April 22, 2004
PAPERS OF AMBASSADOR JAMES G. MCDONALD RECORD RISE OF NAZISM TO CREATION OF ISRAEL
Extraordinary Diaries of Over 10,000 Pages Made Public For First Time— Become Part of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Through a number of key diplomatic posts—from League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1930s to the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 1949—James Grover McDonald was witness to many of the defining moments of the 20th century and closely interacted with several of the leading personalities who shaped those events. A shrewd observer, McDonald meticulously recorded his extraordinary insights into their thoughts and motives in his diaries—which until now have never been made public. On April 22, Barbara Ann McDonald Stewart and Janet McDonald Barrett, James McDonald’s daughters, donated his diaries and papers to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Very few individuals interact with such a stunning array of historical figures and events. But McDonald’s diaries are much more than historic; they are filled with candor and eloquence as well as insight and emotion,” says Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “We are enormously grateful to his family for this gift.”
McDonald’s diaries record meetings with Hitler and Mussolini; Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman; Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII; and Israeli leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir, among many others.
“McDonald had access to the highest levels of governments here and abroad for almost three decades,” says Museum historian Severin Hochberg. “His observations paint a fuller picture of key players on the world stage, and in a few instances, offer new information. For instance, his conversations with President Roosevelt about visas for refugees from Germany show that the President supported an increase in the granting of visas but was worried about Congressional reaction. This picture is very different from the claim that he was indifferent to the fate of Jews or motivated only by political calculations.”
McDonald’s diaries begin in 1922 and run through 1936. They resume in 1946, continuing through 1951. During these years he held a number of high-profile positions including, Chairman of the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) (1919-1933); the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1933-1935); U.S. Special Representative to Israel (1948-1949); the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel (1949-1951); and as a member of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine (1946). He also served as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees (1938-1945), and while there are no diary entries during these years, the collection contains letters and other documents from the period.
Considering himself a better speaker than writer, he dictated entries to his secretary at the end of each day. The result is an unusually candid assessment of the topics and people he addressed. In addition to more than 10,000 typed pages of his diaries, the collection also contains approximately 100 photographs and 5,000 pages of correspondence.
McDonald was born on November 29, 1886, in Coldwater, Ohio. His mother was German, and he became fluent in the language. As a student at Harvard, he befriended visiting German students, a number of whom later attained prominent positions in the Nazi party. In the 1920s and ‘30s he regularly visited Germany to monitor developments for the FPA; his Harvard connections, facility with German and aquiline features resulted in Nazi officials speaking forthrightly with him about their plans for Germany and its Jews. An entry from Tuesday, April 4, 1933, when McDonald meets with two Nazi party officials is illustrative.
“I looked forward to an informing analysis of the Nazi economic program. Instead, after we discussed it for ten or fifteen minutes, both Daitz and Lüdecke [Werner Daitz and Kurt G.W. Lüdecke] drifted back to the subject of the Jews, which seems to be an obsession with so many of the Nazis…The casual expressions used by both men in speaking of the Jews were such as to make one cringe, because one would not speak so of even a most degenerate people.
When I indicated my disbelief in their racial theories, they said what other Nazis had said, ‘But surely you, a perfect type of Aryan, could not be unsympathetic with our views.’…I had the impression that they really do set unbelievable store by such physical characteristics as long heads and light hair.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, McDonald became deeply concerned about the Nazis’ rise to power and believed, years before Western leaders, that Hitler would destroy European Jewry. He energetically sought to incite governments to action, believing Hitler’s recriminations against German Jews were an international concern and not an internal German affair, but to little avail. The lack of international movement on the refugee issue caused him to resign as the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees on December 27, 1935. A diary entry from November 25, 1935, about his imminent resignation shows his prescience.
“I then explained to him [Viscount Robert Cecil, a League of Nations founder] what I had in mind in connection with my letter of resignation [as High Commissioner] to the Secretary General, that I intended in that to speak with complete frankness about affairs in Germany which are making for the destruction of the whole of the Jewish people and in addition a certain number of non-Aryans.”
This passion and clarity continue throughout his writings during the war and afterward, including the years leading up to the creation of the State of Israel and its early years. As U.S. Special Representative to Israel and later Ambassador, he was pivotal in serving as intermediary between the Truman administration, foreign governments and Israel’s founders during the tumultuous events that led to the birth of the Jewish state.
The Museum’s acquisition of the McDonald diaries was the result of one donor and painstaking investigatory work by Museum archivists. On May 16, 2003, Mark Ziomek, the Museum’s Library Director, received a letter from Patricia Sugrue Ketchum asking if the Museum would be interested in acquiring a segment of the diary of James G. McDonald. About 500 pages of the diary—spanning from approximately mid-1933 to mid-1936— McDonald had loaned to her father. Mr. Sugrue had been considering writing a biography of McDonald. Following Sugrue’s death, the pages came into his daughter’s possession.
Museum Chief Archivist Henry Mayer contacted Ms. Ketchum in May 2003 and asked her if she would bring the pages in to the Museum. Ms. Ketchum delivered the writings to Mayeron May 29, 2003. In early June, Mayer gave the diaries to Museum archivist Stephen Mize for cataloging. He immediately realized the collection’s historical importance and that these pages represented only a fraction of McDonald’s total writings. Mize soon learned that Columbia University held McDonald’s papers. However, after searching the university’s archives, he realized it did not hold any of McDonald’s diaries, so the remainder of the writings must have been elsewhere.
Columbia’s archival records listed the donation in the name of the husbands of McDonald’s two daughters. Through further research, Mize identified one of his daughters, Janet Katherine Barrett. Mize contacted Ms. Barrett, who informed him that her sister, Barbara Ann McDonald Stewart, possessed the remaining papers. Ms. Stewart lives in Northern Virginia, a short drive from the Museum.
In August 2003 Mize and Mayer visited Ms. Stewart, and were amazed at what they found—approximately 10,000 typed pages of diary entries, plus numerous letters from McDonald to his wife, and photographs. Ms. Stewart, who also is a historian, agreed to donate the collection to the Museum in conjunction with her sister. The Museum intends to publish the diaries with a major publisher. Historian Richard Breitman and Barbara McDonald Stewart will edit the papers for publication. Further, Ms. Stewart had accompanied her father on assignments in Israel, and was witness to many of the events described in his diaries.
Created by a unanimous act of Congress, the Museum is America’s national institution for Holocaust education and remembrance. As a public-private partnership, the Museum brings the history and lessons of the Holocaust to Americans from all walks of life through educational outreach, teacher training, traveling exhibitions, and scholarship. Since opening in April 1993, the Museum has welcomed more than 20 million visitors, including more than 6.2 million children. For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.