Confronting the Club

Dodd’s ship arrived at quarantine in New York harbor on Friday, March 23. He had hoped that his arrival would escape notice by the press, but once again his plans were frustrated. Reporters routinely met the great ocean liners of the day on the presumption, generally valid, that someone of importance would be aboard. Just in case, Dodd had prepared a brief, five-sentence statement, and he soon found himself reading it to two reporters who had spotted him. He explained that he had come back to America “on a short leave … in order to get some much-needed rest from the tense European atmosphere.” He added, “Contrary to the predictions of many students of international problems, I feel fairly certain that we shall not have war in the near future.”

He was heartened to find that the German vice consul in New York had come to meet the ship bearing a letter from Hitler for delivery to Roosevelt. Dodd was especially pleased that his friend Colonel House had sent his “handsome limousine” to pick him up and bring him to the colonel’s Manhattan home at East Sixty-eighth Street and Park Avenue to wait for his train to Washington, D.C.—a lucky thing, Dodd wrote in his diary, because taxi drivers were on strike “and if I had gone to a hotel the newspaper folk would have pestered me until my train for Washington departed.” Dodd and the colonel had a candid talk. “House gave me valuable information about unfriendly officials in the State Department with whom I would have to deal.”

Best of all, soon after his arrival Dodd received the latest chapter of his Old South, freshly typed by Martha’s friend Mildred Fish Harnack and sent via diplomatic pouch.

IN WASHINGTON, DODD CHECKED into the Cosmos Club, which at the time stood on Lafayette Square, just north of the White House. On his first morning in Washington, he walked to the State Department for the first of many meetings and lunches.

At eleven o’clock he met with Secretary Hull and Undersecretary Phillips. All three spent a good deal of time puzzling out how to respond to Hitler’s letter. Hitler praised Roosevelt’s efforts to restore America’s economy and stated that “duty, readiness for sacrifice, and discipline” were virtues that should be dominant in any culture. “These moral demands which the President places before every individual citizen of the United States, are also the quintessence of the German State philosophy which finds its expression in the slogan, ‘The Public Weal Transcends the Interests of the Individual.’ ”

Phillips called it a “strange message.” To Dodd, as well as to Hull and Phillips, it was obvious that Hitler hoped to draw a parallel between himself and Roosevelt and that the obligatory U.S. reply would have to be drafted very carefully. That task fell to Phillips and Western European affairs chief Moffat, the goal being, Moffat wrote, “to prevent our falling into the Hitler trap.” The resulting letter thanked Hitler for his kind words but noted that his message applied not to Roosevelt personally but rather to the American people as a whole, “who have freely and gladly made heroic efforts in the interest of recovery.”

In his diary Phillips wrote, “We sought to sidestep the impression that the President was becoming a Fascist.”

The next day, Monday, March 26, Dodd strolled to the White House for lunch with Roosevelt. They discussed a surge of hostility toward Germany that had arisen in New York in the wake of the mock trial earlier in the month. Dodd had heard one New Yorker express the fear that “there might easily be a little civil war” in New York City. “The president also spoke of this,” Dodd wrote, “and asked me, if I would do so, to get Chicago Jews to call off their Mock Trial set for mid-April.”

Dodd agreed to try. He wrote to Jewish leaders, including Leo Wormser, to ask them “to quiet things if possible” and wrote as well to Colonel House to ask him to exert his influence in the same direction.

As anxious as Dodd was to get to his farm, he did relish the prospect of a conference set for early that week at which he at last would have the opportunity to bring his criticism of the policies and practices of the Foreign Service directly to the boys of the Pretty Good Club.

HE SPOKE BEFORE an audience that included Hull, Moffat, Phillips, Wilbur Carr, and Sumner Welles. Unlike in his Columbus Day speech in Berlin, Dodd was blunt and direct.

The days of “Louis XIV and Victoria style” had passed, he told them. Nations were bankrupt, “including our own.” The time had come “to cease grand style performances.” He cited an American consular official who had shipped enough furniture to fill a twenty-room house—and yet had only two people in his family. He added that a mere assistant of his “had a chauffeur, a porter, a butler, a valet, two cooks and two maids.”

Every official, he said, should be required to live within his salary, be it the $3,000 a year of a junior officer or the $17,500 that he himself received as a full-fledged ambassador, and everyone should be required to know the history and customs of his host country. The only men sent abroad should be those “who think of their country’s interests, not so much about a different suit of clothes each day or sitting up at gay but silly dinners and shows every night until 1 o’clock.”

Dodd sensed that this last point struck home. He noted in his diary, “Sumner Welles winced a little: the owner of a mansion in Washington which outshines the White House in some respects and is about as large.” Welles’s mansion, called by some the “house with a hundred rooms,” stood on Massachusetts Avenue off Dupont Circle and was renowned for its opulence. Welles and his wife also owned a 255-acre country estate just outside the city, Oxon Hill Manor.

After Dodd concluded his remarks, his audience praised him and applauded. “I was not fooled, however, after two hours of pretended agreement.”

Indeed, his lecture only deepened the ill feelings of the Pretty Good Club. By the time of his talk, some of its members, most notably Phillips and Moffat, privately had begun to express real hostility.

Dodd paid a visit to Moffat’s office. Later that day Moffat wrote a brief assessment of the ambassador in his diary: “He is … by no means a clear thinker. He will express great dissatisfaction with a situation and then reject every proposal to remedy it. He dislikes all his staff but yet does not wish any transferred. He is suspicious by turns of nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact and a little jealous.” Moffat called him “an unfortunate misfit.”

Dodd seemed unaware that he might be conjuring forces that could endanger his career. Rather he delighted in pricking the clubby sensibilities of his opponents. With clear satisfaction he told his wife, “Their chief protector”—presumably he meant Phillips or Welles—“is not a little disturbed. If he attacks it certainly is not in the open.”

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