The letters of a complicated man

 

For the past couple of weeks, I have been driving to 1945, as I listen to the audio version of Christopher Dodd’s Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice. First published in 2007, the book (cowritten by Lary Bloom) is comprised of the correspondence of Thomas Dodd, who was one of the U.S. prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Dodd, junior and senior, is a familiar name in these parts. A native of Norwich, Conn., Thomas Dodd had a storied career that included a brief stint in the FBI and service in the U.S. Senate. Norwich’s AAA baseball stadium is named after him, and his son Christopher followed in his footsteps as a U.S. senator from 1981 to 2011.

In some ways, the book is an attempt to reclaim Dodd’s legacy after his career ended in ignominy. Accused of appropriating campaign finance funds for personal use, he was censured by his colleagues in 1967. When the Democratic party refused to endorse him for re-election, he ran as an independent in 1970, but lost his seat. He died suddenly of a heart attack less than a year later, at age 64.

It is easy to see why the Dodd family would want to salvage his reputation. When Dodd died, his censure and defeat were still fresh news, and the New York Times obituary was almost entirely devoted to his Senate career and the accusations of cronyism and misuse of funds. His triumph at Nuremberg – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was consigned to one paragraph on an inside page.

The letters he wrote home from July 1945, when he flew to England to begin work on the trial, to September 1946 are a fascinating, day-by-day look at the struggle to bring Nazi leaders to justice. But they are far more than that.

In his correspondence, Tom Dodd is revealed as a complicated man whose devotion to his wife and family was often at odds with his duty to country. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he was an ambitious lawyer already looking ahead to parlaying this assignment into a legal and political career.

The letters exist on two levels, and Dodd was aware of this as he wrote: they are first and foremost love letters to his wife, Grace, and simultaneously a recording of historic events as they unfolded. So Tom Dodd wrote both for his wife’s ears, and history’s.

Each of the letters begins not with the conventional “Dear Grace” but “Grace, my dearest one,” or alternatively, “Grace, my loveliest one.” In the very first letter, he paints a picture of her face as she waves him goodbye from a train platform in New York, an image he calls upon again and again to get him through his dreary days interrogating Nazis and negotiating Army politics.

Dodd’s wife, the former Grace Murphy, also was a local girl. From Westerly, Rhode Island, she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. (her husband was a graduate of Providence College and Yale Law School). They married in 1934. When Tom left on his Nuremberg assignment, they were living in Lebanon, Conn., with their five children – Thomas Jr., Carolyn, Jeremy, Martha, and Christopher, who was a little over a year old when his father left for Nuremberg (a sixth child, Nicholas, was born after he returned).

Although they had been married 11 years in 1945, Tom Dodd writes to Grace like a besotted newlywed. She is the only woman he could ever love; he cannot bear to be apart from her; he will cut this assignment short just to be with her, and the children. The highlight of his day is writing to her.

Her responses are not included in the volume, if they survive, but we get hints of them from his letters. It takes weeks for her first letters to reach Dodd, who travels to France before arriving in Nuremberg. When they do arrive, he finds Grace’s letters wonderful but short; several times he asks plaintively if she won’t write on both sides of the stationery. Grace comes across as a good humored, capable woman who surely misses her husband but is hardly sitting at home pining away for him – she gets her hair done and attends cocktail parties in New York City, for example, excursions he encourages bravely but not too convincingly.

Dodd tries to reassert his role as man of the house. It comes out that instead of leaving her access to his bank account, he expects her to mail him checks overseas, which he will sign and return to her by post. This clearly is unworkable, and eventually he gives in and suggests she forge his signature when necessary. It is good for a wife, he opines, to have to pay the bills once in a while to understand the responsibilities on a husband’s shoulders. Several times, he admonishes her not to pay the handyman until he has painted all the window sills and installed the storm windows.

Thinking of Grace Dodd at home with five children and a large house, with bills to pay and no ready access to the family’s savings, one can only speculate at her reaction to this.

Dodd was, of course, a man of his time, and the gender roles in his marriage were typical for the 1940s. It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.

But Dodd was a man of contradictions: He despised anti-Semitism, but complained that too many Jews were on the legal team (he feared this would make the trial seem unfair). He claimed to want no role in the trial itself, content to do the interrogations, but he denounced the Army brass for sidelining him. Already, he saw the high-profile case as a stepping-stone.

Yet: Dodd was a brilliant jurist whose systematic interrogations, moral outrage and trial experience helped secure the 19 convictions (three defendants were acquitted). He was able to cut through the dry documents to show the human toll of genocide, at one point brandishing the shrunken head of a murdered prisoner that had been used as a paperweight by the commandant at Buchenwald.

In this case, the New York Times got it wrong. Although the Senate censure of Dodd led to tighter campaign finance laws, his real legacy was secured in the days after World War II, when he helped hold war criminals to account and proved that the rule of law can triumph over despotism. Reading his letters all these decades later, one admires him as a good husband, a principled lawyer, and a decent man. His subsequent failings make him human, but do not undo his finest hour in Nuremberg.

 

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One response to “The letters of a complicated man

  1. Liked the post. Especially, “It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.”

    How many of our problems would vanish like fog if we all lived this way?

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