Forgive the Monitor a little self-indulgence this week. In its May 14 issue, Newsweek magazine published a chapter from historian Michael Beschloss’s new book, Presidential Courage (Simon & Schuster). The excerpt centered on Harry Truman’s role in the establishment of Israel, and Beschloss had no compunction about highlighting Truman’s nasty anti-Semitic streak or that after leaving office Truman admitted to the late television impresario David Susskind that his wife, Bess, had never allowed a Jew into their Independence, Missouri home.
In the book’s footnotes, Beschloss credits the latter information to a story related by Susskind to a former White House speechwriter named James Humes, who duly recorded it for posterity in his 1997 book Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter (Regnery).
In the spring of 1998 your humble scrivener wrote a series of weekly features for The Jewish Press on American presidents and Israel. Humes’s story about Truman and Susskind was included in the piece on Truman, much to the surprise and dismay of many readers.
In July 2003, a librarian at the Truman Library in Independence discovered a 1947 diary of Truman’s that had been sitting unopened on a shelf for some four decades and that contained several derogatory references to Jews. Some so-called experts immediately professed shock at the very idea that Truman could have harbored dark thoughts toward Jews.
Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, reacted with a particularly appalling display of ignorance: “Wow!” she said. “It did surprise me because of what I know about Truman’s record.”
As the Monitor commented at the time, Ms. Bloomfield obviously didn’t know very much.
Evidence of Truman’s anti-Semitism had been in abundant supply for at least three decades, beginning with the release in the early 1970’s of Merle Miller’s popular Truman oral biography (Plain Speaking, in which the widow of Truman’s close friend Eddie Jacobson told Miller that the Trumans had never invited her or her husband to their home) and Margaret Truman’s biography of her father (Harry S. Truman) and continuing with Robert J. Donovan’s two-part study of the Truman presidency (Conflict and Crisis and Tumultuous Years, published, respectively, in 1977 and 1982) and David McCullough’s massive 1992 bestseller Truman.
It was “simply unfathomable” as the Monitor put it, “how any thinking, politically aware person [could] sincerely claim to be shocked at the very idea that Harry Truman had, shall we say, issues when it came to Jews.” Your helpful scribbler then proceeded to list several examples of anti-Semitic statements made by Truman and for good measure recounted the Susskind-Truman story.
As was the case five years earlier, that story in particular seemed to rile Truman devotees, as many of them made very clear in faxes, letters and e-mails, some going so far as to question both its accuracy and the Monitor’s integrity for repeating it.
Last winter, your modest correspondent buffed, polished, and updated the aforementioned 1998 Truman article where needed and it ran as a front-page essay in the Dec. 31 issue of The Jewish Press under the title “Harry Truman Without Fanfare.” The Susskind/Truman anecdote was prominently featured. The piece was picked up by a number of websites and blogs, and the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle in Truman’s home state reprinted it on its front page.
Again, not a few readers took umbrage at the Susskind story and did not hesitate to make their feelings known.
And then, lo and behold, five months later – and a full nine years after your faithful servant first wrote about it – a major historian recounted the story in a book put out by a major publishing house and a chapter excerpted in a major magazine. Sweet vindication, indeed – though not one letter, fax or e-mail expressing regrets, remorse, or repentance from any of your suffering reporter’s erstwhile critics.
But at least the issue finally has been laid to rest, right? Truman’s anti-Semitism is no longer in dispute, correct? His outbursts against Jews no longer have any news value, do they? The answers might seem obvious to Jewish Press readers, but not necessarily to those souls who look for their Jewish news solely in the pages of the New York Jewish Week, which came a little late to this particular party.
In its July 13 issue, two months after publication of Presidential Courage, the Jewish Week’s Washington correspondent, in tones suggesting this was all an unpleasant revelation to him, first got around to reporting the juicier details about Truman found in Beschloss’s book, including, first and foremost, the shocking Susskind/Truman story.
Something tells the Monitor such tardiness would not have been the case had Truman been a Republican.