Not Wanting To Know

In a recent non-fiction book, In the Garden of Beasts, author Erik Larson recounts the story of William E. Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany from June of 1933 until December of 1937.  What is so surprising about the story is that it has not been told before, at least to my knowledge.  Within months of his posting to Berlin, Dodd was reporting on the beatings and detentions of American tourists by the Nazis, the beatings and torture of Germans who failed to salute storm troopers or who dated Jewish people, and other clear signs of a police state deteriorating into a world menace.  Yet, Dodd’s reports were mocked and derided by colleagues and superiors in the State Department in Washington, D.C., and he was chastised when he finally refused to meet with German officials because such meetings were a total charade.  In late 1937, he was forced to resign and was replaced by Hugh Wilson, who described Hitler as the “man who has pulled his people form moral and economic despair into the state of pride and evident prosperity.”  Dodd returned to the U.S. and toured widely, reporting on what he had witnessed in Germany.  Then his wife died, and he died in February 1940, well before Pearl Harbor.

It’s clear that the U.S. government knew for years of the atrocities of the Nazis, long before the attack on Poland and the outbreak of war and more than a decade before U.S. soldiers uncovered the horrors of the concentration camps. It’s also clear that they didn’t really want to know what was happening in Germany.

What’s most discouraging about this is that, almost 75 years after Dodd’s death, we still have a government – and a great number of citizens – who “don’t want to know.”  No one really wanted to know about genocide in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, or Ruanda, or Darfur.  No one really wanted to know about the financial disaster lurking in sub-prime mortgages.  No one really wants to know about the dangers of global warming… the list of denials and deniers is almost endless… and all of them had what they believed to be good reasons… and all of them were wrong.

You can’t fix a problem you don’t recognize or one whose existence you deny.  It may make you feel more comfortable… until it can’t be denied, until hundreds of thousands or millions have died, or the bombs are falling around you, or the storms get worse and worse…

So… what’s exactly so good about our not wanting to know, both individually and as a society?  That we don’t have to do anything… and we can secretly hope that it will miraculously go away or that someone else will deal with it?

8 thoughts on “Not Wanting To Know”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Since no one else is commenting, I thought I’d say, great points. I’d add re Dodd that I believe that this attitude was frequently held in the U.S. State Department at the time, and that another SD employee whose name escapes me who was supposed to be handling Jewish emigration and reports of the camps apparently continually downplayed them to Roosevelt and others.

    I believe, based on the little I have seen of attitudes at that time, that the upper reaches of the State Department at that time was populated more by upper-class WASPs who felt a strong connection with the British — rather than, say, the French. Like the British upper classes, they tended to go to the Civil Service as a matter of noblesse oblige — and the novelization of the British TV show Yes Minister makes it clear that one of the positive aspects of that approach was that it made sure that ignorant but cocksure short-term politicians would not do something stupid that harmed the nation’s long-term interest. The drawback was that the US diplomats inhaled many British upper-class attitudes, including some anti-Semitism and some infatuation with both Communism and Fascism. It may be stretching to say that this was the source of both Charles Lindbergh’s and Joseph Kennedy’s sympathy with Fascism before WWII, but I believe that there is some connection. I recently found some of the letters from my grandfather to my grandmother when he was traveling in Europe before the war as UnderSecretary of Commerce, I think, and there is a clear misunderstanding of what was going on.

    I will also add that I think we receive, almost subliminally, a couple of additional messages in our education. The first is, “it can’t happen here” or “it will all work itself out somehow, by technology or democracy or free markets”, the portrayal of things like the Civil War as impermanent detours in a steady story of American progress. The second is the belief that “nothing is impossible to those who try”, which can be helpful in achieving difficult tasks, but is positively harmful in things like computer programming, where failure to realize your solution scales at least exponentially with the amount of data ensures that you will sit there waiting for your program to finish until the cows come home.

    Anyway, as I said, great post. – w

  2. Mage says:

    There was certainly anti-semitism present in the US at that time. I once saw a photo of Al Capone’s mistress. She was standing at the head of a public pier in Chicago. Within the frame of the photo was a sign at the entrance to the pier that read “Gentiles Only”.

  3. Richard Hamilton says:

    The State Department also has a reputation for being more concerned with maintaining cordiality than with looking out for US interests in a manner that deals with other countries and their conduct as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. Some have gone so far as to say that some in the State Department identify more with the interests of the countries they interact with than with our own interests.

    The decision to confront a difficult problem directly is seldom made on the basis of whether the problem will get worse if ignored, but rather on the basis of short-term domestic political and economic considerations. Like the obsession by some in business with the quarterly report rather than the long term, this is a very mixed blessing.

    And yet…be careful what you ask for. Asking for a long-term view is a step in the direction of asking for control freaks to run amok. Avoiding a long-term view means letting some potential adversaries pursue what you ignore, and being too swayed by the conditions of the moment. Even alert observation is swayed by what is hoped or feared to be found. Anyone that’s certain they’re not corrupt almost certainly is. No good answers, move along!

    1. Wayne Kernochan says:

      @RH I suspect that this view of the State Department comes more from past politics than the facts on the ground. Because of my grandfather, I once considered a career in the Foreign Service. I was surprised to find, when I investigated it, that (a) almost never is a member of the Foreign Service appointed to be ambassador — instead, the appointments are predominantly political (e.g., fund raisers), occasionally from the domestic part of the State Department (Presidential “trouble-shooters”); (b) stints abroad are for relatively short terms (1-3 years then, if I remember correctly), with effectively no training in the language or customs of the host country except what you did yourself; (c) those serving in foreign embassies tended to live in an “American bubble”, eating at military PXs in Europe, in a common residential community elsewhere, with little travel or contact with residents of the country. Some of (b) and (c) was an artifact of the Cold War, I suspect, in order to limit outside contacts to the embassy spies who have been part of diplomacy since time immemorial. However, in a lot of cases it made no sense at all. France in the mid-70s was in no sense a hotbed of the Cold War, and yet tourists knew more about the country than State Department employees — and sometimes could speak French better.

      My impression, also, is that since WW II the influence of the State Department on US policy has been almost steadily on the wane. The result, whatever the flaws of the State Department, has been a steadily greater reliance on the military abroad in key situations to provide the lead in what should naturally be done by a service focused on peacetime government: services ranging from economic aid and relationship management to “nation-building.”

      1. Mayhem says:

        Have a read of the Retief books by Keith Laumer, they’re very heavily influenced by his career in the State Department and highly cynical of the changes in American policy post WW2. And highly entertaining as well.

        Certainly your points are still very applicable – a good example is the new US embassy in London, hardly a hotbed of terrorism at this point, yet they plan extraordinary layers of defenses ‘just in case’.

  4. Janus Daniels says:

    You have described a problem at least as old as the Cassandra myth. We had and have plenty of Cassandras. We need to give them better options.
    Any ideas for solutions?
    In the words of Dick Cheney:
    “… obviously, I wouldn’t have predicted that. On the other hand I wouldn’t have predicted 9/11, the global war on terror, the need to simultaneous run military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the near collapse of the financial system…”
    I could have given him a much longer list:

  5. Frank says:

    I believe the most important comment in Mr. Modesitt’s post is: “You can’t fix a problem you don’t recognize or one whose existence you deny.” With the exception of amazing luck, I believe this to be true.

    But I also believe that the cures are not so easily found. Mentioned were the genocides (if that is accurate) in “Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, or Ruanda, or Darfur.” While I do not dispute that these incidents happened, or that they were heinous in the extreme, I question whether there is a clear answer to what “we should have done.” I’m not condoning them, I’m just not sure it is, or should be, in our province to be “the world’s policeman.” Not only because it may not be the right thing to do, but, pragmatically because it rarely works. There is a point of scope in these attrocities when I think some type of military intervention must happen, however, it seems difficult to know when. We seem to have a habit of doing too much too soon, or too little too late.

    Global warming is another thing altogether. I don’t dispute that it appears to be happening, but I question if we really know exactly why or what to do about it. I think the science speaks to knowing the former (measuring the fact it is happening) but falls short on the latter (knowing what to effectively do about it). I absolutely think that open discussion and research are in order, however, a repeat of the Y2K hysteria is not in order.

    Anyhow, that is about as conservative as I get. It may not make people “feel good,” but I think the world is not a necessarily warm and fuzzy place, and we need to be careful on what, and whom, we tread.

    1. Mayhem says:

      Actually, Rwanda is an interesting example. The massacres there happened immediately following the chaotic intervention in Somalia. As soon as Clinton pulled his troops out of Somalia following the Battle of Mogadishu, it became apparent to all the other warlords and dictators that the UN forces no longer demanded respect, but rather could be worked around or ignored. That meant the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda was sidelined, and without the additional support previously available from the US, was unable to do anything about the situation. There are some very good books explaining the background, where a firmer hand from the UN would have saved countless lives.

      That being said, Rwanda would probably have exploded in a different way even with the UN doing more, it was a serious powderkeg of ethnic hatred as a legacy of colonial times.

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