Dorothy Thompson: From Dismissal to Outrage

Dorothy Thompson (9 July 1894 – 30 January 1961), American journalist. Credit: Wikipedia.


By Shira Telushkin

Dorothy Thompson’s 1932 interview with Hitler — later published as the book, I Saw Hitler!made her a household name in the United States, and launched her career as one of the most widely read political columnists of the 1930s.

Thompson’s rise was swift. In 1939, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which hailed her as the most important woman of the century, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. While her influence waned in the postwar years, she continued to speak around the country and write her column, at the impressive rate of three times a week, until 1958. She died in 1961, and is remembered (when she is remembered) for her strident and frequent calls for the United States to enter the war and fight the madness of Hitler.

Thompson came of age in the 1910s, first working for the suffragette movement and then, when the vote was won, writing copy for marketing agencies in New York. In 1920, bored by life in the United States and buoyed by the end of the First World War, she gathered her savings of $300 and boarded a ship for Europe, hoping to make it as a journalist in the still nascent field of foreign reporting. On board she befriended a group of Jewish Zionists headed to a conference in London, and when the ship docked she wrote up their mission as her first story, filed for the

International News Service. Soon after, she conducted what would be the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, the Irish independence leader, before he died on a hunger strike. She began writing for the Philadelphia Public Ledger in Vienna, and, after she revealed a plot to restore the Hapsburg monarchy, quickly earned a salaried position on the paper.

In addition to her uncanny ability for being at the right place at the right time, Thompson developed a lively and intimate prose that attracted readers. In 1925, after years of freelancing across Europe, she became the Central European bureau chief for both the Ledger and the New York Evening Post, a first for a woman. By then she was married to her first husband, Hungarian Jewish writer Joseph Bard, whom she would divorce in 1927. A year later, Thompson would return to the United States with her second husband, the famed writer Sinclair Lewis, whom she would also divorce. The move was hard on Thompson. A well-known figure in European circles, Thompson was still virtually unknown in the United States, and struggled with her role as wife of a celebrated writer. She made frequent trips back to Europe, where continued to develop stories and nurture contacts.

He big break came in 1932 when Thompson got permission to interview Hitler. Her profile made a big splash in the States, though it is remembered today mostly for its major flaw: Thompson dismissed fears of Hitler’s success as overhyped. Two years later, her earlier illusions long since shattered, Thompson returned to Germany only to be expelled by the government without stated reason. Speaking to The New York Timeswhich covered the event, she said “Chancellor Hitler is no longer a man, he is a religion.’”

Once back in the United States, Thompson began writing “On The Record,” her thrice-weekly column she would maintain for most of her life. Published in the New York Herald Tribune and focused almost entirely on foreign policy in Europe, the column was syndicated to over 130 outlets and, unusual for the time, reached a mostly male audience. In 1941, after her support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term upset the Republican-owned Tribune, Thompson jumped to the more liberal New York Post. Never one to back down from a controversial opinion, in 1947 she was dropped from the New York Post for writing what was seen as anti-Zionist and pro-Arab columns, which alienated the paper’s Jewish readership. Thompson mainly criticized Zionists for separating their American identity from their Jewish identity,and was critical of the government’s support for the new State of Israel. In an address to the American Council of Judaism in 1951, she argued that peace between Israel and the Arab world would be possible “only if the U.S. ceases to treat one state in the Middle East as its particular protection and pet, and adopts more detachment and equality of treatment, and until the displaced Arabs are properly compensated for their losses.’” Thompson, who launched her career by reporting on the Zionist movement, found this rejection by the Jewish community difficult.

Thompson’s work today is little-known. She is often described as no more than the wife of Sinclair Lewis who once interviewed Hitler, a descriptor she would likely despise. Of course, her early dismissal of the threat posed by Hitler in 1932 was a damning miscalculation, but her subsequent attempts to raise alarm over the next decade, and her insistence on speaking her mind, even when her views were so unpopular that is cost her two prominent columnist posts, are admirable in their own right.

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