That Vacancy in Berlin

No one wanted the job. What had seemed one of the least challenging tasks facing Franklin D. Roosevelt as newly elected president had, by June 1933, become one of the most intransigent. As ambassadorial posts went, Berlin should have been a plum—not London or Paris, surely, but still one of the great capitals of Europe, and at the center of a country going through revolutionary change under the leadership of its newly appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Depending on one’s point of view, Germany was experiencing a great revival or a savage darkening. Upon Hitler’s ascent, the country had undergone a brutal spasm of state-condoned violence. Hitler’s brown-shirted paramilitary army, the Sturmabteilung, or SA—the Storm Troopers—had gone wild, arresting, beating, and in some cases murdering communists, socialists, and Jews. Storm Troopers established impromptu prisons and torture stations in basements, sheds, and other structures. Berlin alone had fifty of these so-called bunkers. Tens of thousands of people were arrested and placed in “protective custody”—Schutzhaft—a risible euphemism. An estimated five hundred to seven hundred prisoners died in custody; others endured “mock drownings and hangings,” according to a police affidavit. One prison near Tempelhof Airport became especially notorious: Columbia House, not to be confused with a sleekly modern new building at the heart of Berlin called Columbus House. The upheaval prompted one Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of New York, to tell a friend, “the frontiers of civilization have been crossed.”

Roosevelt made his first attempt to fill the Berlin post on March 9, 1933, less than a week after taking office and just as the violence in Germany reached a peak of ferocity. He offered it to James M. Cox, who in 1920 had been a candidate for president with Roosevelt as his running mate.

In a letter laced with flattery, Roosevelt wrote, “It is not only because of my affection for you but also because I think you are singularly fitted to this key place, that I want much to send your name to the Senate as American Ambassador to Germany. I hope much that you will accept after talking it over with your delightful wife, who, by the way, would be perfect as the wife of the Ambassador. Do send me a telegram saying yes.”

Cox said no: the demands of his various business interests, including several newspapers, compelled him to decline. He made no mention of the violence wracking Germany.

Roosevelt set the matter aside to confront the nation’s worsening economic crisis, the Great Depression, which by that spring had put a third of the nation’s nonagricultural labor force out of work and had cut the gross national product in half; he did not return to the problem until at least a month later, when he offered the job to Newton Baker, who had been secretary of war under Woodrow Wilson and was now a partner in a Cleveland law firm. Baker also declined. So did a third man, Owen D. Young, a prominent businessman. Next Roosevelt tried Edward J. Flynn, a key figure in the Democratic Party and a major supporter. Flynn talked it over with his wife “and we agreed that, because of the age of our small children, such an appointment would be impossible.”

At one point Roosevelt joked to a member of the Warburg family, “You know, Jimmy, it would serve that fellow Hitler right if I sent a Jew to Berlin as my ambassador. How would you like the job?”

Now, with the advent of June, a deadline pressed. Roosevelt was engaged in an all-consuming fight to pass his National Industrial Recovery Act, a centerpiece of his New Deal, in the face of fervent opposition by a core group of powerful Republicans. Early in the month, with Congress just days away from its summer adjournment, the bill seemed on the verge of passage but was still under assault by Republicans and some Democrats, who launched salvos of proposed amendments and forced the Senate into marathon sessions. Roosevelt feared that the longer the battle dragged on, the more likely the bill was to fail or be severely weakened, in part because any extension of the congressional session meant risking the wrath of legislators intent on leaving Washington for summer vacation. Everyone was growing cranky. A late-spring heat wave had driven temperatures to record levels throughout the nation at a cost of over a hundred lives. Washington steamed; men stank. A three-column headline on the front page of the New York Times read, “ROOSEVELT TRIMS PROGRAM TO HASTEN END OF SESSION; SEES HIS POLICIES MENACED.”

Herein lay a conflict: Congress was required to confirm and fund new ambassadors. The sooner Congress adjourned, the greater the pressure on Roosevelt to choose a new man for Berlin. Thus, he now found himself compelled to consider candidates outside the bounds of the usual patronage choices, including the presidents of at least three colleges and an ardent pacifist named Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Baptist pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan. None of these seemed ideal, however; none was offered the job.

On Wednesday, June 7, with the congressional adjournment just days away, Roosevelt met with several close advisers and mentioned his frustration at not being able to find a new ambassador. One of those in attendance was Commerce Secretary Roper, whom Roosevelt now and then referred to as “Uncle Dan.”

Roper thought a moment and threw out a fresh name, that of a longtime friend: “How about William E. Dodd?”

“Not a bad idea,” Roosevelt said, although whether he truly thought so at that instant was by no means clear. Ever affable, Roosevelt was prone to promise things he did not necessarily intend to deliver.

Roosevelt said, “I’ll consider it.”

DODD WAS ANYTHING BUT the typical candidate for a diplomatic post. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t politically influential. He wasn’t one of Roosevelt’s friends. But he did speak German and was said to know the country well. One potential problem was his past allegiance to Woodrow Wilson, whose belief in engaging other nations on the world stage was anathema to the growing camp of Americans who insisted that the United States avoid entangling itself in the affairs of foreign nations. These “isolationists,” led by William Borah of Idaho and Hiram Johnson of California, had become increasingly noisy and powerful. Polls showed that 95 percent of Americans wanted the United States to avoid involvement in any foreign war. Although Roosevelt himself favored international engagement, he kept his views on the subject veiled so as not to impede the advance of his domestic agenda. Dodd, however, seemed unlikely to spark the isolationists’ passions. He was a historian of sober temperament, and his firsthand understanding of Germany had obvious value.

Berlin, moreover, was not yet the supercharged outpost it would become within the year. There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler’s government could not possibly endure. Germany’s military power was limited—its army, the Reichswehr, had only one hundred thousand men, no match for the military forces of neighboring France, let alone the combined might of France, England, Poland, and the Soviet Union. And Hitler himself had begun to seem like a more temperate actor than might have been predicted given the violence that had swept Germany earlier in the year. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party burned unwelcome books—Einstein, Freud, the brothers Mann, and many others—in great pyres throughout Germany, but seven days later Hitler declared himself committed to peace and went so far as to pledge complete disarmament if other countries followed suit. The world swooned with relief. Against the broader backdrop of the challenges facing Roosevelt—global depression, another year of crippling drought—Germany seemed more an irritant than anything else. What Roosevelt and Secretary Hull considered the most pressing German problem was the $1.2 billion that Germany owed to American creditors, a debt that Hitler’s regime seemed increasingly unwilling to pay.

No one appeared to give much thought to the kind of personality a man might need in order to deal effectively with Hitler’s government. Secretary Roper believed “that Dodd would be astute in handling diplomatic duties and, when conferences grew tense, he would turn the tide by quoting Jefferson.”

ROOSEVELT DID TAKE Roper’s suggestion seriously.

Time was running out, and there were far more pressing matters to be dealt with as the nation sank ever more deeply into economic despair.

The next day, June 8, Roosevelt ordered a long-distance call placed to Chicago.

He kept it brief. He told Dodd: “I want to know if you will render the government a distinct service. I want you to go to Germany as ambassador.”

He added, “I want an American liberal in Germany as a standing example.”

It was hot in the Oval Office, hot in Dodd’s office. The temperature in Chicago was well into the nineties.

Dodd told Roosevelt he needed time to think and to talk with his wife.

Roosevelt gave him two hours.

FIRST DODD SPOKE with university officials, who urged him to accept. Next he walked home, quickly, through the intensifying heat.

He had deep misgivings. His Old South was his priority. Serving as ambassador to Hitler’s Germany would leave him no more time to write, and probably far less, than did his obligations at the university.

His wife, Mattie, understood, but she knew his need for recognition and his sense that by this time in his life he should have achieved more than he had. Dodd in turn felt that he owed something to her. She had stood by him all these years for what he saw as little reward. “There is no place suitable to my kind of mentality,” he had told her earlier that year in a letter from the farm, “and I regret it much for your sake and that of the children.” The letter continued, “I know it must be distressing to such a true and devoted wife to have so inept a husband at [a] critical moment of history which he has so long foreseen, one who can not fit himself to high position and thus reap some of the returns of a life of toilsome study. It happens to be your misfortune.”

After a brisk bout of discussion and marital soul-searching, Dodd and his wife agreed he should accept Roosevelt’s offer. What made the decision a little easier was Roosevelt’s concession that if the University of Chicago “insists,” Dodd could return to Chicago within a year. But right now, Roosevelt said, he needed Dodd in Berlin.

At two thirty, half an hour late, his misgivings temporarily suppressed, Dodd called the White House and informed Roosevelt’s secretary that he would accept the job. Two days later Roosevelt placed Dodd’s appointment before the Senate, which confirmed him that day, requiring neither Dodd’s presence nor the kind of interminable hearing that one day would become commonplace for key nominations. The appointment attracted little comment in the press. The New York Times placed a brief report on page twelve of its Sunday, June 11, newspaper.

Secretary Hull, on his way to an important economic conference in London, never had a voice in the matter. Even had he been present when Dodd’s name first came up, he likely would have had little say, for one emerging characteristic of Roosevelt’s governing style was to make direct appointments within agencies without involving their superiors, a trait that annoyed Hull no end. He would claim later, however, that he had no objection to Dodd’s appointment, save for what he saw as Dodd’s tendency to “get out of bounds in his excess enthusiasm and impetuosity and run off on tangents every now and then like our friend William Jennings Bryan. Hence I had some reservations about sending a good friend, able and intelligent though he was, to a ticklish spot such as I knew Berlin was and would continue to be.”

Later, Edward Flynn, one of the candidates who had turned down the job, would claim falsely that Roosevelt had phoned Dodd in error—that he had meant instead to offer the ambassadorship to a former Yale law professor named Walter F. Dodd. Rumor of such a mistake gave rise to a nickname, “Telephone Book Dodd.”

NEXT DODD INVITED his two grown children, Martha and Bill, promising the experience of a lifetime. He also saw in this adventure an opportunity to have his family together one last time. His Old South was important to him, but family and home were his great love and need. One cold December night when Dodd was alone on his farm, Christmas near, his daughter and wife in Paris, where Martha was spending a year of study, Bill away as well, Dodd sat down to write a letter to his daughter. He was in a gloomy mood that night. That he now had two grown children seemed an impossibility; soon, he knew, they would be venturing off on their own and their future connection to him and his wife would grow inevitably more tenuous. He saw his own life as nearly expended, his Old South anything but complete.

He wrote: “My dear child, if you will not take offense at the term? You are to me so precious, your happiness through this troubled life so near to my heart that I never cease to think of you as a buoyant, growing child; yet I know your years and admire your thought and maturity. I no longer have a child.” He mused upon “the roads ahead of us. Yours just beginning, mine so far advanced that I begin to count the shadows that fall about me, the friends that have departed, other friends none too secure of their tenure! It’s May and almost December.” Home, he wrote, “has been the joy of my life.” But now everyone was scattered to the far corners of the world. “I can not endure the thought of our lives all going in different directions—and so few years remaining.”

With Roosevelt’s offer, an opportunity had arisen that could bring them all together again, if only for a while.

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