William E. Dodd (1869-1940): History
Dodd's philosophy of history was rooted in the South of his youth. Coming to the University of Chicago after several years of teaching in Virginia, Dodd made his courses and seminars a significant center for the study of Southern history. In articles, books, and speeches, Dodd brought the economic perspectives of the "New History" to bear on the South and the Civil War, arguing that the Southern planter elite had been responsible for the catastrophe of war and the destruction of the culture of the Old South. One of the first historians to examine the South from a modern perspective, Dodd also trained an important group of graduate students, Frank L. Owsley and Avery O. Craven among them, who were to form a new generation of Southern historians.
As a supporter of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and an advisor to the Wilson administration in planning the post-World War I peace conference, Dodd became involved in the highest levels of national and international policy. It was Dodd's contacts with Wilson's inner circle that brought him to the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt and persuaded the president to name him the American ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933. Roosevelt clearly hoped that Dodd's German academic degree and scholarly credentials would serve as a moderating influence on the Hitler regime, which had seized power only five months before. For Dodd, however, the appointment was an unparalleled opportunity to fulfill the Wilsonian ideal of international cooperation.
Dodd's ambassadorial appointment caught many observers by surprise. As Max Lerner wrote:
If the record of our times were not so keyed to the tragic, it might be read as first-rate ironic comedy. Here was a Germany in which there had just come to dominance a power-drunk fanatic, a ruthless activist who knew little of history and hated democracy; and the man we sent to him to represent American interests was a retiring scholar... who, in the character of his democracy, was perhaps the last pure Jeffersonian to be found in America.
While Dodd discharged his
duties with diplomatic correctness, he did not hesitate to express his
own revulsion for Nazi ideology: he refused to accompany the diplomatic
corps to Nazi party rallies in Nuremburg and delivered pointed lectures
to German audiences on the painful American historical experience with
freedom and slavery. In the end, he not only angered the Nazis, but annoyed
his superiors in the State Department, who regarded his principled integrity
as an obstacle to the supple operation of American foreign policy. Dodd
returned to his farm in the Blue Ridge of Virginia in broken health but
with his principles and idealism intact: a conviction that an understanding
of history provided the only basis for rational public policy, and a belief
in the transcendent value of the democratic ideal.