Critics of Obama on the left often express the wish that he should abandon his efforts to find common ground with his opponents and instead do what F.D.R. had done – attack them mercilessly.
In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson describes a situation where F.D.R. caved in more cravenly than Obama has ever done.
The book deals with the experience of Ambassador W.E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha, in Berlin during the Hitler regime. Dodd, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago close to retirement age when he was appointed, was a Jeffersonian democrat and a biographer of Woodrow Wilson. At first he was willing to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. His daughter went further. She was so impressed by the Nazis that she had an affair with, among others, the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, who later broke with them and testified in Nuremberg against them. The terrific book is about the gradual eye-opening of father and daughter.
The State Department had been unenthusiastic about Dodd’s appointment on the grounds that he was an inexperienced outsider and, as an academic, had the wrong training. But Roosevelt respected Dodd and ignored the objections. He told Dodd he wanted an American liberal in Berlin as a standing example.
During his ambassadorship, his relations with F.D.R. remained excellent. But he had chronic difficulties with officials in the State Department who did not like his modest style and thought that his growing distaste of the Nazi leaders, which he could not conceal, especially after the massacre, the Röhm Putsch of June 30, 1934, was incompatible with the duties of ambassador.
By 1937, Dodd’s critics won and, for his own puzzling reasons, F.D.R. abandoned him. Dodd, exhausted and in failing health, was ready to resign anyway.
His successor was Hugh Wilson, a diplomat of the old-fashioned mode that Dodd had long been railing against. Wilson carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement. He praised Hitler as “the man who has pulled his people from moral and economic despair into a state of pride and evident prosperity they now enjoyed.”
In July, 1939, Dodd died. Roosevelt wrote a letter of condolence to his son.
“Knowing his passion for historical truth and his rare ability to illuminate the meanings of history,” F.D.R. wrote, “his passing is a real loss to the nation.”
Not a word about his heroic service as an American liberal in Nazi Germany.