify.

According to Police Commissioner Guido Leto who was in charge of the Political Police (OVRA,) it was at this time—in March to May 1940- that Galeazzo Ciano may have toyed with the idea of murdering Mussolini. He apparently asked Police Chief Arturo Bocchini to provide him with an untraceable poison on two occasions. Leto refers to Bocchini’s verbal account of his meetings with Ciano in April and May 1940 where the chief of police is shown to be shocked by those murderous requests. The period of Italian non-belligerency also coincides with Ciano’s personal political ascendancy despite the extreme jealousy that existed within the Fascist Party hierarchy and the well known antipathy of the Italian public toward the Ciano family because of its business dealings. Other rumors in early April that the King was about to replace Mussolini with Ciano appear to be a rehearsal of the actual July 25, 1943 plot for the overthrow and arrest of the Duce.

Before Sumner Welles returned to Rome on March 15, the Germans had made their move to consolidate the Axis. Ribbentrop discussed the Welles mission with Mussolini:

“As the Führer had already told the Duce, Sumner Welles’ visit to Berlin did not yield any new elements. In Germany we are wondering what Roosevelt’s purpose may have been. The Duce confirms that this might be tied to American internal politics.” Mussolini was simply echoing the isolationist press in the United States.

The Germans were worried that Welles could still return from Paris and London with some secret proposal for Mussolini precisely when Germany was gearing up for two major military offensives: Operation Weser, the invasion of Denmark and Norway that would begin on April 9, and Plan Yellow, (Fall Gelb) the attack into Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg on May 10 that would breach the French lines at Sedan three days later. An urgent meeting of the dictators was arranged at the Brenner Pass on March 18, and to Mussolini’s irritation the Germans as usual failed to provide an agenda. Hitler meant to ‘clear the air’ with his ally and brought up various points: the end of the Soviet-Finnish war and therefore of the real danger of an Anglo-French expedition into Scandinavia; the failure of the Welles mission that Hitler and Mussolini agreed had mostly American domestic political ramifications; the increasing efficiency of the British blockade; the coming German offensive in the west and what Mussolini’s intentions would ultimately be in that context.


Welles returned to Rome on March 15 after a short stop in Paris for a meeting with Paul Reynaud. He met with King Victor Emanuel III and again with Foreign Minister Ciano on March 16: “Count Ciano said that he wanted to remind me that Mussolini was definitely ‘pro-German’. Count Ciano told me that owing to his past experience with Ribbentrop, he realized that what the latter said one day might be completely reversed the next. He stated that Mussolini and he were now in contact with Berlin, although, in answer to an inquiry from Ambassador Phillips, he refused to specify the nature of that contact. He asked me what day I intended to leave Rome, and when I told him that my plans were made to leave on March 18th, he suggested that I postpone my departure until the following morning. He said that word from Berlin would probably be received before noon on March 19th, and that he would meet me confidentially in some place other than the Foreign Office to give me the last word that he had before I departed.” Welles then went to his meeting with Mussolini:

“The Duce received me at the Palazzo Venezia at six o'clock this evening. Count Ciano again served as interpreter and the Ambassador was present at the interview. I found Mussolini looking far better physically than when I had seen him two weeks before and I did not sense the same feeling of mental or nervous oppression under which I thought he was laboring in our conversation two weeks ago. He received me with the utmost cordiality and in a very friendly personal way. At the outset of our conversation he said that he would be glad to answer any questions which I cared to put to him, as he said he would be glad to do when I last left Rome, but that he would appreciate it if I would give him my impressions of my recent visits to Berlin, Paris and London. […] He wished to know whether I would authorize him to communicate to Hitler the impressions I had formed with regard to the possibility of a negotiated solution of territorial and political questions in Europe. I replied that I was not empowered to give him such authorization, and that I would require a specific instruction from the President of the United States before I could make a reply. I said that I would be glad to telephone the President and communicate the President's decision to Mussolini through Count Ciano later in the evening. […] As I started to leave the Duce made one final remark to me which appeared to me of particular significance. He said: “You may wish to remember that, while the German-Italian Pact exists, I nevertheless retain complete liberty of action.” The final statement was clearly intended to impress Welles. During the phone call to FDR, Welles discussed the issue of Mussolini’s offer to speak to Hitler: “I said to the President that I feared that if Mussolini communicated to Hitler any impressions of this character, the impression would inevitably be created that the President was participating in the determination of such bases for a political peace as might be offered by Hitler. The President said to me that he agreed with this recommendation….” I dined informally with Count Ciano and I had the opportunity of talking privately with him immediately after dinner. I communicated to him the President's instructions to me. Somewhat to my surprise Count Ciano expressed emphatic approval of the decision reached by the President…”

Welles was obviously unaware of the fact that Ciano had tapped his phone line during the call to FDR and already knew the result of the conversation. Roosevelt was fully aware that the repercussions in Washington could be politically disastrous and might further reinforce the isolationists. On the other hand Chamberlain and the British cabinet while hoping to see Italian neutrality continue, were considering declaring war on Italy in April but then decided against it because of France’s objections.

On March 18 Welles met with Pope Pius XII in the Vatican in the presence of Myron Taylor: “At one point in the conversation Myron Taylor broke in and inquired of the Pope whether there would be revolution in Italy if Mussolini brought Italy into the war on the side of Germany. His Holiness looked exceedingly surprised, and hesitated a considerable time in framing his reply. Finally he expressed the belief that while public opinion in Italy was definitely opposed to Italian participation in the war, he doubted exceedingly that there would be any open rebellion against Mussolini's authority- for at least some time- if Italy entered the war on the side of Germany.” On March 19 Welles had a final informal lunch with Ciano at the Acquasanta golf club: “Count Ciano said that he believed the most important thing for me to learn was that there would be absolutely no change in Italy's non-belligerent attitude as a result of the meeting.” “Please give this message to President Roosevelt. Tell him that I personally have the utmost admiration for him and great confidence in what he himself can do to be of service to the cause of civilization in Europe. Tell him, further, that so long as I remain Foreign Minister, Italy will not enter the war on the side of Germany, and that I will do everything within my power to influence Mussolini in that same sense.” Hitler had announced that he planned to attack in the west without giving an exact date and Mussolini pledged that Italy would enter the war but didn’t say exactly when. Ciano therefore appears to be either completely deceptive or a victim of wishful thinking.


Welles concluded his report to the president as follows: “Mussolini is a man of genius, but it must never be forgotten that Mussolini remains at heart and in instinct an Italian peasant. He is vindictive, and will never forget either an injury or a blow to his personal or national prestige. He admires force and power. His own obsession is the recreation of the Roman Empire. […] No one in the Italian Government wants Italy to get into the war. Count Ciano is violently against it, […..] and I am told that feeling in the army against Italian participation is formidable and vocal. […] I do not believe there is the slightest chance of any successful negotiation at this time […] Mussolini is too closely associated with Hitler. […] If […] the Government of the United States felt it possible to move, I am confident that both the Vatican and Mussolini would support such an initiative.” In his 1944 book The Time of Decision Welles, in hindsight, revised his judgment of the meeting in Berlin with Hitler, Goering and other Nazis in these terms: “It was far more evident than I had previously realized that Mussolini’s influence, if it had even possessed some slight weight, had vanished.” Once Mussolini went to war he lost his freedom of action and Italy became a client state and then a vassal of Nazi Germany. This did not trouble the Italian dictator who still harbored grand illusions of waging a “parallel war.” Mussolini wrote a top secret memorandum on March 31, 1940 justifying entry into the war. A limited number of copies were circulated and one naturally was sent to King Victor Emmanuel III. Although he was privately skeptical the King did not object to Mussolini’s conclusions just as he failed to oppose the racial laws in 1938 and the roll of the dice that the war would only last a few weeks ending in an armistice favorable to the Axis. An interesting reaction to the Rome portion of the mission comes from François Charles-Roux, the French ambassador to the Vatican who had spent eight years in Rome and who knew Mussolini and his methods well:

“It appears that Mr. Welles who came to Rome seeking a rapprochement between the United States and Italy was taken in by the kind of show of moderation and calm that Mr. Mussolini likes to put on with his visitors when he feels compelled to deny his reputation as a thundering Jupiter.”

The question asked from the start remains: what was the true purpose of the Welles Mission? As Welles wrote in 1946 in his introduction to the Ciano Diary:

“…I was sent by President Roosevelt as his personal representative to visit the capitals of the Allied nations and of the two Axis powers in order to report to him upon the situation in Europe and upon the possibilities for the establishment of a just and lasting peace. As it is now well known, no such possibilities existed.”

In practical terms was FDR’s intention simply to encourage Italian neutrality and gain precious time for Allied military preparations? or was the trip a device to pave the way for Roosevelt’s third term as his enemies asserted? There were signals coming from Italy that Ciano was attempting to reorient Italian policy and that his relations with Mussolini were increasingly difficult as Phillips reported back to Washington. Was removing Mussolini from power even remotely possible at that time? A year later, in January 1941 rumors reached Welles and FDR following Italy’s military defeats in North Africa and Greece that Ciano’s position was in serious jeopardy; that he might be demoted to the rank of ambassador; that he was under growing attack by hardliners like Pavolini and Farinacci; or that Mussolini himself was in danger of being overthrown. Traces of another Roosevelt initiative this time to extract Italy from the Axis have been mentioned but no tangible documents have surfaced, at least not to our knowledge.

The key to the Welles Mission as indicated by J. Simon Rofe is perhaps buried in the private discussions that FDR had with Welles before the trip was announced. Those conversations would remain completely confidential as to their content. In view of the timid American response to the events of May and June 1940 when France was desperately asking for help and Great Britain faced possible invasion it is clear that American peace initiatives were impossible in 1940. Public opinion remained adamantly opposed to any kind of involvement until Pearl Harbor.

The career of Sumner Welles came to an abrupt end with his forced resignation in August 1943. There was an embarrassing and hidden time bomb concerning Welles who was an occasional closet homosexual and had been the object of various rumors during his diplomatic postings in different countries. The Welles papers were opened at the FDR Library in Hyde Park in 1996 and contain a few allusions to Welles’ early times in Latin America. The main scandal would erupt in September 1940, a few months after the mission to Europe. Welles was apparently drunk on the presidential overnight train traveling to Alabama and he repeatedly propositioned more than one Black sleeping car porter who in turn filed a formal complaint with the railroad company. A second incident took place on another train trip a few months later. Both incidents were carefully hushed up but resurfaced in January 1941 when J. Edgar Hoover provided Roosevelt with a copy of an incriminating file because of a potential lawsuit by the railroad company. William Bullitt managed to obtain the file and made a crude attempt to destroy Welles by having his assistant Carmel Offie distribute copies among key congressmen. Roosevelt dismissed the matter by saying that his friend Sumner must have been drunk and took no action in the hope that the whole thing would fade away. Cordell Hull then made his case that there could be upheaval on Capitol Hill and recommended that FDR fire Welles who decided to resign in August 1943, much to the president’s regret. Welles continued as an informal diplomatic adviser and Roosevelt would often meet privately at Welles’ estate at Oxon Hill. FDR banished William Bullitt forever from his presence and made sure he was never offered another government appointment or even allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army. Bullitt then joined the Free French army under De Gaulle. Welles went on to write several books, innumerable articles and worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the creation of the State of Israel at the United Nations, two institutions he helped create. The reason I bring up this story is that it inevitably surfaces whenever the name Sumner Welles crops up. During the McCarthy period there was a witch hunt parallel to the anti-communist hysteria that hounded any suspected homosexuals out of the state department under John Foster Dulles, sometimes even denying the diplomats their pensions after a lifetime of service. This is another issue that historians are beginning to explore.

Main Sources

R.J.B. Bosworth Mussolini (New York: Oxford, 2002) H. James Burgwyn Italian Foreign Policy in the Interwar Years 1918-1940 (Westport: Praeger, 1997) Galeazzo Ciano Diario 1937-1943 (Milan: Rizzoli, 1980) English translation Diary 1937-1943 (New York: Enigma Books, 2002) Galeazzo Ciano L’Europa verso la catastrofe 184 Colloqui, Rodolfo Mosca, Ed. 2 Vols. (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1964) Documenti Diplomatici Italiani Foreign Relations of the United States 1940, Vol. I pages 21-137. Saul Friedländer Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States 1939-1941 (New York: Knopf, 1967) Robert Dallek Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy 1932-1945 (New York: Oxford, 1979-1995) Kenneth S. Davis FDR. Into the Storm 1937-1940 (New York: Random House, 1993) J.B. Duroselle Politique étrangère de la France. L’Abîme 1939-1945 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1986) J.B. Duroselle From Wilson to Roosevelt, Foreign Policy of the United States 1913-1945 (New York: Harper 1968) Renzo De Felice Mussolini Il Duce: Lo Stato totalitario 1936-1940 Vol. 2 (Turin: Einaudi, 1981) Irwin F. Gellman Good Neighbor Policy. United States Policies in Latin America 1933-1945 (Baltimore: J. Hopkins, 1979) Irwin F. Gellman Secret Affairs, FDR, Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles (New York: Enigma, 2002) Harold L. Ikes The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ikes. The Lowering Cloud 1939-1941 (New York: Simon&Shuster, 1954) Guido Leto OVRA Fascismo-Antifascismo (Bologna: Cappelli, 1952) MacGregor Knox Mussolini Unleashed 1939-1941. Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War (New York: Cambridge, 1982) Ted Morgan FDR (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1985) Ray Moseley Mussolini’s Shadow. The Double Life of Count Galeazzo Ciano (New Haven: Yale, 1999). Rosaria Quartararo I Rapporti italo-americani durante il fascismo 1922-1941 (Napoli: ESI, 1999). Christopher O’Sullivan Sumner Welles, Postwar Planning and the Quest for a New World Order 1937-1943 (New York: Columbia, 2003) doctoral dissertation. J. Simon Rofe Franklin Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy and the Welles Mission (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Athan Theoharis J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and Crime: An Historical Antidote (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1995). Benjamin Welles Sumner Welles FDR’s Global Strategist (New York: St Martin’s, 1997) Sumner Welles The Time for Decision (Washington, D.C.: Morrison and Gibb, 1944) Sumner Welles “Introduction” in Galeazzo Ciano Diary 1937-1943 (New York: Enigma Books, 2002) pp. xvi-xxi.



Robert L. Miller is the founder and publisher of Enigma Books, an independent publishing company specializing in contemporary American and European political, espionage and military history. He is also the editor and translator of over 15 books from French, Spanish and Italian into English. He also launched and still runs Language Publications, a software language learning company. Earlier in his career he was Vice President of a division at Macmillan Publishing Company and taught at various universities including Herbert Lehman College CUNY. With degrees from the University of Paris at Nanterre, Middlebury College and New York University, Mr. Miller is also the Executive Director and Board Member of the New York Military Affairs Symposium where he has also lectured a number of times. He is the co-author of the Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage (2008) and Indochina and Vietnam (2013).

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