June 18, 2024
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James McDonald: The First U.S. Ambassador to Israel (1948-51)

We all know that very shortly (11 minutes!) after the Jewish state was declared on May 14, 1948, President Truman announced that the U.S. recognized it.

But what happened after that? When was a U.S. (or any country’s) ambassador appointed to it? When did full legal recognition come by the U.S.? What were the major issues faced by the State of Israel in that early time?

I came across a book recently on these topics. It is by James McDonald, who was appointed by Truman on June 22, 1948, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, serving in this capacity until 1951. The book’s title: “My Mission in Israel.” I would like to share some of what I learned.

1. McDonald writes at the beginning of the book that it is going to be a personal report about his experiences as ambassador and that he will rely a lot on his diaries. “I have refrained from retelling the stories of Israel’s heroic defense, its improvisation of Army, Navy and Air Force, the miracles of transforming deserts into orchards, the spectacular change of the physical face of the land…” It is evident that he is someone who was in awe of what the Jewish people had accomplished.

2. Here is the background to McDonald and his appointment. McDonald had prior positions in international affairs and had been involved with America’s efforts in Palestine for many years. But he had not talked to Truman since the summer of 1946. He had returned to New York in May 1948 after trips to California and South Africa. He and his wife were weary of traveling and were looking forward to some extended quiet time at home. He was 61 at the time. He wanted to write his memoirs and improve his golf game (!).

At 4 p.m. on June 22, Clark Clifford, counsel to the president, telephoned him out of the blue and offered him this appointment. McDonald responded that he was not expecting this and needed time to think about it. He added that he had “no independent income” to support himself with. One hour later Clifford called again telling him that Truman had made up his mind and wanted to make the announcement the same evening. Clifford assured him that the position would be of the highest rank with appropriate compensation. McDonald reluctantly accepted. The appointment was quickly relayed to someone from the Israeli government and they indicated they would accept him. (Foreign governments always have to be notified in advance in case they object to the choice.) The official announcement of the appointment was made less than three hours after Clifford first telephoned McDonald. McDonald writes: “My family’s first intimation of the news came to them from the seven o’clock radio broadcast.”

3. In this early stage after Israel’s declaration of May 1948, there was only one other country that had an ambassador to it. This was Russia. Russia’s representative arrived in Tel Aviv three days before McDonald arrived in August. (Britain, for example, did not recognize Israel until May 1949. In the early period, British officials would write to the “Jewish Authorities,” instead of to the “State of Israel” and their letters would be returned unopened!)

4. It was important to Truman to have his own man as the ambassador to Israel, rather than a State Department appointee, because of what happened three months earlier. In this famous episode in March 1948, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (without consulting Truman, but with the backing of the State Dept.) announced that the U.S. no longer supported the partition plan of Nov. 1947. This had embarrassed Truman greatly.

5. When McDonald had his first meeting with an official from the State Department regarding his salary, he reported Clifford’s promise that the position would be with the highest salary, a class I mission. The State Department official was shocked. The State Department had planned a much lower salary level, a class IV level. They compromised on class II. (I never realized that there were different levels of missions to foreign countries!)

6. An issue that arose was when the U.S. would give Israel full recognition (de jure recognition) as opposed to mere de facto recognition. Traditionally, for de jure recognition there needed to be a stable government, a willingness to honor international obligations, and effective control of a recognized territory. The initial provisional government of the State of Israel had to prove that it was not merely a “junta.” McDonald understood that there was a disagreement between Truman and the State Department. Truman wanted to give full recognition as soon as possible. But the State Dept. had doubts about the stability and representativeness of the provisional government. (Full recognition eventually came on Jan. 31, 1949, after the first Israeli election.)

7. In July 1948, in order to resolve the continued fighting, UN Mediator Count Bernadotte came up with a plan for the Jewish state to give up part of the Negev, even though the Negev had been awarded to the Jewish state in the partition plan. Bernadotte also proposed that the entire city of Jerusalem be placed under the rule of King Abdullah of Jordan (instead of being an international city for ten years). In response, on July 26, the government of Israel announced that “New Jerusalem” was declared Israel-occupied territory, to be under a Jewish military governor. McDonald wrote that “it seemed abundantly clear that my post, if a difficult one, would certainly be an exciting one.” (Bernadotte was later assassinated in Sept. 1948 by the Stern gang.)

8. In the summer of 1948, the elderly Chaim Weizmann was still in Switzerland. He had been made president but was still not in the country. In August, on his way to Israel, McDonald went to visit him. After discussing all the current events, Weizmann told McDonald that he was not able to be in touch with the government in Israel and was unclear about the future for him there. As far as he knew, no establishment had been set up for him. Embarrassingly, he had to ask McDonald to remind the officials of the government of Israel to write to him! (Later, McDonald met with Golda Meir. She apologized for not writing to Weizmann but she said that everyone knew that Weizmann would find Israel unbearably hot in the summer and would not want to arrive until September.) McDonald also discussed the manner of Weizmann’s eventual trip to Israel, as he could not arrive in a manner unbefitting a president.

9. McDonald learned that as an ambassador it was important not to bother the busy president with too many queries. “An envoy who wrote too often or at too great length…eventually wore out his welcome and lost whatever influence he might have had.”

10. McDonald wrote that he had met Hitler. “I had become convinced that the battle against the Jew was the first skirmish in a war on Christianity, on all religion, indeed on all humanity.”

There is so much more in this book. I have only touched on a small portion of the interesting material!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He has no plans for government public service. His public service is writing this column.

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