The following week Dodd took a train to Washington, where, on Friday, June 16, he met Roosevelt for lunch, which was served on two trays at the president’s desk.
Roosevelt, smiling and cheerful, launched with obvious relish into a story about a recent visit to Washington by the head of Germany’s Reichsbank, Hjalmar Schacht—full name Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht—who held the power to determine whether Germany would repay its debts to American creditors. Roosevelt explained how he had instructed Secretary Hull to deploy gamesmanship to defuse Schacht’s legendary arrogance. Schacht was to be brought to Hull’s office and made to stand in front of the secretary’s desk. Hull was to act as if Schacht weren’t there and “to pretend to be deeply engaged in looking for certain papers, leaving Schacht standing and unobserved for three minutes,” as Dodd recalled the story. At last, Hull was to find what he’d been searching for—a stern note from Roosevelt condemning any attempt by Germany to default. Only then was Hull to stand and greet Schacht, while simultaneously handing him the note. The purpose of this routine, Roosevelt told Dodd, “was to take a little of the arrogance out of the German’s bearing.” Roosevelt seemed to think the plan had worked extremely well.
Roosevelt now brought the conversation around to what he expected of Dodd. First he raised the matter of Germany’s debt, and here he expressed ambivalence. He acknowledged that American bankers had made what he called “exorbitant profits” lending money to German businesses and cities and selling associated bonds to U.S. citizens. “But our people are entitled to repayment, and while it is altogether beyond governmental responsibility, I want you to do all you can to prevent a moratorium”—a German suspension of payment. “It would tend to retard recovery.”
The president turned next to what everyone seemed to be calling the Jewish “problem” or “question.”
FOR ROOSEVELT, THIS WAS treacherous ground. Though appalled by Nazi treatment of Jews and aware of the violence that had convulsed Germany earlier in the year, he refrained from issuing any direct statement of condemnation. Some Jewish leaders, like Rabbi Wise, Judge Irving Lehman, and Lewis L. Strauss, a partner at Kuhn, Loeb & Company, wanted Roosevelt to speak out; others, like Felix Warburg and Judge Joseph Proskauer, favored the quieter approach of urging the president to ease the entry of Jews into America. Roosevelt’s reluctance on both fronts was maddening. By November 1933, Wise would describe Roosevelt as “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible excepting to those of his Jewish friends whom he can safely trust not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.” Wrote Felix Warburg, “So far all the vague promises have not materialized into any action.” Even Roosevelt’s good friend Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor whom he later named to the Supreme Court, found himself unable to move the president to action, much to his frustration. But Roosevelt understood that the political costs of any public condemnation of Nazi persecution or any obvious effort to ease the entry of Jews into America were likely to be immense, because American political discourse had framed the Jewish problem as an immigration problem. Germany’s persecution of Jews raised the specter of a vast influx of Jewish refugees at a time when America was reeling from the Depression. The isolationists added another dimension to the debate by insisting, as did Hitler’s government, that Nazi oppression of Germany’s Jews was a domestic German affair and thus none of America’s business.
Even America’s Jews were deeply divided on how to approach the problem. On one side stood the American Jewish Congress, which called for all manner of protest, including marches and a boycott of German goods. One of its most visible leaders was Rabbi Wise, its honorary president, who in 1933 was growing increasingly frustrated with Roosevelt’s failure to speak out. During a trip to Washington when he sought in vain to meet with the president, Rabbi Wise wrote to his wife, “If he refuse [sic] to see me, I shall return and let loose an avalanche of demands for action by Jewry. I have other things up my sleeve. Perhaps it will be better, for I shall be free to speak as I have never spoken before. And, God helping me, I will fight.”
On the other side stood Jewish groups aligned with the American Jewish Committee, headed by Judge Proskauer, which counseled a quieter path, fearing that noisy protests and boycotts would only make things worse for Jews still in Germany. One who shared this point of view was Leo Wormser, a Jewish attorney in Chicago. In a letter to Dodd, Wormser wrote that “we in Chicago … have been steadfastly opposing the program of Mr. Samuel Untermeyer and Dr. Stephen Wise to further an organized Jewish boycott against German goods.” Such a boycott, he explained, could stimulate more intense persecution of Germany’s Jews, “and we know that, as to many of them, it could be still worse than it now is.” He stated also that a boycott would “hamper efforts of friends in Germany to bring about a more conciliatory attitude through an appeal to reason and to self interest,” and could impair Germany’s ability to pay its bond debt to American holders. He feared the repercussions of an act that would be identified solely with Jews. He told Dodd, “We feel that the boycott if directed and publicized by Jews, will befog the issue which should not be ‘will Jews endure,’ but ‘will liberty endure.’ ” As Ron Chernow wrote in The Warburgs, “A fatal division sapped ‘international Jewry’ even as the Nazi press claimed that it operated with a single, implacable will.”
Where both factions did agree, however, was on the certainty that any campaign that explicitly and publicly sought to boost Jewish immigration to America could only lead to disaster. In early June 1933 Rabbi Wise wrote to Felix Frankfurter, at this point a Harvard law professor, that if debate over immigration reached the floor of the House it could “lead to an explosion against us.” Indeed, anti-immigration sentiment in America would remain strong into 1938, when a Fortune poll reported that some two-thirds of those surveyed favored keeping refugees out of the country.
Within the Roosevelt administration itself there was deep division on the subject. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman in American history to hold a cabinet position, was energetic in trying to get the administration to do something to make it easier for Jews to gain entry to America. Her department oversaw immigration practices and policy but had no role in deciding who actually received or was denied a visa. That fell to the State Department and its foreign consuls, and they took a decidedly different view of things. Indeed, some of the department’s most senior officers harbored an outright dislike of Jews.
One of these was William Phillips, undersecretary of state, the second-highest-ranking man in the department after Secretary Hull. Phillips’s wife and Eleanor Roosevelt were childhood friends; it was FDR, not Hull, who had chosen Phillips to be undersecretary. In his diary Phillips described a business acquaintance as “my little Jewish friend from Boston.” Phillips loved visiting Atlantic City, but in another diary entry he wrote, “The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight—very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.”
Another key official, Wilbur J. Carr, an assistant secretary of state who had overall charge of the consular service, called Jews “kikes.” In a memorandum on Russian and Polish immigrants he wrote, “They are filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews.” He too complained of the Jewish presence in Atlantic City. He and his wife spent three days there one February, and for each of the days he made an entry in his diary that disparaged Jews. “In all our day’s journey along the Boardwalk we saw but few Gentiles,” he wrote on the first day. “Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind.” He and his wife dined that night in the Claridge Hotel and found its dining room full of Jews, “and few presented a good appearance. Only two others beside myself in dinner jacket. Very careless atmosphere in dining room.” The next night the Carrs went to dinner at a different hotel, the Marlborough-Blenheim, and found it far more refined. “I like it,” Carr wrote. “How different from the Jewish atmosphere of the Claridge.”
An official of the American Jewish Committee described Carr as “an anti-Semite and a trickster, who talks beautifully and contrives to do nothing for us.”
Both Carr and Phillips favored strict adherence to a provision in the nation’s immigration laws that barred entry to all would-be immigrants considered “likely to become a public charge,” the notorious “LPC clause.” A component of the Immigration Act of 1917, it had been reinstated by the Hoover administration in 1930 to discourage immigration at a time when unemployment was soaring. Consular officials possessed great power over who got to come to America because they were the ones who decided which visa applicants could be excluded under the LPC clause. Immigration law also required that applicants provide a police affidavit attesting to their good character, along with duplicate copies of birth certificates and other government records. “It seems quite preposterous,” one Jewish memoirist wrote, “to have to go to your enemy and ask for a character reference.”
Jewish activists charged that America’s consulates abroad had been instructed quietly to grant only a fraction of the visas allowed for each country, a charge that proved to have merit. The Labor Department’s own solicitor, Charles E. Wyzanski, discovered in 1933 that consuls had been given informal oral instructions to limit the number of immigration visas they approved to 10 percent of the total allowed by each nation’s quota. Jewish leaders contended, further, that the act of acquiring police records had become not merely difficult, but dangerous—“an almost insuperable obstacle,” as Judge Proskauer stated in a letter to Undersecretary Phillips.
Phillips took offense at Proskauer’s depiction of consuls as obstacles. “The consul,” Phillips replied, gently chiding, “is only concerned with determining in a helpful and considerate manner whether applicants for visas have met the requirements of law.”
One result, according to Proskauer and other Jewish leaders, was that Jews simply did not apply for immigration to the United States. Indeed, the number of Germans who applied for visas was a tiny fraction of the twenty-six thousand allowed under the annual quota set for the country. This disparity gave officials within the State Department a powerful statistical argument for opposing reform: how could there be a problem if so few Jews applied in the first place? It was an argument that Roosevelt, as early as April 1933, appeared to accept. He also knew that any effort to liberalize immigration rules might well prompt Congress to respond with drastic reductions of existing quotas.
By the time of his lunch with Dodd, Roosevelt was acutely aware of the sensitivities at play.
“The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited,” Roosevelt told him. “But this is also not a governmental affair. We can do nothing except for American citizens who happen to be made victims. We must protect them, and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.”
THE CONVERSATION TURNED to practicalities. Dodd insisted he would live within his designated salary of $17,500, a lot of money during the Depression but a skimpy sum for an ambassador who would have to entertain European diplomats and Nazi officials. It was a point of principle for Dodd: he did not think an ambassador should live extravagantly while the rest of the nation suffered. For him, however, it also happened to be a moot point, since he lacked the independent wealth that so many other ambassadors possessed and thus could not have lived extravagantly even if he had wanted to.
“You are quite right,” Roosevelt told him. “Aside from two or three general dinners and entertainments, you need not indulge in any expensive social affairs. Try to give fair attention to Americans in Berlin and occasional dinners to Germans who are interested in American relations. I think you can manage to live within your income and not sacrifice any essential parts of the service.”
After some additional conversation about trade tariffs and arms reductions, the lunch came to an end.
It was two o’clock. Dodd left the White House and walked to the State Department, where he planned to meet with various officials and to read dispatches filed from Berlin, namely the lengthy reports written by Consul General George S. Messersmith. The reports were disconcerting.
Hitler had been chancellor for six months, having received the appointment through a political deal, but he did not yet possess absolute power. Germany’s eighty-five-year-old president, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, still held the constitutional authority to appoint and remove chancellors and their cabinets and, equally important, commanded the loyalty of the regular army, the Reichswehr. By contrast to Hindenburg, Hitler and his deputies were surprisingly young—Hitler only forty-four, Hermann Göring forty, and Joseph Goebbels thirty-six.
It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship. Messersmith spared no detail—his tendency to write long had early on saddled him with the nickname “Forty-Page George.” He wrote of the widespread violence that had occurred in the several months that immediately followed Hitler’s appointment and of the increasing control the government exerted over all aspects of German society. On March 31, three U.S. citizens had been kidnapped and dragged to one of the Storm Troopers’ beating stations, where they had been stripped of their clothing and left to spend the night in the cold. Come morning, they had been beaten until they lost consciousness, then discarded on the street. A correspondent for United Press International had disappeared but after inquiries by Messersmith had been released unharmed. Hitler’s government had declared a one-day boycott of all Jewish businesses in Germany—stores, law firms, doctors’ offices. And there were the book burnings, the firings of Jews from businesses, the seemingly endless marches of Storm Troopers, and the suppression of Germany’s once-vibrant free press, which according to Messersmith had been placed under government control to a degree greater than “has probably ever existed in any country. The press censorship may be considered an absolute.”
In one of his latest dispatches, however, Messersmith took a markedly more positive tone, which Dodd doubtless found heartening. With uncharacteristic optimism Messersmith now reported seeing signs that Germany was growing more stable and attributed this to the growing confidence of Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels. “Responsibility has already changed the primary leaders of the Party very considerably,” he wrote. “There is every evidence that they are becoming constantly more moderate.”
Dodd, however, never got the chance to read a letter that Messersmith wrote soon afterward in which he retracted this cheerier assessment. Marked “Personal & Confidential,” he sent it to Undersecretary Phillips. The letter, dated June 26, 1933, reached Phillips just as the Dodds were about to leave for Berlin.
“I have tried to point out in my dispatches that the higher leaders of the party are growing more moderate, while the intermediary leaders and the masses are just as radical as ever, and that the question is whether the higher leaders will be able to impose their moderate will on the masses,” Messersmith wrote. “It begins to look pretty definitely that they will not be able to do so, but that the pressure from the bottom is becoming stronger all the time.” Göring and Goebbels in particular no longer seemed so moderate, he wrote. “Dr. Goebbels is daily preaching that the revolution has just begun and what has so far been done is just an overture.”
Priests were being arrested. A former president of Lower Silesia, whom Messersmith knew personally, had been placed in a concentration camp. He sensed a rising “hysteria” among midlevel leaders of the Nazi Party, expressed as a belief “that the only safety lies in getting everybody in jail.” The nation was quietly but aggressively readying itself for war, deploying propaganda to conjure the perception “that the whole world is against Germany and that it lies defenseless before the world.” Hitler’s vows of peaceful intent were illusory, meant only to buy time for Germany to rearm, Messersmith warned. “What they most want to do, however, definitely is to make Germany the most capable instrument of war that there has ever existed.”
WHILE IN WASHINGTON, Dodd attended a reception thrown for him by the German embassy, and there he met Wilbur Carr for the first time. Later, Carr jotted a quick description of Dodd in his diary: “Pleasing, interesting person with fine sense of humor and simple modesty.”
Dodd also paid a call on the State Department’s chief of Western European affairs, Jay Pierrepont Moffat, who shared Carr’s and Phillips’s distaste for Jews as well as their hard-line attitude toward immigration. Moffat recorded his own impression of the new ambassador: “He is extremely sure of his opinion, expresses himself forcibly and didactically and tends to dramatize the points he makes. The only fly in the ointment is that he is going to try and run the Embassy with a family of four persons on his salary, and how he is going to do it in Berlin, where prices are high, is something beyond me.”
What neither Carr nor Moffat expressed in these entries was the surprise and displeasure they and many of their peers had felt at Dodd’s appointment. Theirs was an elite realm to which only men of a certain pedigree could expect ready admission. Many had gone to the same prep schools, mainly St. Paul’s and Groton, and from there to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Undersecretary Phillips grew up in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood in a giant Victorian pile of a house. He was independently wealthy from the age of twenty-one and later in life became a regent of Harvard College. Most of his peers in the State Department also had money and while abroad spent heavily from their own funds with no expectation of reimbursement. One such official, Hugh Wilson, in praise of his fellow diplomats wrote, “They have all felt that they belonged to a pretty good club. That feeling has fostered a healthy esprit de corps.”
By the club’s standards, Dodd was about as poor a fit as could be imagined.
HE RETURNED TO CHICAGO to pack and attend various good-bye functions, after which he and his wife and Martha and Bill all set out by train for Virginia and a last stay at the Round Hill farm. His eighty-six-year-old father, John, lived relatively near, in North Carolina, but Dodd, despite his wish that his own children remain close at hand, did not at first plan to visit him, given that Roosevelt wanted his new ambassador in Berlin as soon as possible. Dodd had written to his father to tell him of his appointment and that he would not have a chance to visit before his departure. He enclosed a little money and wrote, “I am sorry to be so far away all my life.” His father immediately replied how proud he was that Dodd had received “this great honor from D.C.,” but added that tincture of vinegar that only parents seem to know how to apply—that little something that causes guilt to flare and plans to change. The elder Dodd wrote, “If I never see you any more while I live it will be alright I shall be proud of you to the last hours I live.”
Dodd changed his plans. On July 1, a Saturday, he and his wife boarded a sleeper car bound for North Carolina. During their visit with Dodd’s father, they made time for a tour of local landmarks. Dodd and his wife touched old ground, as if saying good-bye for the last time. They visited the family cemetery, where Dodd stood before the grave of his mother, who had died in 1909. As he walked the grass he came upon the plots of ancestors caught up in the Civil War, including two who surrendered with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. It was a visit filled with reminders of “family misfortune” and the precariousness of life. “A rather sorrowful day,” he wrote.
He and his wife returned to Virginia and the farm, then proceeded by train to New York. Martha and Bill drove the family’s Chevrolet, intending to drop it off at the wharf for transit to Berlin.
DODD WOULD HAVE PREFERRED to spend the next couple of days with his family, but the department had insisted that once he got to New York he attend a number of meetings with bank executives on the issue of Germany’s debt—a subject in which Dodd had little interest—and with Jewish leaders. Dodd feared that both the American and German press could twist these meetings to taint the appearance of objectivity that he hoped to present in Berlin. He complied, however, and the result was a day of encounters that evoked the serial visits of ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. A letter from a prominent Jewish relief activist told Dodd that he would be visited on the night of Monday, July 3, by two groups of men, the first to arrive by eight thirty, the second at nine o’clock. The meetings were to take place at the Century Club, Dodd’s base while in New York.
First, however, Dodd met the bankers, and did so at the offices of the National City Bank of New York, which years later would be called Citibank. Dodd was startled to learn that National City Bank and Chase National Bank held over one hundred million dollars in German bonds, which Germany at this point was proposing to pay back at a rate of thirty cents on the dollar. “There was much talk but no agreement other than that I should do all I possibly could to prevent Germany’s defaulting openly,” Dodd wrote. He had little sympathy for the bankers. The prospect of high interest rates on German bonds had blinded them to the all-too-obvious risk that a war-crushed, politically volatile country might default.
That evening the Jewish leaders arrived as scheduled, among them Felix M. Warburg, a leading financier who tended to favor the quieter tactics of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Wise of the noisier American Jewish Congress. Dodd wrote in his diary: “For an hour and a half the discussion went on: The Germans are killing Jews all the time; they are being persecuted to the point where suicide is common (the Warburg family is reported to have had cases of this kind); and all Jewish property is being confiscated.”
During this meeting, Warburg appears to have mentioned the suicide of two elderly relatives, Moritz and Käthie Oppenheim, in Frankfurt some three weeks earlier. Warburg wrote later, “No doubt the Hitler Regime made life for them a plague and they were yearning for the end of their days.”
Dodd’s visitors urged him to press Roosevelt for official intervention, but he demurred. “I insisted that the government could not intervene officially but assured the members of the conference that I would exert all possible personal influence against unjust treatment of German Jews and of course protest against maltreatment of American Jews.”
Afterward, Dodd caught an 11:00 p.m. train to Boston and, upon his arrival early the next morning, July 4, was driven by chauffeured car to the home of Colonel Edward M. House, a friend who was a close adviser to Roosevelt, for a meeting over breakfast.
In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Dodd learned for the first time how far he had been from being Roosevelt’s first choice. The news was humbling. Dodd noted in his diary that it tamped any inclination on his part to be “over-egotistical” about his appointment.
When the conversation turned to Germany’s persecution of Jews, Colonel House urged Dodd to do all he could “to ameliorate Jewish sufferings” but added a caveat: “the Jews should not be allowed to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin as they have done for a long time.”
In this, Colonel House expressed a sentiment pervasive in America, that Germany’s Jews were at least partly responsible for their own troubles. Dodd encountered a more rabid form of it later that same day after returning to New York, when he and his family went to dinner at the Park Avenue apartment of Charles R. Crane, seventy-five, a philanthropist whose family had grown wealthy selling plumbing supplies. Crane was an Arabist said to be influential in certain Middle Eastern and Balkan nations and was a generous supporter of Dodd’s department at the University of Chicago, where he had endowed a chair for the study of Russian history and institutions.
Dodd already knew that Crane was no friend of Jews. When Crane earlier had written to congratulate Dodd on his appointment, he had offered some advice: “The Jews, after winning the war, galloping along at a swift pace, getting Russia, England and Palestine, being caught in the act of trying to seize Germany, too, and meeting their first real rebuff have gone plumb crazy and are deluging the world—particularly easy America—with anti-German propaganda—I strongly advise you to resist every social invitation.”
Dodd partly embraced Crane’s notion that the Jews shared responsibility for their plight. He wrote to Crane later, after arriving in Berlin, that while he did not “approve of the ruthlessness that is being applied to the Jews here,” he did think the Germans had a valid grievance. “When I have occasion to speak unofficially to eminent Germans, I have said very frankly that they had a very serious problem but that they did not seem to know how to solve it,” he wrote. “The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or their talents entitled them to.”
Over dinner, Dodd heard Crane express great admiration for Hitler and learned as well that Crane himself had no objection to how the Nazis were treating Germany’s Jews.
As the Dodds left that evening, Crane gave the ambassador one more bit of advice: “Let Hitler have his way.”
AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK the next morning, July 5, 1933, the Dodds took a taxi to the wharf and boarded their ship, the Washington, bound for Hamburg. They ran into Eleanor Roosevelt just after she had bid bon voyage to son Franklin Jr., who was sailing to Europe to begin a sojourn abroad.
A dozen or so reporters also swarmed aboard and cornered Dodd on deck as he stood with his wife and Bill. At that moment Martha was elsewhere on the ship. The reporters threw out questions and prodded the Dodds to pose as if waving good-bye. With reluctance they did so, Dodd wrote, “and unaware of the similarity of the Hitler salute, then unknown to us, we raised our hands.”
The resulting photographs caused a minor outcry, for they seemed to capture Dodd, his wife, and son in mid-Heil.
Dodd’s misgivings flared. By this point he had begun to dread leaving Chicago and his old life. As the ship eased from its moorage the family experienced what Martha described later as “a disproportionate amount of sadness and foreboding.”