Sumner Welles meets Ribbentrop

Sumner Welles, United States envoy to Europe

Although the United States had withdrawn its Ambassador to Germany in protest at the outbreak of war, it remained a neutral country and continued to seek to communicate with different European States. President Roosevelt sent his Envoy to Rome, Berlin, Paris and London in early 1940 for exploratory talks.

The United States Envoy to Europe, Sumner Welles, met the German Foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, in Berlin. It was a one sided meeting:

Ribbentrop then commenced to speak and never stopped, except to request the interpreter from time to time to translate the preceding portion of his discourse, for more than two hours.

The Minister, who is a good looking man of some fifty years with notably haggard features and grey hair, sat with his arms extended on the sides of his chair and his eyes continuously closed. He evidently envisioned himself as the Delphic Oracle.

Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister in 1940

Early in the meeting after Ribbentrop started with a diatribe about the poor state of US-German relations, Welles decided that there was little point in arguing every point.

At this point I determined it was wiser for me to refrain from making the reply I desired to make until the end of the Minister’s discourse. He was so obviously aggressive, so evidently laboring under a violent mental and emotional strain, that it seemed to me probable that if I replied at this juncture with what I intended to say, violent polemics was presumably ensue, with the possibility that things would be said that would not only make my interview with him entirely unfruitful, but which might also Jeopardize the interview I was scheduled to have with Hitler on the following morning.

Welles ensured that the United States position was placed on the record, even though he felt Ribbentrop was incapable of understanding it:

Ribbentrop has a completely closed mind. It struck me as also a very stupid mind. The man is saturated with hate for England, and to the exclusion of any other dominating mental influence. He is clearly without background in international affairs, and he was guilty of a hundred inaccuracies in his presentation of Geman policy during recent years.

I have rarely seen a man I disliked more.

The full text of Welles’s account of the meeting can be found at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

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