Israel History / Would the Real Harry Truman Please Stand Up?

An examination of the 33rd president's motives in recognizing Israel may leave the reader puzzled. Did Truman feel any real support for Zionism, or was he just fishing for the votes of American Jews?

A Safe Haven: Harry S Truman and the Founding of Israel, by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh HarperCollins, 448 pages, $28

President Harry Truman's recognition of the newborn State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, was greeted by American Jewish leaders with a torrent of adulatory telegrams and press releases. One congressman, however, added a dissenting note.

"President Truman is entitled to fulsome praise for his example of statesmanship in recognizing the State of Israel," Emanuel Celler, Democrat of Brooklyn, announced. "It is now essential for the United States to go the full way ... The ridiculous [U.S.] arms embargo should now be lifted for the benefit of the State of Israel ... "

The stark contrast between Truman's on-paper recognition of the state and the reality of Israel fighting, without tanks, artillery or armored vehicles, against five invading Arab armies dramatizes the complex task faced by historians in assessing Truman's role in the state's creation and survival. Did Truman recognize Israel out of sincere support for Zionism, or merely in order to secure Jewish votes in that November's presidential election? Why did the president overrule the State Department on the recognition issue, but not on the arms embargo? If Truman was sincerely committed to Israel's survival, how could he refuse to give it arms for self-defense?

In "A Safe Haven: Harry S Truman and the Founding of Israel," historians Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh survey Truman's efforts to resolve the nettlesome Palestine dilemma that he inherited from Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Seesawing policies

Given Truman's thin and unimpressive record on Jewish affairs, American Jewish leaders had reason for concern about the new president's views. As a U.S. senator, he had delivered one notable speech about the annihilation of European Jewry, at a rally in Chicago in 1943. The Radoshes call it "Truman's greatest expression of sympathy for the plight of Europe's Jews," but it appears to have been his only significant expression of sympathy on the subject. Of greater consequence (although not mentioned in "A Safe Haven") was Truman's cold reply, that same year, to a constituent who urged him to press for the rescue of Jewish refugees: "I do not think it is the business of Senators who are not on the Foreign Relations Committee to dabble in matters which affect our relations with the Allies at this time."

There were, of course, various personal factors in Truman's background that may have played a role in shaping his perspective on Jewish matters. The Radoshes, like others who have written on Truman and Israel, point to his childhood love for Bible stories and his friendship and business ventures with Jewish haberdasher Eddie Jacobson. On the other hand, Truman's diaries and private correspondence were littered with arguably anti-Semitic remarks; the Radoshes quote several of these, but do not regard them as having influenced his policies.

As president, Truman's seesawing policies on immigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state left American Jews bewildered. One day, a Truman promise would fill them with hope; the next day, a contradictory remark or hint from the president would leave them reeling with disappointment.

American Zionist leaders who met Truman shortly after he became president in 1945 were pleased by his assurance that he was "sympathetic to the Zionist cause." Just a few weeks later, however, Truman sent private letters to Arab leaders reiterating FDR's pledge to take no action on Palestine without first consulting the Arabs. The Radoshes believe he did so under the sway of the strongly pro-Arab State Department, and "without thinking too much about it," although it seems surprising that a president would affix his signature to documents on such a crucial foreign policy question without some discussion or understanding of what he was signing.

At a press conference on his way home from the Potsdam conference that summer, Truman said he wanted to "let as many of the Jews into Palestine as is possible." But soon afterward there were press reports that he privately told a congressman that, while he favored Jewish immigration, "he was afraid that Arab opposition would be too great" and therefore he would prefer to focus on "Jewish rights in Europe." Would the real Harry Truman please stand up?

Truman endorsed the recommendation by the Harrison Report (1945) and the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (1946) that 100,000 Holocaust survivors be admitted to Palestine. But he resisted putting serious pressure on the British to allow this recommendation to be fulfilled, and rejected American Zionists' proposal to link Britain's request for a postwar U.S. loan to changes in its immigration policy. In the autumn of 1946, Truman for the first time declared, albeit very tentatively, his support for the creation of a small Jewish state in Palestine. The following year, he endorsed the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But the shift of America's position would have been more significant had it been accompanied by practical steps to implement it.

The Radoshes suggest, with justification, that Truman's endorsement of Jewish statehood was to some extent a response to British and Arab intransigence. England's adamant refusal to admit the 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine and the Arab world's unyielding rejection of a Jewish state of any size left him precious little room to maneuver. Had the British or the Arabs been willing to compromise at all, Truman might well have embraced some solution short of statehood. Their inflexibility, combined with tremendous domestic political pressure in support of Zionism, left him with little choice.

The significance attributed to that domestic pressure in shaping Truman's policies is one of the key differences between "A Safe Haven" and earlier works on the subject, such as Michael Cohen's 1991 book, "Truman and Israel" (Univ. of California Press). Prof. Cohen provided a small mountain of evidence showing that Truman's major decisions on Palestine policy were profoundly influenced by electoral considerations. The gubernatorial race in New York in 1945, the crucial midterm congressional elections in 1946, and of course Truman's own presidential race in 1948, all loomed large as the president and his advisers weighed possible solutions to the Palestine conflict.

The Radoshes acknowledge private statements made by Truman and his aides during 1945-1948 indicating that the potential loss of Jewish votes in New York was a major factor in policymaking on Palestine. At the same time, they also present postwar statements by Truman and several advisers vehemently denying the role of domestic electoral pressure. As evidence that concern about Jewish votes was not a central factor in Truman's Mideast policymaking, the Radoshes offer the interesting example of the president's decision not to grant de jure recognition to Israel in the fall of 1948, even though doing so might have helped him with Jewish voters. (The de facto recognition Truman granted the previous May had been a tentative step acknowledging that Israel controlled certain territory; de jure recognition meant extending full recognition to Israel's existence as a matter of principle.)

By the same logic, the Radoshes might have also argued that Truman's refusal to end the U.S. arms embargo in the fall of 1948 demonstrated his lack of concern about the Jewish vote. Yet the Radoshes do not present evidence that, in the autumn of 1948, Truman's advisers urged these pro-Israel steps in order to secure Jewish votes (as they had prior to his recognition of Israel the previous May). They do quote a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut warning Truman that he could lose that state if he did not extend de jure recognition - but Connecticut, with just six electoral votes, was not New York, which had 47.

An alternative explanation could be that Truman was unwilling to - as congressman Celler put it - "go the full way" in supporting Israel in the fall of 1948 simply because he did not perceive it as politically necessary. He calculated - correctly - that most Jewish voters would support him out of gratitude for his de facto recognition of Israel and would overlook other issues. Why should he pick a fight with his own State Department, not to mention the Arab world, over such issues if his political advisers were not counseling him that they were necessary for his election?

The Radoshes conclude that "If FDR had lived and Truman not been president, there probably would not have been an Israel." This raises an interesting question, but the answer depends on what one sees as the key factors in bringing about Israel's creation. If one accepts the premise that Truman's support for bringing 100,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine and establishing a small Jewish state there played a significant role in the creation of Israel, and that his recognition of Israel helped it survive the 1948 Arab invasion, then Truman's role looms large indeed. If, however, one believes that 50 years of immigration, swamp-draining and town-building, four years of armed revolt against the British, and a valiant war of self-defense (waged largely with Soviet-bloc weapons) were of greater significance, then Truman's record - whatever his motives - may have received more credit than it deserves.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.