As Darkness Fell

A week before his voyage home, Dodd gave a farewell speech at a luncheon of the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, where just over four years earlier he had first kindled Nazi ire with his allusions to ancient dictatorships. The world, he said, “must face the sad fact that in an age when international cooperation should be the keyword, nations are farther apart than ever.” He told his audience that the lessons of the Great War had gone unlearned. He praised the German people as “basically democratic and kindly toward each other.” And he said, “I doubt whether any Ambassador in Europe properly performs his duties or earns his pay.”

He struck a different tone once he arrived in America. On January 13, 1938, at a dinner given in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Dodd declared, “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem not to know what to do. If they do nothing, Western civilization, religious, personal and economic freedom are in grave danger.” His remarks prompted an immediate protest from Germany, to which Secretary Hull replied that Dodd was now a private citizen and could say what he wished. First, however, there was some debate among State Department officials as to whether the department should also apologize with a statement along the lines of “We always regret anything that might give resentment abroad.” This idea was rejected, opposed by none other than Jay Pierrepont Moffat, who wrote in his diary, “I personally felt quite strongly that, much as I disliked and disapproved of Mr. Dodd, he should not be apologized for.”

With that speech, Dodd embarked on a campaign to raise the alarm about Hitler and his plans, and to combat the increasing drift in America toward isolationism; later he would be dubbed the Cassandra of American diplomats. He founded the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda and became a member of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. At a speech in Rochester, New York, on February 21, 1938, before a Jewish congregation, Dodd warned that once Hitler attained control of Austria—an event that appeared imminent—Germany would continue seeking to expand its authority elsewhere, and that Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were at risk. He predicted, moreover, that Hitler would be free to pursue his ambitions without armed resistance from other European democracies, as they would choose concessions over war. “Great Britain,” he said, “is terribly exasperated but also terribly desirous of peace.”

THE FAMILY DISPERSED, Bill to a teaching job and Martha to Chicago and then New York. Dodd and Mattie retired to the farm at Round Hill, Virginia, but made occasional forays into Washington. On February 26, 1938, just after seeing Dodd off at the train station in Washington for the start of a journey full of lectures, Mattie wrote to Martha in Chicago, “I do wish we were all nearer together so that we could discuss things and spend some time with each other. Our lives are slipping by so fast. Father often speaks of your being with us and what a joy it would be to have you with him and Billy nearby. I do wish he were younger and more vigorous. He is very delicate & his nervous energy depleted.”

She was deeply concerned about events in Europe. In another letter to Martha soon afterward she wrote, “The world seems in such a mess now, I don’t know what will happen. Too bad that maniac was allowed to go his way so long uncurbed. We may be, sooner or later, involved, God forbid.”

Mrs. Dodd did not share her husband’s deep love of the Round Hill farm. It was fine for summers and vacations, but not as a full-time residence. She hoped they could secure an apartment in Washington where she could live for a portion of each year, with or without him. In the meantime, she set out to make the farm more habitable. She bought curtains in gold silk, a new General Electric refrigerator, and a new stove. As spring advanced, she grew increasingly unhappy about the lack of progress both in finding the Washington pied-à-terre and in fixing up the farmhouse. She wrote to Martha, “So far I can’t get anything done that I want in the house but about 8 or 10 men [are] working on stone fences, beautifying his fields, picking up rocks, hauling, etc. It makes me feel like ‘throwing up the sponge’ and quitting the whole d—business.”

On May 23, 1938, in another letter to her daughter, she wrote, “Wish I did have a home—Washington instead of Chicago. It would be lovely.”

Four days later, Mrs. Dodd was dead. On the morning of May 28, 1938, she failed to join Dodd for breakfast, as was her custom. They kept separate bedrooms. He went to check on her. “It was the greatest shock that ever came to me,” he wrote. She died of heart failure in her bed, with no advance warning of trouble. “She was only sixty-two years old, and I was sixty-eight,” Dodd wrote in his diary. “But there she lay, stone dead, and there was no help for it; and I was so surprised and sad I could hardly decide what to do.”

Martha attributed her mother’s death to “the strain and terror of life” in Berlin. On the day of the funeral Martha pinned roses to her mother’s burial dress and wore matching roses in her own hair. Now, for only the second time, Martha saw tears in her father’s eyes.

Suddenly the farm at Round Hill was not so much a place of rest and peace as one of melancholy. Dodd’s sorrow and loneliness took a toll on his already fragile health, but still he pressed on and gave lectures around the country, in Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, always reprising the same themes—that Hitler and Nazism posed a great risk to the world, that a European war was inevitable, and that once war began the United States would find it impossible to remain aloof. One lecture drew an audience of seven thousand people. In a June 10, 1938, speech in Boston, at the Harvard Club—that den of privilege—Dodd talked of Hitler’s hatred of Jews and warned that his true intent was “to kill them all.”

Five months later, on November 9 and 10, came Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom that convulsed Germany and at last drove Roosevelt to issue a public condemnation. He told reporters he “could scarcely believe that such a thing could occur in twentieth century civilization.”

On November 30, Sigrid Schultz wrote to Dodd from Berlin. “My hunch is that you have lots of chances to say or think ‘didn’t I say so beforehand?’ Not that it is such a great consolation to have been right when the world seems divided between ruthless Vandals and decent people unable to cope with them. We were witnesses when much of the wrecking and looting occurred and yet there are times when you wonder whether what you actually saw was really true—there is a nightmarish quality around the place, even surpassing the oppressiveness of June 30.”

A STRANGE EPISODE SIDETRACKED DODD. On December 5, 1938, as he was driving to a speaking engagement in McKinney, Virginia, his car struck a four-year-old black girl named Gloria Grimes. The impact caused significant injury, including an apparent concussion. Dodd did not stop. “It was not my fault,” he later explained to a reporter. “The youngster ran into the path of my automobile about thirty feet ahead. I put on the brakes, turned the car and drove on because I thought the child had escaped.” He made things worse by seeming to be insensitive when, in a letter to the girl’s mother, he added, “Besides, I did not want the newspapers all over the country to publish a story about the accident. You know how newspapers love to exaggerate things of this sort.”

He was indicted, but on the day his trial was to begin, March 2, 1939, he changed his plea to guilty. His friend, Judge Moore, sat beside him, as did Martha. The court fined him $250 but did not sentence him to jail, citing his poor health and the fact he had paid $1,100 in medical costs for the child, who by now was, reportedly, nearly recovered. He lost his driving privileges and his right to vote, an especially poignant loss for so ardent a believer in democracy.

Shattered by the accident, disillusioned by his experience as ambassador, and worn down by declining health, Dodd retreated to his farm. His health worsened. He was diagnosed as suffering from a neurological syndrome called bulbar palsy, a slow, progressive paralysis of the muscles of the throat. In July 1939 he was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City for minor abdominal surgery, but before the operation took place he contracted bronchial pneumonia, a frequent complication of bulbar palsy. He became gravely ill. As he lay near death, he was taunted from afar by the Nazis.

A front-page article in Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff said Dodd was in a “Jewish clinic.” The headline stated: “End of notorious anti-German agitator Dodd.”

The writer spat a puerile brand of malice typical of Der Angriff. “The 70-year-old man who was one of the strangest diplomats who ever existed is now back among those whom he served for 20 years—the activist war-mongering Jews.” The article called Dodd a “small, dry, nervous, pedantic man … whose appearance at diplomatic and social functions inevitably called forth yawning boredom.”

It took note of Dodd’s campaign to warn of Hitler’s ambitions. “After returning to the United States, Dodd expressed himself in the most irresponsible and shameless fashion over the German Reich, whose officials had for four years, with almost superhuman generosity, overlooked his and his family’s scandalous affairs, faux pas and political indiscretions.”

Dodd emerged from the hospital and retired to his farm, where he continued to nurture the hope that he would have time to finish the remaining volumes of his Old South. The governor of Virginia restored his right to vote, explaining that at the time of the accident Dodd was “ill and not entirely responsible.”

In September 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland and sparked war in Europe. On September 18, Dodd wrote to Roosevelt that it could have been avoided if “the democracies in Europe” had simply acted together to stop Hitler, as he always had urged. “If they had co-operated,” Dodd wrote, “they would have succeeded. Now it is too late.”

By fall, Dodd was confined to bed, able to communicate only with a pad and pencil. He endured this condition for several more months, until early February 1940, when he suffered another round of pneumonia. He died in his bed at his farm on February 9, 1940, at 3:10 p.m., with Martha and Bill Jr. at his side, his life work—his Old South—anything but finished. He was buried two days later on the farm, with Carl Sandburg serving as an honorary pallbearer.

Five years later, during the final assault on Berlin, a Russian shell scored a direct hit on a stable at the western end of the Tiergarten. The adjacent Kurfürstendamm, once one of Berlin’s prime shopping and entertainment streets, now became a stage for the utterly macabre—horses, those happiest creatures of Nazi Germany, tearing wildly down the street with manes and tales aflame.

HOW DODD’S COUNTRYMEN JUDGED his career as ambassador seemed to depend in large part on which side of the Atlantic they happened to be standing.

To the isolationists, he was needlessly provocative; to his opponents in the State Department, he was a maverick who complained too much and failed to uphold the standards of the Pretty Good Club. Roosevelt, in a letter to Bill Jr., was maddeningly noncommittal. “Knowing his passion for historical truth and his rare ability to illuminate the meanings of history,” Roosevelt wrote, “his passing is a real loss to the nation.”

To those who knew Dodd in Berlin and who witnessed firsthand the oppression and terror of Hitler’s government, he would always be a hero. Sigrid Schultz called Dodd “the best ambassador we had in Germany” and revered his willingness to stand up for American ideals even against the opposition of his own government. She wrote: “Washington failed to give him the support due an ambassador in Nazi Germany, partly because too many of the men in the State Department were passionately fond of the Germans and because too many of the more influential businessmen of our country believed that one ‘could do business with Hitler.’ ” Rabbi Wise wrote in his memoir, Challenging Years, “Dodd was years ahead of the State Department in his grasp of the political as well as of the moral implications of Hitlerism and paid the penalty of such understanding by being virtually removed from office for having the decency and the courage alone among ambassadors to decline to attend the annual Nuremberg celebration, which was a glorification of Hitler.”

Late in life even Messersmith applauded Dodd’s clarity of vision. “I often think that there were very few men who realized what was happening in Germany more thoroughly than he did, and certainly there were very few men who realized the implications for the rest of Europe and for us and for the whole world of what was happening in the country more than he did.”

The highest praise came from Thomas Wolfe, who during a visit to Germany in the spring of 1935 engaged in a brief affair with Martha. He wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, that Ambassador Dodd had helped conjure in him “a renewed pride and faith in America and a belief that somehow our great future still remains.” The Dodds’ house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a, he told Perkins, “has been a free and fearless harbor for people of all opinions, and people who live and walk in terror have been able to draw their breath there without fear, and to speak their minds. This I know to be true, and further, the dry, plain, homely unconcern with which the Ambassador observes all the pomp and glitter and decorations and the tramp of marching men would do your heart good to see.”

Dodd’s successor was Hugh Wilson, a diplomat of the old-fashioned mode that Dodd long had railed against. It was Wilson, in fact, who had first described the foreign service as “a pretty good club.” Wilson’s maxim, coined by Talleyrand before him, was not exactly stirring: “Above all, not too much zeal.” As ambassador, Wilson sought to emphasize the positive aspects of Nazi Germany and carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement. He promised Germany’s new foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that if war began in Europe he would do all he could to keep America out. Wilson accused the American press of being “Jewish controlled” and of singing a “hymn of hate while efforts are made over here to build a better future.” He praised Hitler as “the man who has pulled his people from moral and economic despair into the state of pride and evident prosperity they now enjoyed.” He particularly admired the Nazi “Strength through Joy” program, which provided all German workers with no-expense vacations and other entertainments. Wilson saw it as a powerful tool for helping Germany resist communist inroads and suppressing workers’ demands for higher wages—money that workers would squander on “idiotic things as a rule.” He saw this approach as one that “is going to be beneficial to the world at large.”

William Bullitt, in a letter from Paris dated December 7, 1937, praised Roosevelt for choosing Wilson, stating, “I do think that the chances for peace in Europe are increased definitely by your appointment of Hugh to Berlin, and I thank you profoundly.”

In the end, of course, neither Dodd’s nor Wilson’s approach mattered very much. As Hitler consolidated his power and cowed his public, only some extreme gesture of American disapproval could have had any effect, perhaps the “forcible intervention” suggested by George Messersmith in September 1933. Such an act, however, would have been politically unthinkable with America succumbing more and more to the fantasy that it could avoid involvement in the squabbles of Europe. “But history,” wrote Dodd’s friend Claude Bowers, ambassador to Spain and later Chile, “will record that in a period when the forces of tyranny were mobilizing for the extermination of liberty and democracy everywhere, when a mistaken policy of ‘appeasement’ was stocking the arsenals of despotism, and when in many high social, and some political, circles, fascism was a fad and democracy anathema, he stood foursquare for our democratic way of life, fought the good fight and kept the faith, and when death touched him his flag was flying still.”

And indeed one has to wonder: For Goebbels’s Der Angriff to attack Dodd as he lay prostrate in a hospital bed, was he really so ineffectual as his enemies believed? In the end, Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.

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