Dodd: Father's Nuremberg Service Forged My Values
At Chris Dodd’s Iowa City appearance Friday, he spoke more about his father than himself, using his father’s service as the number two prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials to focus on the importance of the Constitution and the rule of law.
Larry Baker, an author and former Iowa City council member, asked the last question and said he had agreed with every word Dodd had said. But in that case, asked Baker, why aren’t George Bush and Dick Cheney being impeached?
“I won’t argue the substance,” said Dodd “But Having been through it, it takes all of the oxygen out of the room. To be very practical, the most important thing is to elect a new administration.” Dodd predicted that a focus on impeachment would lead to Democratic defeat.
Dodd spoke at Iowa City’s famous Prairie Lights book store, discussing “Letters From Nuremberg,” a book he wrote based on the letters his father, Thomas Dodd, wrote home to his mother during the trial of Nazi war criminals.
Before Nuremberg, Thomas Dodd was an early FBI agent. He later worked for the Justice Department trying Southern civil rights cases. The elder Dodd was originally assigned to Nuremberg for a two-week stint, which eventually grew to the 15-month duration of the trial. After Nuremberg, Thomas Dodd served two terms in the Senate
Chris Dodd says he didn’t know his father’s daily letters home from Germany, which he called “contemporaneous first draft of history,” existed until he just a few years ago. Before reading the letters, Dodd organized them chronologically
“These letters are epistles to our generation about the rule of law,” said Dodd. The principles are the same. You cannot tailor your principles to the facts of the day.” Giving up our rights for the perception of safety is fundamentally flawed, he said, and in one of only a few direct references to his campaign he added, “one of my reasons to put my name forward for President was to fight for these rights.” He said too many Democrats have not done that today.
Dodd noted that Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, called the trials “the most significant tribute power ever gave to reason.” Contemporary history gives the Nuremberg trials a place of honor. Dodd argued they were the basis for the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, the World Court, and the United Nations and gave America a moral high ground we lack today.
But Dodd said the trials were “very presumptuous at the time”, unpopular with the American public, and opposed by most of the Supreme Court other than Jackson. Winston Churchill argued for summary executions, the Russians wanted a kangaroo court show trial, and even top defendant Hermann Goering argued that the Nazis had done little different from previous wartime regimes.
Senator Thomas Dodd
Thomas Dodd felt differently. Reading from the letters, the younger Dodd described a dramatic courtroom scene where his father displayed a cloth covered table, and built up suspense over the object hidden on it for minute after minute until a young office pulled away the cloth to reveal… a shrunken human head that the commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp had kept on his desk. As a paperweight. “It wasn’t just routine acts of violence,” Chris Dodd said, “and that changed the tenor of the trial.”
“I would never have believed that men would be so evil,” Thomas Dodd wrote in one of the letters. “Men will read of it for a thousand years in amazement, and wonder how it ever happened.”
“Why would you give the worst violators of human rights in history a trial, when they never did that for their victims?” Chris Dodd asked rhetorically. “Because we are different, we stand up for the rule of law.”
Striking more personal notes, Dodd called letter writing a lost art and said his father set the bar very high. He regrets that his mother’s letters from that time were never found. “They never threw anything out,” he said, and he believes they were destroyed in a fire at a storage unit.
Matters turned back to the 21st century and Dodd’s campaign during question and answers, as Dodd cited George Bush’s remark that the Constitution “ is only a piece of paper.” He said the Geneva Convention is critical because it protects our own troops in harm’s way, and our current policies put them in danger. “The worst info you get is the info you get from torture. There’s no better witness to that than John McCain,” he said. The world looks at the Nuremberg trials as a high point of American moral leadership, in contrast that to Abu Gharib and Guantanamo.
Dodd argues, in a sense that civil liberties and the rule of law are literally in his blood. “All of you have been asking me a question that you don’t articulate. Who are you? What are your beliefs? What’s my DNA in a sense? I am a product of my upbringing. My father talked about Nuremberg to his six children endlessly. These views on human rights and the Constitution come from my upbringing, not from a poll.”
Dodd answers questions while signing a book for Robin Roseman of Iowa City.
Questions on other matters popped up as Dodd autographed copies of the book. A query on global warming prompted congratulations to Al Gore on the Nobel Peace Prize and an outline of the Dodd energy plan. “Al Gore and Bill Bradley both say our energy plan is the boldest and most honest of all the candidates,” said Dodd, making a rare these days reference to Gore’s nearly forgotten 2000 rival for the nomination. “Taxing polluters is the only way I know how to deal with this. We borrow a billion dollars a day to buy foreign oil,” and a lot of that goes to hostile nations, he said. Dodd argued his carbon tax would amount to about 10 cents a gallon, and will raise $50 billion.
A couple in line asked the “notch baby” question of Social Security benefits for those born from 1917 to 1922. Dodd said action was unlikely and there have never been more than 40 votes in support of action. The notch baby question dominated 1988 candidate forums, when the notch babies were aged 65 to 70. Now the notch babies who are still around are 85 to 90, and the question rarely surfaces.
"I'm sold," said Dale Shultz, a former Iowa City school board member who was waiting the the book line of about 50 and ready to back Dodd. Longtime local Democratic activist Gertrude MacQueen was also impressed with Dodd, but leaning to another candidate.
I catch Dodd at the end of the line and check if he’s hearing anything on the sump in Iowa about his decision to stay on the Michigan ballot. Not really, says Dodd, and he feels he’s in keeping with the early state pledge he signed, noting that it was the Michigan Democrats, not himself, who placed his name on the ballot. “I haven’t been to Michigan in three years and I’m not going there.”
I ask Dodd how his father would want to be remembered –- as a Senator, for Nuremberg, or as the father of a president? Dodd laughs at the last and cites his father’s remarks from one of the letters. “Nothing I do will ever be really as important as this,” wrote the then 38-year-old Thomas Dodd in 1946. “Someday the boys will be proud of it.” Six decades later, his son clearly was.