James G. McDonald came to the fledgling state of Israel in August 1948 as President Truman’s “special representative”; the next year, after official diplomatic relations were established, he became the first American ambassador to the Jewish state. Known to be sympathetic with Zionism even before his appointment, McDonald often communicated directly with Truman, bypassing the significantly less sympathetic bureaucrats of the State Department. Benny Morris reviews the recently published fourth volume of McDonald’s diaries, which deals with his interval in Israel:
Among the visitors [McDonald received] was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born journalist and novelist, who had already lived in and reported from Palestine in the late 1920s and again in 1945. . . . McDonald characterized the meeting as “delightful and civilized.” Koestler avowed that his “chief interest in this country is its intellectual future,” by which he meant its cultural-ideological-political evolution, [about which he was less than optimistic]. . . . In his quiet way, McDonald sprang to the defense, arguing that Israel was “a pioneer country in which it was natural for a generation or two or three [that] the emphasis would be on material development and perhaps rather crude nationalism rather than on culture.” This had been the case with “pioneer America and pioneer South Africa.” Koestler “seemed inclined to agree.” Somewhat contradictorily, McDonald then added that Israel was sui generis, and that all comparisons were unreasonable. . . .
McDonald spent much of his two and a half years in the country meeting and entertaining people. But most of his time was devoted to matters of state and diplomacy—and this fascinating volume provides a wealth of information and insights about the forging of the American-Israeli “special relationship” and the foreign-policy deliberations inside the Truman administration about the Middle East. It also abounds with data and insights about young Israel’s (dour) relationship with the UN and its agencies and the failed secret peace talks between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Egypt, facilitated in part by the United States. . . .
McDonald was born in Ohio to parents who managed small hotels. After a brief academic career and working for a foreign-relations nonprofit, he was appointed the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from Germany, where he helped Jews attempting to flee Nazism. In 1945 and 1946, he served on the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine. . . . His [subsequent] years in Tel Aviv were marked by continuous military, political, and diplomatic crises. “There is never a dull moment in Israel,” he noted in December 1949. “Moreover, the Jewish people in proportion to their numbers cause more stir in the world than any other folk.”