The fate of Palestine in the years after World War II so vexed Harry Truman that he quoted in his memoirs a note he wrote to one of his assistants: “I surely wish God Almighty would give the children of Israel an Isaiah, the Christians a St. Paul, and the sons of Ishmael a peep at the Golden Rule.”
No divine intervention was forthcoming, nor did a prophet or apostle materialize to ease Truman’s burden. Yet, with characteristic decisiveness which belied the enormous cross currents of pressure he faced over Palestine, Truman recognized the new state of Israel minutes after its birth on May 14, 1948.
Truman’s decision was aided by three of his White House assistants, including Minnesota-born Max Lowenthal, who played a key role in the president’s decision to recognize Israeli independence. As described in an outstanding new book by Allis and Ronald Radosh (“A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel,” Harper Collins, 2009), it was Truman’s faith in his advisers — and, even more important, his trust in Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann — that was the as a tipping point in Truman’s decision-making over the Palestine dilemma.
Truman accorded great deference to Weizmann, who later became Israel’s first president. Truman admired Weizmann’s life’s work and willingness to speak honestly and eloquently. An extraordinary scientist and emissary of the Jewish people, the nearly blind and aging Weizmann had been repudiated politically by much of the leadership of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish Community of Palestine) due to his ongoing belief that Britain would ultimately support the Jewish people’s goal in the creation of a Jewish state.
Faith in Britain despite immigration policy
Weizmann’s faith in Britain collided headlong with the British government’s refusal to retreat from a 1939 policy severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine — even as Holocaust survivors languished in displaced persons (“DP”) camps in Europe. This blow was particularly bitter to the Yishuv as it had stood by Britain (Weizmann’s son went missing flying for the RAF) while the Palestinian Arab leadership had mainly supported, if not actively aided the Nazi war effort including the Final Solution.
Nevertheless, in hearings held in 1947 by the United Nations’ Special Committee on Palestine (“UNSCOP”) over the future of Palestine, Weizmann praised Britain for promulgating the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had promised a Jewish National Home in Palestine, and for considering partition as early as 1937 — the post-World War II version of today’s two-state solution (a solution the Yishuv accepted and the Arabs unequivacabvly opposed). As Truman wrote of Weizmann: “He had known many disappointments and had grown patient and wise in them.”
Truman’s trust in Weizmann was reinforced by the latter’s recognition of certain truths in the Palestine conflict, including the reluctant recognition that the dream of a Jewish state in all of Palestine was not realistic, and that instead the Jewish people should accept partition. This contrasted sharply with the Palestinian Arab leadership, who treated the United Nations’ committee with sullen hostility, a general strike and contempt for Jews. The Arab states not only opposed partition, but also immigration of a single Jewish Holocaust survivor, even though the survivors had no place to go except back to the countries where they had been imprisoned and where their families had been murdered. Such behavior reinforced the impression of UNSCOP committee members — even those who were skeptical of partition — that antagonism between Arab and Jew meant only separate states could resolve the Palestine conflict and deliver at least a measure of justice to Arab and Jew.
Weizmann’s recognition of reality — he referred to the dispute over Palestine as “lesser injustice versus greater injustice” combined with his role in the building of Yishuv elevated his words and opened eyes and hearts, including Truman’s and the membership of the UNSCOP.
Trust in advisers
Truman’s trust in his advisers in shaping policy is also reflected in Truman’s relationship with American Jews from two disparate walks of life: his presidential assistants and his longtime friends from Missouri.
Truman’s presidential assistants — Clark Clifford, David Niles and Max Lowenthal — played a key role in his decision to recognize Israel. Lowenthal was born and raised on the north side of Minneapolis so his story is told here. (The recent organization of the Lowenthal papers at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library is expanding the scholarship associated with the Lowenthal-Truman friendship, which the Radosh book draws upon.)
The Radosh book describes a relationship between Truman and Lowenthal stretching back to the 1930s, when Lowenthal served as counsel to Sen. Burton K. Wheeler’s committee investigating the finances of American railroads. Truman was a member of the committee and became acquainted with Lowenthal and his work. Lowenthal also took Truman to teas at the home of Justice Louis Brandeis and later helped gain labor support for Truman for his nomination as vice president. It was with this background that presidential assistant Clifford brought Lowenthal to the White House to prepare memoranda in support of the partition of Palestine. Clifford, incidentally, thought Lowenthal odd as Lowenthal came and went to the White House as he pleased.
The memoranda Lowenthal prepared for Clifford in the late winter and spring of 1948 provided underpinnings of the argument favoring the United States’ recognition of Israel. The memoranda framed the issue of recognition of Israel as in America’s own “selfish interests” and the need to prevent chaos and war when the British withdraw from Palestine on May 14, 1948, as well as preventing the Soviet Union from acquiring leverage in the middle east. It was with the briefings from Lowenthal that Clifford prepared for a meeting with Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and Marshall’s deputy, Robert Lovett, on May 12, 1948.
At the May 12 meeting, Clifford’s view prevailed — despite the president’s admiration for George Marshall, who on behalf of the State Department opposed partition. Truman admired Marshall’s military career and respected his important role in the creation of the Marshall Plan. Ultimately, however, not even Marshall’s implied threat to resign could dissuade Truman from recognizing Israel, despite arguments that he was endangering America’s oil and strategic interests in the middle east as the hostility of the Cold War was deepening. To Truman, recognizing the new state of Israel was the right thing to do no matter the opinion of the oil companies, Arab governments or even the State and War Departments. As he wrote in his memoirs: It was an American policy because “it aimed at a peaceful solution to a world trouble spot.”
Truman’s longstanding friendships with Kansas City Jews provided an important back channel communications to the White House. Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s former haberdashery partner whom he considered “nearly kin,” visited Truman at a critical moment in March 1948. Truman, at the time, was refusing to see Zionist leaders because of pressure he characterized as “extreme” from certain American Jewish leaders. Jacobson compared compared Chaim Weizmann to Truman’s great hero, Andrew Jackson, and Truman acceded to a meeting with Weizmann.
Of course, the president’s support for partition and recognition of Israel — no matter the advice received from trusted friends or even 1948 political realities — was ultimately Truman’s to make. Truman’s deep knowledge of the Bible and the prophecy of Jewish redemption and his profound sympathy for admitting Jewish DPs to Palestine were critical considerations (while at the same time he indulged, privately, in scathing anti-semitic comments and stereotypes typical of his era). Nevertheless, Truman wrote to Lowenthal in 1952 that “I don’t know who has done more for Israel than you have.”
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Alan Silver is JCRC’s immediate past president. JCRC is the public affairs voice of the Jewish community and the only local agency dedicated to protecting Jewish interests and promoting Jewish ideals.