Harry Truman abruptly found himself president after FDR’s sudden death on April 12, 1945. His ten years in the Senate had seasoned him to domestic issues, yet foreign policy was not, and would never be, his strong suit. Still, the one issue that he felt he could handle by himself was the vexing situation of the Jews after the Holocaust and the future of Palestine.
The President was ambitious in this assessment. Truman’s daughter, Margaret, claimed that the future of Palestine was the most difficult dilemma of her father’s entire administration. This is a remarkable comment about a president who was always aware of the fact that he was not elected, who had to end WWII, put his country back on peacetime footing, deal with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, help reconstruct Europe, and go to war in Korea.
Eight days after Truman became president, he was visited by a Zionist delegation headed by Rabbi Steven S. Wise. The President told his guests that he supported the Zionist goals, but he was very concerned about opposition from the State Department. The Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, whom Truman respected very much, was adamant that the matter of the Jews and of Palestine should be abandoned. If it weren’t, it would require the involvement of hundreds of thousands of American troops, cost America a fortune, and undoubtedly cause WWIII.
Truman’s fallback plan, without totally stepping all over his State Department, was to get 100,000 Jews (the markedly lower-than-accurate number that he believed were languishing in the DP camps) into Palestine.
Regardless, the plan was doomed, for the British who controlled Palestine would not allow it. The British were sticking to their White Paper which very seriously limited the number of Jews that could immigrate and forbade the sale of land to Jews.
On May 14, 1948, Harry Truman surprised the world and caused pandemonium in the UN by being the first one to recognize the new State of Israel. Right after he did this, Truman called his advisor on Jewish affairs, David Niles, and said, “I am telling you before anyone else, as I know how much this will mean to you.”
Niles, who had also served in the same position under FDR, later claimed that had FDR lived and Truman not succeeded him, Israel would not exist. No one can say for sure what FDR would have done, but there is room for confusion as he had made conflicting statements and promises to both Arabs and Jews, telling them both what they wanted to hear. In fact, FDR, the quintessential politician, had made so many conflicting comments about Palestine, it was not even clear to those closest to him as to where he stood on the matter at the time of his death.
There are many reasons historians propose as to why Truman recognized Israel. We shall discuss two of them.
One explanation is humanitarian and moral. This is the reason Truman would have given, and in his memoirs he wrote that his “chief motivation was to find a peaceful solution to a world trouble spot based on the desire to see promises kept and human misery relieved.” By “promises kept” he was referring to the 1917 Balfour Declaration which pledged a national home for the Jews in Palestine, later incorporated into the United Nations mandate granted to the British.
Ever since Woodrow Wilson, every single president had given their support to what FDR called “the noble ideal of giving the Jews a homeland in Palestine.” The platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties in 1944 supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As far as “human misery,” Truman would have pointed not just to the Holocaust, but to the appalling conditions of the survivors ailing in the DP camps.
A report by Earl Harrison, a former commissioner on immigration and then the dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, wrote in an official report that the conditions in the DP camps were not all that different than the conditions of the Nazi camps. He wrote about the refugees’ hideous pajamas, starvation rations, and general total neglect. Here is a direct quotation form Harrison’s report: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.”
Truman said that reading Harrison’s report made him sick and he vowed that he was going to do something about it.
The second theory about Truman’s support for a Jewish state is that it was purely political. He sought Jewish votes and contributions. This was the theory advanced by the State Department, the British Foreign Office, and several political scientists and revisionist historians. Truman contributed to this theory by complaining about the pressure put upon him, especially by New York politicians who had a large Jewish constituency.
There was a strong Jewish constituency in the Democratic party, and American Jews were beside themselves with grief over the revelations of the Holocaust and how they had been so complacent as one third of their people were murdered. Up until then, Zionism had only interested Europeans. The Jewish establishment in America had deemed the establishment of a Jewish state unnecessary and possibly even dangerous, as it might threaten their status as Americans and even make them suspect of having dual loyalties.
But the destruction of European Jewry meant that American Jewry was the largest and wealthiest Jewish community, and this was a grave responsibility. The fact that the Western democracies would not allow Jews in during the war and even after it strengthened the resolve of American Jewry to act on behalf of the Zionist argument that Jews would only be safe when they had their own country and could defend themselves.
This column was aided by a lecture I heard from Dr. Allis Radosh.