After the UN vote for the partition of Palestine, there was euphoria in Israel and across the Jewish world. By all accounts, this joy was premature.
True, in 1947 with Truman in the White House and sympathetic to the Zionist cause, as were the overwhelming number of Americans, things looked promising on the American front. But the President’s stance was not reflected in the State Department. They feared that the curtailment of Arab oil could end the Marshall Plan, as Europe was dependent on Arab oil for 80% of its needs. Marshall and the other State Department officials felt that the creation of a Jewish state was not in the U.S.’s interest and that humanitarian considerations should not have an impact upon practical decisions.
Opposition from the State Department affected not only policy going forward, but what had already been agreed upon. Although the United States had supported the Partition Plan, and Truman had recruited other nations to vote along with it, the State Department had never been on board. They were convinced that Israel could never prevail against so many Arabs and feared that U.S. troops would be called in to save Israel.
Even prior to the British evacuation in May of 1948, but after the UN vote on November 29, 1947, the Arabs controlled the roads and Jerusalem was cut off and desperate for food and supplies. The Arabs were increasingly emboldened and the Jews dispirited by the escalation of hostilities in Palestine. Simultaneously, the Arabs applied pressure on Washington and on American oil companies to drop the partition idea. Secretary of Defense Forrestal and Secretary of State Marshall became increasingly evasive on the question of partition, as they had already concluded that the Jews would likely lose the impending war.
To make matters worse, it appeared that the Americans might withdraw their support for partition, and might favor putting Palestine under an international trusteeship. Facts on the ground indicated that the Jews did not have the wherewithal to defeat the local Palestinian Arabs or even hold on to the territory assigned to themselves. What chance, then, would they have against regular Arab armies from at least five states?
Accordingly, the State Department called to change the UN’s partition vote and instead pursue its trusteeship suggestion, which meant canceling the Partition Plan to create a Jewish state. President Harry S. Truman, who was committed to a Jewish state, began to waver, as his advisors told him that the Jews would lose in a war and be slaughtered. The once-in-two-millennia chance to establish a Jewish state seemed to be slipping through the fingers of Israel’s settlers.
The Zionist leadership in America recognized the magnitude of the American policy shift and were afraid that they would be sold out by the president. Hence, they exerted every effort to persuade the administration to resume its original policy. Ironically, in mobilizing their supporters throughout the United States, they nearly alienated their most dependable ally, the President himself.
Truman detested all of the pressure that Jewish groups were placing upon him, and he did not wish to hear from any Zionists. As a change in policy was looming, Zionism’s most eloquent speaker was dispatched to America. In February 1948, Dr. Chaim Weizmann traveled to the United States to muster support for partition, but Truman refused to see him.
Every entrance to the White House was pursued and no one was able to gain access. In desperation, American Jewish leaders turned to Truman’s longtime friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, with whom he had owned a haberdashery decades earlier.
The friendship between the two was formed way before their (failed) business venture. WWI did not have to personally affect Harry S. Truman as he was 33 in 1917, two years beyond the limit set by the new Selective Service Act. Furthermore, his eyesight was well below the standard requirements of the armed services, plus he was a farmer, which was deemed a patriotic duty according to President Woodrow Wilson, and thus exempt from military service. Truman’s decision to leave for “over there” was totally his own, and it was the turning point in his life.
At the army camp where Truman was sent to train in Oklahoma, aside from his regular duties he was assigned to manage a canteen that offered GIs candy, soda, cigarettes, writing paper, tobacco, shoelaces, etc. To make the endeavor a financial success (most of the canteens weren’t), he partnered with a former clerk in a Kansas City clothing store, Sergeant Edward Jacobson. It was thanks to Jacobson, as Truman always acknowledged, that the business was successful, and they became fast friends. The canteen turned a profit of about $1,000 a day and they then expanded it by adding a barber and tailor shop.
To finance the canteen, every soldier in the regiment was assessed two dollars. Because of the success of the operation, all were paid back handsome profits on their initial fee, which made Truman and Jacobson very popular, and the two of them concluded that they were an unbeatable business combination.
It was the formation of this friendship that sowed the seeds of the American acceptance of the UN Partition Plan and the U.S.’s early recognition of Israel, a chapter of history that has never been fully appreciated.