Truman's Actions Speak Much Louder Than His Words

Truman's Actions Speak Much Louder Than His Words

By Michael T. Benson


Much has been made of the discovery of a long-lost diary with the writings of President Harry S. Truman, especially his derogatory musings on Jews. While even the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial has dismissed Truman’s writings as “typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common” in the 1940s, a much more important point must be made relative to this finding: there was no other American who did more to assist in the creation of the State of Israel than Harry S. Truman.

In point of fact, 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.” In the rush to label the president’s thoughts as evidence of thinly veiled anti-semitism, one marvels at the lengths to which Truman was willing to risk support within his own administration – and his own political future – on behalf of the nascent Jewish state.

In the fifty-five years since his historic recognition of Israel, critics of Truman’s action 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. A careful examination of the historical record, however, reveals just the opposite.

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.”

Truman’s recently discovered writings are evidence of his reaction to the overwhelming pressure placed upon the White House, in this instance a response to a phone call from Henry Morgenthau in July 1947. During the period 1947-48, Truman received 48,600 telegrams, 790,575 cards, and 81,200 pieces of other mail all urging the White House to support Jewish aims in Palestine – far and away a record for unsolicited mail for any president until that time. And all these contacts occurred long before mass mailings, phone trees, and the sophisticated strategies of modern-day political action committees.

Truman’s home of Independence, Missouri, was very much a frontier town and one in which progressive attitudes toward ethnic minorities – African-Americans and Jews included – were noticeably absent. Truman’s own mother-in-law refused to allow one of the president’s closest friends and business partners, Eddie Jacobsen, into her home because he was a Jew. It is a matter of record that Truman made disparaging comments about African Americans, yet he owns the distinction of desegregating the armed services, something that led Strom Thurmond to bolt the Democratic Party and form the Dixiecrats.

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 decision to recognize the State of Israel over five decades ago. The proof of Truman’s core values – and his unyielding support of a Jewish State – is in the proverbial pudding of his courageous actions.

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 or what personal writings might reveal. Rather, “He must live in the present, do what he thinks is right at the time, and history will take care of it.” As it relates to his support of the Jewish State, fifty-five years have certainly proven that Harry Truman was right.

Michael Benson, author of “Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel” (Praeger), is president of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.