In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt named an obscure history professor, William E. Dodd, as ambassador to Germany. Dodd was a principled but prosaic man, whose gift to popular history was not his academic writings but the scandalous behavior of his attractive daughter. In Berlin, she slept with the enemy -- neither for God nor country but for the sheer fun of it.
It took the older Dodd just a brief time and Martha Dodd, his 25-year-old daughter, much longer to figure out that they were not dealing with the sort of country club anti-Semites they knew back in the States but with killers intent on wiping out a whole people. "We sort of don't like the Jews anyway," Martha told a friend. Lucky for her, she was in the right country.
The story of the Dodd family's time in Germany is grippingly told by Erik Larson in his "In the Garden of the Beasts." His is a novelistic approach to a rigorously nonfiction account of what the unfolding Nazi regime looked like to a dowdy historian and his family. The Dodds were plopped into one of history's great maelstroms, but while events moved fast -- Hitler consolidated power swiftly -- they nevertheless did so incrementally. No one announced the Holocaust. It began the random day a Nazi goon knocked a Jew off the sidewalk.
Dodd's tenure in Berlin was marked by repeated entreaties to his bosses back at the State Department to allow him to make one sort of protest or another. Invariably, this was denied. The State Department back then was a redoubt of snooty anti-Semites who thought, within reason of course, that Hitler had a point about the Jews. State also recognized that Washington had little leverage and, anyway, what Hitler was doing to his Jews and others was his own business. America had no vital national interest at stake.
I emphasize those words because they have great currency at the moment. I heard them used last week by Jon Huntsman, who explained to journalists gathered at the New York headquarters of the newly launched Bloomberg View why he had opposed the U.S. intervention in Libya. Huntsman, the proverbial one-eyed man in the Valley of the Blind (the Republican Party), is hardly alone in such thinking. It is shared not only by neo-isolationists to his right but by well-regarded internationalists such as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a Time magazine article earlier this month, Haass approvingly cited President Obama's call to "focus on nation-building here at home." No more wars of choice, he wrote -- only wars of necessity.
To hearken back to the Nazi era might seem extreme since there have been few regimes like it in all of history. However, it did not start with Auschwitz but with the steady contraction of freedom and the application of violence, some of it seemingly spontaneous. As the situation worsened, the State Department stuck to its guns. Germany's internal policies represented no threat to the United States. In Dodd's hometown, Chicago, life went on -- even for Jews.
It is sickening to read Larson's account of State Department machinations to undercut the increasingly indignant Dodd and to keep him from speaking out. At the same time, it's instructive to note that the Nazis paid attention to their image in the United States. They never abandoned their penchant for violence, but early on they sometimes moderated it and always lied about it. Much of Foggy Bottom -- there were some dissenters -- bought it all.
Libya under Moammar Gadhafi was not Germany under Adolf Hitler. But lives were at stake, mass murder was threatened and the man doing the threatening was capable of unspeakable acts of terrorism. Did any of this have anything to do with our vital national interests? Not really. But we had the wherewithal to avert the killing. That gave us the moral obligation to do so.
U.S. policymakers now grappling with the question of America's role in the world ought to look to the past as well as the future. We were once an uncaring nation, not selfish by any means, but tone-deaf to the cries of victims elsewhere. We defined out national interests narrowly and dismissed morality as the preoccupation of amateurs or special-interest pleaders. Larson's book is instructive on this score. Martha Dodd may have slept with the enemy, but, in moral terms, she was no worse than the country she represented. It just slept.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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