Harry Truman, who died 34 years ago this week, has long been considered a hero in the struggle for a Jewish state. The truth is somewhat more complicated.
Certainly Truman deserves praise for the two major decisions he made as president with regard to Israel: an affirmative U.S. vote in the United Nations for the partition of Palestine (with American diplomats putting the squeeze on several countries whose votes were in doubt), and immediate U.S. recognition of the new Jewish state.
But the backstory to the headlines tells a decidedly more ambiguous tale. The fact is, from the time he took office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, Truman was a chronic waffler when it came to supporting the Zionist cause.
This was a curiously divided man, one capable of speaking in the most sympathetic, even lyrical, terms of Jewish suffering and the right of the Jews to a homeland – and in the very next breath referring to Jews with barnyard epithets and anti-Semitic invective.
A product of his environment, Truman was raised in a late-19th century small town environment where outsiders were viewed with varying degrees of suspicion, if not outright revulsion. The image of the Jew in that time and place was comprised of a melange of popular stereotypes, most of them negative: unbelieving infidel, unscrupulous conniver, unpatriotic foreigner.
And while the Bible was a prime influence on Americans of Truman’s age and station, the romanticized image of the Old Testament Israelite bore scant resemblance to the prevalent caricature of the modern Jew.
It should therefore come as little surprise that in private conversations Truman freely employed terms like “kike,” and that in a letter to his wife he made disapproving mention of Miami’s “hotels, filling stations, Hebrews and cabins.”
The dark side of Truman’s attitude toward Jews was very much a family affair. In his book Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter, James Humes, who penned speeches for five presidents, related a little-known but highly revealing story he heard from the prominent impresario David Susskind.
Years after Truman left office, Susskind was working with the former president on a television documentary. Wrote Humes:
Susskind said that each morning he would arrive at Truman’s house at Independence [Missouri]. He would wait on the porch on a cold February day while Mrs. Truman went to inform her husband of his arrival. After about the fourth morning, he asked the president in his walk why he was never asked inside.
“You’re a Jew, David, and no Jew has ever been in the house.”
A nonplussed Susskind replied, “I am amazed that you who recognized Israel and championed the integration of the army would say such a thing!”
“David,” he explained, “this is not the White House – it’s the Wallace [Bess Truman’s maiden name] house. Bess runs it, and there’s never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother’s lifetime.”
But of course it wasn’t just his wife. As president, Truman was constantly complaining about Jews. At a cabinet meeting in 1946 he angrily remarked, “If Jesus Christ couldn’t satisfy them here on earth, how the hell am I supposed to? I have no use for them and I don’t care what happens to them.”
Following one particularly tense meeting with Zionist leaders, Truman snapped, “I’m not a New Yorker. All these people are pleading for a special interest. I’m an American.”
Ted Thackrey, the editor of the New York Post who was married to the paper’s publisher, Dorothy Schiff, related how stunned he and his wife were when, during a White House visit, Truman let loose on the Jews.
“Now, Thackrey,” Truman growled, “if only the [expletive] New York Jews would just shut their mouths and quit hollering.”
In July 1947, after former treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau had phoned Truman to discuss the plight of Jewish refugees blocked by the British from entering Palestine, an enraged Truman wrote: “He’d no business whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement [sic] on world affairs. Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed.”
And Truman added, for good measure: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as DP’s as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog….”
And yet there was another side to Harry Truman, the side history remembers as the president who stood up to enormous anti-Zionist pressure from within his own administration and, despite his ambivalent personal feelings about Jews and endless vacillation over the issue of Palestine, came down on the side of a Jewish state when it counted most.
Truman’s record on Palestine had been characteristically inconsistent during his years in the U.S. Senate. Though he’d made some pro-Zionist statements in the late 1930’s, his voice grew noticeably muted during the war years. Defeating the Axis powers had become America’s first priority, he would later offer by way of explanation, and everything else was secondary.
(The excuse was a palpably disingenuous one, as preoccupation with winning the war had not prevented many of Truman’s fellow senators from speaking out on the need for a Jewish homeland, especially in light of what was happening to the Jews of Europe.)
Truman had been vice president for just a few weeks (Roosevelt had junked his previous vice president, Henry Wallace, prior to the 1944 election) when he was suddenly thrust into the presidency. He inherited from FDR a Mideast policy long on contradiction and double-dealing, the result of Roosevelt’s habit of publicly proclaiming his support for Zionism when he felt it politically expedient to do so – and then rushing to privately assure Arab leaders that he had their interests at heart.
The new president also had to contend with a firewall of opposition to Zionism at the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy. As Steven L. Spiegel, a professor of political science and an expert on the history of Mideast diplomacy, has written, “Among those formally responsible for national security matters, not one major figure supported the idea of establishing a Jewish state.”
One reason for this unflinchingly anti-Zionist mindset was the fear that a Jewish state would adversely affect American interests in the Arab world and cause countries in the region to turn to the Soviet Union.
Another worry was that a Jewish state would itself become a Soviet outpost – a not unreasonable concern at the time, given the socialist proclivities of the Zionist leadership in Palestine and the fact that scores of kibbutzim had long been outfitted, seemingly as part of their permanent decor, with lovingly rendered portraits of Joseph Stalin.
As if the mounting bureaucratic opposition to recognition of a Jewish state weren’t daunting enough, Truman had to contend with equal if not greater pressure from the other side. In addition to the aforementioned intervention by Jewish and Zionist leaders, there was the matter of the approaching 1948 presidential election.
The likely (and eventual) Republican nominee was Thomas E. Dewey, the popular governor of New York who four years earlier had run for president and lost to Roosevelt. Dewey’s strong ties to the Jewish community went back to the 1930’s and his days as a crime-busting U.S. attorney. At a time when the legal profession was rife with anti-Semitism and the best law firms were refusing to hire Jews, Dewey actively sought bright young Jewish lawyers for his staff.
Truman, whose approval ratings heading into the campaign were distressingly low – and whose party’s leaders were pessimistic about his chances of holding on to the White House – was running scared. A nightmare scenario was that if his administration appeared less than steadfast in its support of a Jewish state, Jews – who’d supported Roosevelt in numbers exceeding 90 percent – would flock to the unabashedly pro-Zionist Dewey.
Another threat to Truman emerged in the person of Henry Wallace, the very man he’d replaced as vice president. Wallace had served in Truman’s cabinet as commerce secretary until late 1946, by which time his pro-Soviet views forced Truman to demand his resignation.
Now Wallace was running for president as the candidate of the Progressive and American Labor parties, appealing to left-wing Jews who normally voted for Democratic candidates as the lesser evil but who in Wallace had the option of supporting someone closer to their hearts – someone considered too radical by mainstream Democrats.
In the end, Truman had nothing to worry about. Wallace did make inroads among Jewish voters, but Jews in overwhelming numbers stuck with Truman, who six months before the election had extended U.S. recognition to Israel moments after the new state was proclaimed.
As for poor Dewey, he learned a lesson other Republicans have come to know only too well: No matter how pro-Israel or pro-Jewish a Republican presidential candidate might be, most Jews simply will not vote for him (even if his Democratic opponent is perceived as less favorably disposed to Jewish concerns.)
Three Who Made a Difference
Three individuals, two Jews and a gentile, played crucial roles in keeping Truman from caving to the anti-Zionist forces in his administration.
David Niles, Truman’s special assistant on minority affairs, was an important player who fought many a behind-the-scenes battle with Arabists ensconced in the departments of State and Defense.
Niles, who was Jewish, had also served in the Roosevelt administration. During his lifetime, and for decades after his death, FDR was worshiped by American Jews in the manner of some modern-day Golden Calf – a love that went unrequited as the idol remained idle while countless Jewish lives could have been saved. Niles, though, had a considerably darker opinion than his co-religionists of the Squire of Hyde Park.
“There are serious doubts in my mind,” he once said, “that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived.”
The other Jew with influence over Truman was Eddie Jacobson, who years before had been Truman’s partner in an unsuccessful Kansas City haberdashery. At a crucial point early in 1948, Truman was undergoing one of his periodic bouts of uncertainty on the question of Palestine, so the Jewish Agency sent Dr. Chaim Weizmann to Washington to meet with the president.
Truman at first refused to accommodate Weizmann, but Jewish leaders contacted Jacobson, who wired a poignant message to his old friend and followed that up with a trip to the White House.
Jacobson convinced Truman to see Weizmann, and an “unofficial” meeting took place in the Oval Office on March 18. Weizmann’s visit with Truman lasted 45 minutes, and from all accounts the results were everything the Jews had hoped for: The president was back on track in his support of a Jewish state.
The non-Jew who was such a forceful advocate for the Zionist cause in Truman’s White House was Special Counsel Clark Clifford, a man who would continue to wield enormous influence in Washington well into the 1980’s.
The facts speak for themselves: Clifford, considerably more so than Truman, deserves the designation of “hero” in the saga of Israel’s birth.
Whenever Truman’s pro-Zionist stance appeared to falter, it was Clifford who was there to admonish him. And whenever influential anti-Zionist officials like Secretary of State George Marshall or Secretary of Defense James Forrestal were scheduled to meet with the president, it was Clifford who made sure to be on hand as a counterweight to their views.
At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, just two days before David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, Clifford urged Truman to grant the new nation immediate recognition. Marshall responded by telling Truman, “They don’t deserve a state, they have stolen that country. If you give this recognition, Mr. President, I may not be able to vote for you in the next election.”
Who knows whether, absent the persistent Clifford, Truman would have stood up to that level of pressure coming from his highly respected secretary of state? But Clifford was in the room, and Marshall’s threat fell on deaf ears. The U.S. extended de facto recognition to the Jewish state eleven minutes after Ben-Gurion announced its creation.
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On a practical level, Truman’s recognition of Israel was of no real help to the Jews fighting for their lives and their state. A long-standing arms embargo remained in place, and a much-needed loan requested by the Israeli government was put off until the following year.
The stark reality is this: Had the Arabs achieved their goal of strangling the newborn State of Israel in its swaddling clothes, Truman’s recognition would, in retrospect, have meant absolutely nothing.
Still, the Truman administration’s vote for partition and its quick recognition of Israel were diplomatic triumphs for the Jews of Palestine and their supporters, as well as important psychological factors in the shaping of international opinion. And Harry Truman made those decisions in the face of near-unanimous opposition from senior aides and cabinet members.
Judging from their records, most of his successors in the White House would not have been as resolute.