Skip to content

In Recognizing Israel, Truman Honored America's Promises

In Recognizing Israel, Truman Honored America's Promises

By Michael T. Benson

Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett once said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that FDR wanted to play every instrument in the band “and that’s a good way to get a split lip.” While the Roosevelt enigma still looms large over the U.S. presidency, his position with regard to American support of a Jewish state in Palestine is even more mercurial. In “Promises Wilted in the Mideast,” Bill Tammeus recounted some of Roosevelt’s statements to King Ibn Saud in February 1945 that included a pledge that the president would make “no move hostile to the Arab people.” What Mr. Tammeus did not mention were the polar opposite promises made by FDR in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a policy long supported by the United States government as stated in the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms of 1944 stated explicitly their support of a democratic Jewish state in Palestine. In the mid-1940s, numerous resolutions were passed in both the House and Senate calling for a Jewish state in Palestine. To these resolutions, acting Secretary of State Edward Stettinius sought to assuage Arab anxiety by stating that such actions merely “represented the views of the members of the two Houses and would not have been binding upon the Executive.” Such was the view of a State Department bent on inexorable opposition to a Jewish state based on geopolitical, strategic, and military grounds.

While FDR may have promised much to the Saudi king, both his private and public comments to supporters of a Jewish state in America were much different. In separate letters to both Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Robert Wagner of New York in October 1944, Roosevelt committed himself personally to a “free and democratic Jewish commonwealth” in Palestine. For every promise made to King Saud, there was a Rooseveltian counter promise – such as this one to Henry Morgenthau, Jr., – that included a plan calling for “barbed wire” around Palestine and moving Arabs out as Jews moved in. Fearing diminished support within the Jewish community just a few weeks following his meeting with King Saud, Roosevelt authorized Rabbi Stephen Wise to tell the press that the president stood by his pledge to work toward the realization of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Such was the entangled web of American policy and promises in the Middle East that Harry Truman inherited in April 1945. In more than half century since the president’s historic recognition of the Jewish State, Truman has become widely recognized as the one American who did more to assist in the creation of Israel than any other individual. As Trygve Lie, first Secretary General of the United Nations, stated, “I think we can safely say that if there had been no Harry Truman, there would be no Israel today.”

Critics of Truman’s immediate act of recognition have accused the president of everything from crudely pandering to American Jews for money and votes to providing the classic case of the determination of American foreign policy by domestic political considerations. And while Mr. Tammeus may cite the Arab belief that Truman broke FDR’s promise to King Ibn Saud, he was merely fulfilling America’s prior commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

It is clear that the principal foundation of American-Israeli partnership owes more to the historical affinities reaching back deeply into the national experience of both peoples than to any transitory conditions of political harmony or international expediency. The immense disparity between the size and power of the United States and that of Israel is outweighed by a deep harmony of values, memories, spiritual connections, and democratic loyalties.

Such values were evidenced in the early days of our republic. When Benjamin Franklin formally proposed before the Continental Congress of 1776 the adoption of the Seal of the American Union portraying Moses parting the waves of the Red Sea, Thomas Jefferson preferred a less bellicose design. Jefferson’s conceived pictorial depicted the children of Israel struggling through the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Though neither proposition was adopted by the Congress, the following was chosen from the Book of Leviticus for inscription on the Liberty Bell, the national symbol of independence: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (25:10). Indeed, Judaic heritage deeply impressed the minds, hearts, and attitudes of America’s early settlers and helped to shape the nascent republic.

Despite overwhelming public opinion in the mid 1940s in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, such a proposition posed substantial security risks to a United States State Department bent on “containing” Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. All of Truman’s foreign policy advisors, to a man, were dead-set in their opposition to the president’s support of a Jewish state. The strongest opponent to Truman was, ironically, the man whom the president admired most and even called “the greatest living American” – General George C. Marshall.

Two days before Israel’s declaration of independence, Marshall made an ominous threat to publicly oppose the president on this issue. While such opposition would have been catastrophic for the Truman Administration, the president nevertheless granted immediate recognition to Israel. He thus fulfilled a pledge made to the famed Zionist leader, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, just a few weeks earlier: “You can bank on us. I am for partition.”

The supreme virtue of Harry S. Truman was his readiness – time and again – to risk both his popular standing as well as his political career by making unpopular decisions that were in the long-range interests of the country. “One of the proudest moments of my life,” is how President Truman described his courageous decision to recognize the State of Israel over five decades ago.

Truman once remarked that it is impossible for a public man to constantly worry about what history and future generations will say about the decisions he has to make. Rather, “He must live in the present, do what he thinks is right at the time, and history will take care of it.” As evidenced by the historical record and his contradictory promises, such was not the view of Franklin Roosevelt on the question of Palestine