In the months that followed Hitler’s final ascent, Dodd’s sense of futility deepened, as did a collateral longing to be back on his farm in the soft rise of the Appalachians, among his rich red apples and lazy cows. He wrote, “It is so humiliating to me to shake hands with known and confessed murderers.” He became one of the few voices in U.S. government to warn of the true ambitions of Hitler and the dangers of America’s isolationist stance. He told Secretary Hull in a letter dated August 30, 1934, “With Germany united as it has never before been, there is feverish arming and drilling of 1,500,000 men, all of whom are taught every day to believe that continental Europe must be subordinated to them.” He added, “I think we must abandon our so-called isolation.” He wrote to the army chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur, “In my judgment, the German authorities are preparing for a great continental struggle. There is ample evidence. It is only a question of time.”
Roosevelt largely shared his view, but most of America seemed more intent than ever on staying out of Europe’s squabbles. Dodd marveled at this. He wrote to Roosevelt in April 1935, “If Woodrow Wilson’s bones do not turn in the Cathedral grave, then bones never turn in graves. Possibly you can do something, but from reports of Congressional attitudes, I have grave doubts. So many men … think absolute isolation a coming paradise.”
Dodd resigned himself to what he called “the delicate work of watching and carefully doing nothing.”
His sense of moral revulsion caused him to withdraw from active engagement with Hitler’s Third Reich. The regime, in turn, recognized that he had become an intractable opponent and sought to isolate him from diplomatic discourse.
Dodd’s attitude appalled Phillips, who wrote in his diary, “What in the world is the use of having an ambassador who refuses to speak to the government to which he is accredited?”
GERMANY CONTINUED ITS MARCH toward war and intensified its persecution of Jews, passing a collection of laws under which Jews ceased to be citizens no matter how long their families had lived in Germany or how bravely they had fought for Germany in the Great War. Now on his walks through the Tiergarten Dodd saw that some benches had been painted yellow to indicate they were for Jews. The rest, the most desirable, were reserved for Aryans.
Dodd watched, utterly helpless, as German troops occupied the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, without resistance. He saw Berlin transformed for the Olympics as the Nazis polished the city and removed their anti-Jewish banners, only to intensify their persecution once the foreign crowds were gone. He saw Hitler’s stature within Germany grow to that of a god. Women cried as he passed near; souvenir hunters dug up parcels of earth from the ground on which he stepped. At the September 1936 party rally in Nuremberg, which Dodd did not attend, Hitler launched his audience into near hysteria. “That you have found me … among so many millions is the miracle of our time!” he cried. “And that I have found you, that is Germany’s fortune!”
On September 19, 1936, in a letter marked “Personal and Confidential,” Dodd wrote to Secretary Hull of his frustration at watching events unfold with no one daring to intercede. “With armies increasing in size and efficiency every day; with thousands of airplanes ready on a moment’s notice to drop bombs and spread poison gas over great cities; and with all other countries, little and great, arming as never before, one can not feel safe anywhere,” he wrote. “What mistakes and blunders since 1917, and especially during the past twelve months—and no democratic peoples do anything, economic or moral penalties, to halt the process!”
The idea of resigning gained appeal for Dodd. He wrote to Martha,
“You must not mention to anyone, but I do not see how I can continue in this atmosphere longer than next spring. I can not render my country any service and the stress is too great to be always doing nothing.”
Meanwhile, his opponents within the State Department stepped up their campaign to have him removed. His longtime antagonist Sumner Welles took over as undersecretary of state, replacing William Phillips, who in August 1936 became ambassador to Italy. Closer to hand a new antagonist emerged, William C. Bullitt, another of Roosevelt’s handpicked men (a Yale grad, however), who moved from his post as ambassador to Russia to lead the U.S. embassy in Paris. In a letter to Roosevelt on December 7, 1936, Bullitt wrote, “Dodd has many admirable and likeable qualities, but he is almost ideally ill equipped for his present job. He hates the Nazis too much to be able to do anything with them or get anything out of them. We need in Berlin someone who can at least be civil to the Nazis and speaks German perfectly.”
Dodd’s steadfast refusal to attend the Nazi Party rallies continued to rankle his enemies. “Personally, I cannot see why he is so sensitive,” Moffat wrote in his diary. Alluding to Dodd’s Columbus Day speech in October 1933, Moffat asked, “Why is it worse for him to listen to the Germans inveigh against our form of Government when he chose, at the Chamber of Commerce, to inveigh to a German audience against an autocratic form of government?”
A pattern of leaks persisted, building public pressure for Dodd’s removal. In December 1936 columnist Drew Pearson, primary author with Robert S. Allen of a United Features Syndicate column called “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” published a harsh assault on Dodd, “attacking me violently as a complete failure here and pretending that the President is of the same opinion,” Dodd wrote on December 13. “This is news to me.”
Pearson’s attack deeply wounded Dodd. He had spent the better part of four years seeking to fulfill Roosevelt’s mandate to serve as a model of American values and believed he had done as well as any man could have been expected to do, given the strange, irrational, and brutal nature of Hitler’s government. He feared that if he resigned now, under such a black cloud, he would leave the impression that he had been forced to do so. “My position is difficult, but under such criticism I cannot resign, as I planned, next spring,” he wrote in his diary. “To give up my work here under these circumstances would put me in a defensive and positively false position at home.” His resignation, he acknowledged, “would at once be recognized as a confession of failure.”
He decided to postpone his departure, even though he knew that the time had come to step down. In the meantime he requested another leave in America, to get some rest on his farm and meet with Roosevelt. On July 24, 1937, Dodd and his wife made the long drive to Hamburg, where Dodd boarded the City of Baltimore and at 7:00 p.m. began the slow sail down the Elbe to the sea.
LEAVING DODD ABOARD SHIP broke his wife’s heart. The next evening, Sunday, she wrote him a letter so that he would receive it upon his arrival. “I thought of you, my dear, all the way back to Berlin and felt very sad and lonely, especially to see you go away feeling so bad and so miserable.”
She urged him to relax and try to quell the persistent “nervous headaches” that had plagued him for the last couple of months. “Please, please, for our sakes, if not your own, take better care of yourself and live less strenuously and exacting.” If he kept well, she told him, he would still have time to achieve the things he wanted to achieve—and presumably here she meant the completion of his Old South.
She worried that all this sorrow and stress, these four years in Berlin, had been partly her fault. “Perhaps I have been too ambitious for you, but it does not mean that I love you any the less,” she wrote. “I can’t help it—my ambitions for you. It is innate.”
But all that was done with, she told him now. “Decide what is best and what you want most, and I shall be content.”
Her letter turned grim. She described the drive back to Berlin that night. “We made good time although we passed and met many army trucks—those awful instruments of death and destruction within. I still feel a shudder run through me when I see them and the many other signs of coming catastrophe. Is there no possible way to stop men and nations from destroying each other? Horrible!”
This was four and a half years before America’s entry into the Second World War.
DODD NEEDED THE RESPITE. His health had indeed begun to trouble him. Ever since arriving in Berlin he had experienced stomach troubles and headaches, but lately these had grown more intense. His headaches sometimes persisted for weeks on end. The pain, he wrote, “spread over the nerve connections between the stomach, shoulders and brain until sleep is almost impossible.” His symptoms had worsened to the point where on one of his previous leaves he had consulted a specialist, Dr. Thomas R. Brown, chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (who, at a 1934 gastroenterological symposium, noted with dead sobriety that “we must not forget it is essential to study the stool from every angle”). Upon learning that Dodd was at work on an epic history of the South and that completing it was the great goal of his life, Dr. Brown gently recommended that he quit his post in Berlin. He told Dodd, “At sixty-five one must take stock and decide what are the essentials, and lay one’s plans to complete the major work, if possible.”
By the summer of 1937, Dodd was reporting near continuous headaches and bouts of digestive trouble that in one case caused him to go without food for thirty hours.
Something more serious than the stress of work may have lain at the root of his health troubles, though certainly stress was a contributing factor. George Messersmith, who eventually moved from Vienna to Washington to become an assistant secretary of state, wrote in an unpublished memoir that he believed Dodd had undergone an organic intellectual decline. Dodd’s letters rambled and his handwriting degraded to the point where others in the department passed them to Messersmith for “deciphering.” Dodd’s use of longhand increased as his distrust of his stenographers grew. “It was quite obvious that something had happened to Dodd,” Messersmith wrote. “He was suffering from some form of mental deterioration.”
The cause of all this, Messersmith believed, was Dodd’s inability to adjust to the behavior of Hitler’s regime. The violence, the obsessive march toward war, the ruthless treatment of Jews—all of it had made Dodd “tremendously depressed,” Messersmith wrote. Dodd could not grasp how these things could be occurring in the Germany he had known and loved as a young scholar in Leipzig.
Messersmith wrote: “I think he was so thoroughly appalled by everything that was happening in Germany and the dangers which it had for the world that he was no longer capable of reasoned thought and judgment.”
AFTER A WEEK on his farm, Dodd felt much better. He went to Washington and on Wednesday, August 11, met with Roosevelt. During their hourlong conversation, Roosevelt said he’d like him to stay in Berlin a few months longer. He urged Dodd to do as many lectures as he could while in America and “speak the truth about things,” a command that affirmed for Dodd that he still had the president’s confidence.
But while Dodd was in America the Pretty Good Club engineered a singular affront. One of the embassy’s newest men, Prentiss Gilbert, standing in as acting ambassador—the chargé d’affaires—was advised by the State Department to attend the upcoming Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. Gilbert did so. He rode in a special train for diplomats whose arrival in Nuremberg was greeted by seventeen military aircraft flying in swastika formation.
Dodd sensed the hand of Undersecretary Sumner Welles. “I have long believed Welles was opposed to me and everything I recommended,” Dodd wrote in his diary. One of Dodd’s few allies in the State Department, R. Walton Moore, an assistant secretary of state, shared Dodd’s distaste for Welles and confirmed his fears: “I have not the slightest doubt that you are correct in locating the influence that has been determining very largely the action of the Department since last May.”
Dodd was angry. Staying clear of these congresses was one of the few ways he believed he could signal his, and America’s, true feelings about the Hitler regime. He sent a pointed and—he thought—confidential protest to Secretary Hull. To Dodd’s great dismay, even this letter was leaked to the press. On the morning of September 4, 1937, he saw an article on the subject in the New York Herald Tribune, which excerpted an entire paragraph from the letter, along with a subsequent telegram.
Dodd’s letter incensed Hitler’s government. The new German ambassador to America, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, told Secretary of State Hull that while he was not making a formal request for Dodd’s removal, he “desired to make it plain that the German Government did not feel that he was persona grata.”
ON OCTOBER 19, 1937, Dodd had a second meeting with Roosevelt, this at the president’s home in Hyde Park—“a marvelous place,” Dodd wrote. His son Bill accompanied him. “The President revealed his anxiety about foreign affairs,” Dodd wrote in his diary. They discussed the Chinese-Japanese conflict, then in full flare, and the prospects of a major peace conference soon to take place in Brussels aimed at bringing it to an end. “One thing troubled him,” Dodd wrote: “Could the United States, England, France and Russia actually co-operate?”
The conversation shifted to Berlin. Dodd asked Roosevelt to keep him in place at least until March 1, 1938, “partly because I did not wish to have the German extremists think their complaints … had operated too effectively.” He was under the impression that Roosevelt agreed.
Dodd urged the president to choose a fellow history professor, James T. Shotwell of Columbia University, as his replacement. Roosevelt seemed willing to consider the idea. As the conversation came to an end, Roosevelt invited Dodd and Bill to stay for lunch. Roosevelt’s mother and other members of the Delano clan joined them. Dodd called it “a delightful occasion.”
As he prepared to leave, Roosevelt told him, “Write me personally about things in Europe. I can read your handwriting very well.”
In his diary Dodd added: “I promised to write him such confidential letters, but how shall I get them to him unread by spies?”
Dodd sailed for Berlin. His diary entry for Friday, October 29, the day of his arrival, was brief but telling: “In Berlin once more. What can I do?”
He was unaware that in fact Roosevelt had bowed to pressure from both the State Department and the German foreign office and had agreed that Dodd should leave Berlin before the end of the year. Dodd was stunned when on the morning of November 23, 1937, he received a curt telegram from Hull, marked “Strictly Confidential,” that stated, “Much as the President regrets any personal inconvenience which may be occasioned to you, he desires me to request that you arrange to leave Berlin if possible by December 15 and in any event not later than Christmas, because of the complications with which you are familiar and which threaten to increase.”
Dodd protested, but Hull and Roosevelt stood fast. Dodd booked passage for himself and his wife on the SS Washington, to depart on December 29, 1937.
MARTHA SAILED TWO WEEKS earlier, but first she and Boris met in Berlin to say good-bye. To do so, she wrote, he left his post in Warsaw without permission. It was a romantic and heartbreaking interlude, at least for her. She again declared her desire to marry him.
This was their final meeting. Boris wrote to her on April 29, 1938, from Russia. “Until now I have lived with the memory of our last get-together in Berlin. What a pity that it was only 2 nights long. I want to stretch this time to the rest of our lives. You were so nice and kind to me darling. I will never forget that.… How was the trip across the ocean? One time we will cross this ocean together and together we will watch the eternal waves and feel our eternal love. I love you. I feel you and dream of you and us. Don’t forget me. Yours, Boris.”
Back in America, true to her nature if not to Boris, Martha met and promptly fell in love with a new man, Alfred Stern, a New Yorker of left-leaning sensibility. He was a decade older, five foot ten, handsome, and rich, having received a lush settlement upon his earlier divorce from an heiress of the Sears Roebuck empire. They became engaged and in breathtakingly short order they married, on June 16, 1938, though news reports show there was a second ceremony, later, on the farm in Round Hill, Virginia. She wore a black velvet dress with red roses. She would write years later that Stern was the third and last great love of her life.
She told Boris of her marriage in a letter dated July 9, 1938. “You know, honey, that for me, you meant more in my life than anybody else. You also know that, if I am needed, I will be ready to come when called.” She added, “I look into the future and see you in Russia again.”
By the time her letter arrived in Russia, Boris was dead, executed, one of countless NKVD operatives who fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia. Martha learned later that Boris had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis. She dismissed the charge as “insane.” She wondered long afterward if her relationship with him, especially that final, unauthorized meeting in Berlin, had played a role in sealing his fate.
She never learned that Boris’s last letter, in which he claimed to dream of her, was a fake, written by Boris at the direction of the NKVD shortly before his execution, in order to keep his death from destroying her sympathy for the Soviet cause.