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THE STRANGE CASE OF MARTHA DODD

Jim Burns

 

 

Political commitment, usually of a left-wing kind, was almost essential for many writers in the 1930s. The general economic situation, the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and other factors, combined to push poets and novelists in the direction of Moscow, or at least the communist parties in their own countries. The literary record of the infatuation with communism is well-documented, and so are the after effects as writers were disillusioned and drifted away from communist ideal or stuck with them and sometimes found that their writing suffered as they were expected to tailor their work to the current orthodoxies. Some even gave up writing altogether and turned to political activities. The case of Martha Dodd is especially intriguing, her commitment not only shaping her literary work but also leading her into espionage.

Martha Dodd was born in 1908, the daughter of middle-class parents. Her father was in charge of the history department at Chicago University and also owned a farm in Virginia. Martha was well-educated, though she had never lived apart from her family other than when she spent a few months at a finishing school, in the late-1920s she toured Europe with her mother, visiting France, Germany, and other countries, but doesn't appear to have taken much notice of the political events of the period. At home, in Chicago, she had a job as an assistant literary editor for the Chicago Tribune and she wrote short stories and had a busy social life. An attractive woman, she was reputed to have had many lovers, including the writers Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe, and she had an unhappy, short-lived marriage to a rich banker. But she wasn't noted for any kind of extreme political interests.

In 1933 her father was asked by President Roosevelt to be the American Ambassador to Berlin. He took his family with him and Martha soon began to mix with American and other newspapermen in the city and to enjoy its nightlife. Initially, she was impressed by the new Germany and she got to know some of the leading Nazis and even met Hitler. She had an affair with Rudolf Diels, then head of the Gestapo, and another with a high-ranking German army officer. But she was beginning to register what was really happening in terms of the oppression of the Jews, communists, trade unionists, and anyone else not acceptable to Nazi ideology. She visited Russia and was impressed by what she saw there and, perhaps most important of all, she met and fell in love with Boris Vinogradov, a Russian diplomat (and probably an NKVD agent) based in Berlin. It was Vinogradov who recruited her for the Soviet spy system, her position in the American Embassy where she acted as an assistant to her father, giving her access to highly confidential documents. Files now held by the KGB record that Martha was, by 1935, "a convinced partisan of the Communist Party and the USSR," and that she was passing information to the Russians. The depth of her involvement with Vinogradov is indicated by the fact that, in 1936, they asked Moscow for permission to marry but were turned down. There is evidence to suggest that Martha was still involved in liaisons with Nazis, probably so that she could obtain information which might be of interest to the Russians.

Vinogradov was transferred from Berlin but Martha kept in touch with him (her love letters are in the KGB archives) and they still hoped to marry. She also made it plain to her contacts in Soviet intelligence that she was willing to follow all their instructions. The KGB archives contain documents which show that she was prepared to use her situation as daughter of the American Ambassador to obtain information of interest to Russia. The NKVD considered her of enough importance to inform Stalin of the work she was doing.

What of Martha Dodd's writing, which at one time had been of key importance to her? Her activities in Berlin hadn't left much space for short stories, though she did publish a few in magazines. The May 1935 issue of Story, a leading outlet of the time, contained her "Poet's Wife," a rhapsodic account of a young woman's disastrous marriage to a feckless poet. It's well-written, and beneath the lush prose lies an ironic appraisal of how the woman's romantic ideas come up against the realities of the poet's impoverished existence. But there's nothing political in the story, though it can be seen as highlighting the pretensions of both bourgeois and bohemian life. Another story, "Death in Tiflis," published in Penguin Parade in 1939, does have a broader social content. Set in Russia in the 1930s it concerns an American woman who is touring Georgia and encounters a young American couple. The man is a foreign specialist in a factory just outside Moscow and is there because he couldn't find work in America and "he liked Russia, was interested in the people and in how things were working out." The girl's parents had opposed their marriage: They were rich and didn't like the idea of Russia." But they'd gone ahead, and though they were poor they were happy taking part in what they saw as a brave new experiment. The man has contracted some sort of disease, however, and the local doctors can do nothing for him. He dies and the girl goes back to Moscow, leaving the narrator thinking: "Half her life had been taken away from her and there was never a note of bitterness or resentment. I thought of every minute I had spent with her, of her voice and rapt eyes, her words of love and belief, like fire petals on her tongue." The idealism and fervour of the period are evoked by these words, though the dominant tone of the story is personal rather than political.

Martha returned to America with her family in December 1937, and the NKVD asked their agents in New York to make contact with her. Curiously, despite her love for Boris Vinogradov, she soon met and married a millionaire, Alfred Stern, and it was reported to Moscow: "She lives in a rich apartment on 57th Street, has two servants, a driver, and a personal secretary." Her husband was soon persuaded to become an active communist, and Martha was persistent in her attempts to get the Russians to use them both for secret work. She continued her literary activities by producing a memoir of her time in Berlin which was published in 1939 under the title, Through Embassy Eyes. And in 1941, she and her brother (who Martha had recruited to work for the Russians) were the editors of their father's diaries.

Her usefulness to the NKVD was reduced once she returned to America and had no direct access to information and documents. But they continued to cultivate her, partly because her range of contacts was wide and included powerful figures in the government, and partly because she was enthusiastic about recommending others who might possibly be persuaded to help the Russians. Also, as a journalist and high-powered hostess, she could help promote a favourable view of the USSR and of communist policies. She and her husband were the embodiment of what would later be called 'radical chic,' and at their apartment in New York and country house in Connecticut they played host to left-wing sympathisers like Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, Paul Robeson, Marc Blitzstein, along with Russian diplomats. Alfred Stern was asked to invest a large sum of money in a music publishing company run by a strange character named Boris Moross, a minor Hollywood producer and music director who was also a Russian agent. The company was to act as a front for Soviet agents in the USA.

Sowing The Wind, Martha Dodd's anti-fascist novel, appeared in 1945 and drew heavily on her experiences and observations in Germany in the 1930s. It tells the story of Erich, an airman who served in the First World War, and his relationship with the Nazis. He dislikes their methods but won't oppose them, claiming that he is simply a patriotic German whose concern is the defence of- his country. Politics, he says, is for others, but he accepts Nazi patronage so that he can continue with his career in the air force and is slowly sucked into a corrupt world and, in the end, betrays his family and friends and becomes like all the other opportunists clustered around the Nazi leaders. The action covers the period from 1933 to the invasion of Russia, and the cast of characters includes foreign correspondents, top-ranking Nazis, German businessmen who support Hitler, members of the 'underground' opposing him, and various Jews who know that their days are numbered and react in different ways. There are times when the dialogue takes on some of the aspects of agit-prop, and in retrospect itís easy to be ironic about some of the things that are said. An anti-fascist sings the praises of the idea of the popular front, and this, of course, ties in neatly with what had been communist policy from 1935. But it avoids the question of what happened in Germany, where Hitler's rise to power was facilitated by the previous communist policy of non co-operation with social democrats and liberals, labelling them as 'social fascists,' and even, as in the Berlin transport strike of 1932, preferring to stand alongside the Nazis. On the other hand, Sowing The Wind does contain a couple of minor references which do sound a critical note, though they're in the words of people who are not committed to communism. One man refers to Russia as a dictatorship, and another, in a discussion about the comparable qualities of the world's airforces says: "But the Russians have very little for us to be afraid of despite their performance in Spain. They are ridden with bureaucratic politics and their purges have destroyed their morale and their best men." Martha Dodd was well aware of what happened in the purges, her lover Boris Vinogradov having disappeared in 1938.

The late-1940s saw Martha active in the campaign to establish a third party in American politics under the leadership of Henry Wallace. The Russians were keen to see this party succeed, Wallace being pro-Soviet and his staff infiltrated by communists and their sympathisers, but it failed disastrously at the polls. And she continued to ask the NKVD to give her more work to do, though they were reluctant to do so. Her high-profile as a pro-communist, and the increasing surveillance of people like her, meant that she was unlikely to be of much practical use. And by the early 1950s the pressure from the authorities was such that Martha Dodd and her husband went to live in Mexico, a move that more than a few American communists made to escape being called before one or other of the committees investigating subversive activities.

Her second novel, The Searching Light, appeared in 1955, and took as its main theme the loyalty oaths which, in the late-1940s and early-1950s, became matters of contention in American universities. The story revolves around a Professor of English, a Milton specialist at a small university in one of the Eastern states. Following the dismissal of two junior members of staff because of alleged leftist leanings, there is an attempt to introduce a loyalty oath which is opposed by the Professor and some other academics. But the faculty is divided with many people willing to sign, and the dissenters are slowly isolated, and their ranks begin to thin as individuals come under various pressures, at home and at work, to conform. In the end the Professor and his remaining supporters lose their jobs, but are planning to fight the dismissals through the courts. The arguments for and against signing a loyalty oath are well presented, there is an adroit use of Milton's work, and of historical references, as might be expected of a novel about an academic community, and the different characters, though occasionally perhaps a little too typical for comfort, are mostly convincing. Leaving aside Martha Dodd's own political convictions, and the fact that the kind of purges that took place in America were mild compared to what happened in Russia, the book reads well and portrays a shabby period in the history of a democratic nation.

In 1957 Martha and her husband were indicted on espionage charges and, fearing extradition from Mexico, fled to Prague, using passports obtained by bribing an official at the Paraguayan Embassy in Mexico City. When they reached Prague they asked for permission to live in Russia but, after a short stay there, they returned to the Czech capital. KGB records say they spent some years in Cuba in the 1950s and then returned again to Prague in 1970. It would appear that they attempted to negotiate a return to America but their request for immunity from prosecution or imprisonment was rejected, and they spent the rest of their lives in Prague. Martha worked as a translator of American books and articles and died in 1990.

It's virtually impossible to know what makes an individual get involved in activities inimical to the interests of their own country. Martha Dodd had seen enough in Germany in the 1930s to make her hate fascism and she may genuinely have felt that communism was then the only real alternative, the democracies such as America, France, and Britain, not opposing the rise of Hitler and his kind. But her convictions led her into accepting communist machinations that many others found unacceptable. She obviously didn't think that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact was unpalatable, nor do the Krushchev revelations in the early 1950s seem to have altered her views. There was, perhaps, some deep psychological reason why she was prepared to spy for Russia and, by doing so, betray her father's trust. And there was certainly something curious about her need to involve others in what she was doing. It did occur to me that, for all her travelling and experiences, she may have been naive about the real world of politics, but then I came across something that Hilton Kramer wrote in an essay about the novelist Josephine Herbst, and I began to wonder how much it could also be applied to Martha Dodd: "It is in the nature of Stalinism for its adherents to make a certain kind of lying - and not only to others, but first of all to themselves - a fundamental part of their lives. It is always a mistake to assume that Stalinists do not know the truth about the political reality they espouse. If they don't know the truth (or all of it) one day, they know it the next, and it makes absolutely no difference to them politically For their loyalty is to something other than the truth. And no historical enormity is so great, no personal humiliation or betrayal so extreme, no crime so heinous that it cannot be assimilated into the 'ideals' that govern the true Stalinist mind which is impervious alike to documentary evidence and moral discrimination."

Those are harsh words, and it has to be said that Kramer is a fervent anti-communist with a long history of involvement in American cultural wars, but it may be that he is close to the truth of explaining why Martha Dodd acted as she did.

 

NOTES

Martha Dodd's books are long out-of-print but copies of her novels do turn up in catalogues and second-hand bookshops. An English-language edition of Sowing the Wind was published in East Germany in 1960 by Seven Seas Books and is probably the easiest to find. The Searching Light was published by Citadel Press, New York, 1955.

Information about her espionage activities can be found in two books which use material that has come to light with the collapse of communism, together with other material from the Venona Project, the Soviet messages decoded by American Intelligence over the years but only recently made public. These are The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America - The Stalin Era by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, Random House, New York, 1999, and Venona:Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999.

To quote Oleg Gordievsky, writing in The Spectator about Nigel West's VenonaThe Greatest Secret of the Cold War, HarperCollins, London, 1999, the scale of Soviet espionage in the USA was "breathtaking." There are references to Martha Dodd and her husband in West's book.

The comment about Stalinism by Hilton Kramer is from an essay entitled "Who Was Josephine Herbst?" originally published in The New Criterion in 1984 and included in Kramer's The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1999.

One other item of interest is Philip Metcalfe's 1933 which draws heavily on Martha Dodd's Through Embassy Eyes and Ambassador Dodd's Diary, the book edited by Martha and her brother, to paint a picture of Germany during the year in question. Metcalfe's book was published by Black Swan, London, 1990, and is fascinating for what it says about Martha Dodd's initial reactions to the Nazis.