Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Democrat & Diplomat: The Life of William E. Dodd, by Robert Dallek


Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199931729, November 2012

This biography of William E. Dodd, American Ambassador to Germany during the years leading up to the start of World War II, was originally published in 1968. As such, it reflects not only the era it's about, but also the era its author grew up in. Consequently, there are times when commentary on race relations in he US will read oddly and be a bit shocking to modern sensibilities.

That gave me pause at certain points. However, while it's well to bear such limitations in mind, this is overall an excellent book.

William E. Dodd, born a few years after the end of the Civil War, was the son of a struggling farmer who got by with help from wealthier relatives. Those same relatives encouraged and supported young William's education, which opened the path for him to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and then to further education in Germany, to study with the then most respected scholars of history in the world. Returning to the US, and making a fairly humble start at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, his dedication to facts and serious research, as well as his willingness to fearlessly attack Confederate sacred cows in the course of honestly assessing the South's role in US history, built up his reputation as an historian. As he moves on to the University of Chicago, greater prominence, and greater influence, he also becomes more deeply and actively involved in politics. That involvement is as a Democrat and a Progressive. (Those who insist on talking about "the Democrat party" rather than the Democratic party, will be appalled to discover that that same party, for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, was routinely referred to as "the Democracy.")

Dodd is an active, if often frustrated, supporter of Woodrow Wilson, through the trials of the years leading up to and encompassing World War I. Remaining active and connected through the twenties and then the Depression, he's there, a known and respected quantity, when Franklin Roosevelt is having difficulty finding any qualified man willing to take on the job of Ambassador to Germany in 1933. It's here that we get to the heart of the book, which everything prior is preparation for. In his sixties, with his health starting to decline, Dodd takes his wife and two children to Germany, where Adolph Hitler has recently become Chancellor. Arriving full of the conviction that reasonable men can find ways to resolve difficulties, but also deeply committed to the principles of progressive democracy, Dodd is somewhat quicker than many of his professional diplomatic colleagues to recognize that something truly foul is afoot in Hitler's Germany. Dodd's strengths and weaknesses are all on display here, as mutual misunderstanding between him and the State Department's foreign service professionals creates conflict and limits his influence and effectiveness, while his astute attention to events, nuances, and all available information made him an invaluable observer and source of information and understanding of events in Germany for Roosevelt. It's possible, though by no means certain, that had the influence of America First isolationism been weaker, he might have changed the course of events.

This is not a book without flaws, but it's a fascinating look at American and world history during a crucial era.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.