Meeting Adolf Hitler face to face, James Grover McDonald described Hitler in his private diary as about 5’10”, slightly pudgy, and deadly serious about his intentions.
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Israel and the World Zionist community recently celebrated the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel. It was a deserved day of honor, recognition, accomplishment, and memory.
A Christian Minister, an eccentric millennialist, Rev. William Hechler, the first Christian friend Herzl ever had, sat quietly among the attendees of the Congress. Hechler had been crucial to Herzl and the entire Zionist vision. If not for Hechler, Herzl may have remained an obscure, second-rate playwright and journalist. Hechler sat quietly, ignored. Hechler’s ego did not require the limelight. For him, Zionism did.
125 years later, on August 11, 2022, another crucial friend to Zionism and the Jewish people was remembered in the small Indiana town of Albany. The first ever historical marker honoring James Grover McDonald was dedicated. It was funded by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP). The Indiana State Historical marker was organized by the Indiana Jewish Historical Society, the Indiana Historical Bureau, and the Delaware County Historical Society.
The text of the two-sided marker read;
“Diplomat James G. McDonald grew up in Albany and taught history at Indiana University by 1910. Representing the Foreign Policy Association, he met with Nazi officials in 1933, including Adolph Hitler, who was quickly rising to power. McDonald warned U.S. leaders about an “Impending tragedy” for European Jews and began advocating for refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.
“As the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1933-35) and the chair of President Roosevelt’s refugee advisory committee (1938-45), McDonald battled xenophobia, antisemitism, and restrictive quota systems to find asylum for thousands of persecuted Jews. In 1949, President Truman appointed McDonald the first U.S. Ambassador to the new State of Israel.”
McDonald, having met Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy, saw what the world, including organized Jewry, refused to see. Hitler intended a “Final Solution” for the Jews.
McDonald reached out to President Roosevelt. He reached out to the Pope. He presented at the Evian Conference. No one would listen. He was alone, screaming into the rising wind.
Doing what he could when no one else would, McDonald personally was involved in saving over 2,200 Jews. He aggressively used his diplomatic connections to assist Moritz Hochschild in Bolivia to rescue another 20,000 Jews.
After the War, Israel’s fate hung in a precarious balance. McDonald gained President Truman’s ear. Truman overruled the rabidly anti-Semitic American State Department and supported the U.N. Partition Resolution.
During the 1948 war, the nascent Israeli Air Force, almost entirely Machal volunteers defending Israel, shot down five Egyptian Spitfires piloted by British aircrews. The furious British lurched towards war with Israel as allies of Egypt. It was McDonald who stepped in and prevented the disastrous alliance against Israel.
Israel’s diplomatic relations with the U.S. were not smooth. Truman appointed McDonald to be the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel because he knew McDonald could ease the turbulent waters on both sides.
McDonald resigned his Ambassadorship in 1951. He said because he could not do more in that capacity. For the rest of his life, McDonald worked unceasingly for the Israel Development Corporation, raising money for Israel and selling bonds.
He was asked in a T.V. interview in the early 50s if there would be peace in the Middle East. Responding honestly, slowly, and deliberately as was his style, He said no. There would not be peace as long as the Arabs believed Israel would collapse under its own struggles and internal dissensions.
McDonald never spoke about his reasons for helping the Jews.
In his private papers is a short, unpublished, two-page document. It was found when his private diary and personal papers were archived at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. McDonald titled his private statement his “Credo.”
“To me, the threat of Jewish extermination in Germany was a threat also to all Christians, indeed to all freedom of religion and all democratic ideals and principles. The threat to Jews was not only a hideous wrong but also created a world problem of overwhelming significance. Hence it was that only for the sake of the Jews but for the larger cause of freedom, justice, and equal treatment of all human beings, everywhere, whatever their race, religion, or nationality, I – a blonde “Aryan” offspring of Scotch-Canadian and Midwest American stock, a teacher and student by profession and inclination – became a champion for Jewish aspirations and equal human rights.
…It was an irresistible call.”
The fundamental rule of diplomacy is to find commonality between all parties. McDonald, raised with strong Christian principles and a deep-seated belief in the uniqueness of the American experience, recognized a fact.
The Jews were and are history’s canary in the coal mine. Ignoring what happens to the Jews will be the preamble to what will happen to all who believe in freedom.
The sun shone brightly, warmly, across the endless Indiana corn fields the day we dedicated the marker. Regretfully, the Israeli Consul General was unable to attend.
If Israel does not honor its friends with remembered respect, Israel will be without friends to remember with respect.