I know other symposia have been held on various other topics and issues relating
to the Truman presidency. I would submit to you this morning, however, that
Truman’s recognition of Israel stands alone in terms of sheer drama given
the critical mass of people and events in the mid to late 1940s. As a moment
in history, it literally has it all for students and lay people alike: the force
of personality, the potential of global conflict, the emotion of post WW 2 revelations
concerning the Holocaust, international intrigue, political machinations, secret
meetings with private promises, and of course, personal vindication and national
As an overlay to the entire episode is what the famed writer, Barbara Tuchman, called the “spongier ground” of history. Intangibles that many historians might dismiss but are, nonetheless, highly relevant to a complete understanding of why Truman did what he did: things such as the friendship between President Truman and Eddie Jacobsen, such as the pledge made privately by the president to the famed chemist, Chaim Weizmann, such as the efforts of Clark Clifford in persuading Robert Lovett to persuade his boss, George Marshall, to NOT break publicly with the president. This is high drama indeed!
For two individuals very close to the issue that unfolded in the early months of 1948, David Niles and UN Secretary Trgye Lie, the indispensable role of Harry Truman is absolutely incontrovertible. Niles was the only Jewish White House staffer in both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and expressed doubt that Israel would have come into existence had FDR lived. I believe that to be the case. Given his predecessor’s inclination of making multiple promises to various groups (Robert Lovett described FDR this way: “He wanted to play every instrument in the band and that’s how you get a split lip), it is impossible to surmise what may or may not have happened had Roosevelt survived. One thing is quite certain, however, one would be hard pressed to find a president willing to stand up to the entire State Department and foreign policy-making apparatus over an issue such as Palestine as Truman did. And Tryge Lie of the United Nations once made this bold assertion: “I think we can safely say that if there had been no Harry S. Truman, there would be no Israel today.”
To be sure, Truman’s recognition of Israel – issued a mere 11 minutes
after David Ben-Gurion’s historic declaration of independence made in
Tel Aviv 57 years ago today – has had enormous implications for our nation
and our foreign policy. Being the student of history that he was, I still maintain
President Truman believed that somehow – someday – peace between
Arab and Jew could be realized. He often reminded visitors and supporters from
both sides that they were cousins – all descendants from Father Abraham
– and that they should try and live together peaceably. He believed –
many contend naively – that economics would bring the two sides together
and that a Tennessee Valley Authority-type project in the Middle East would
force the two sides into a co-dependent arrangement, resulting in a long-term
This of course, has never happened. What has happened finally, however, is recognition by many that a two-state situation is the only viable and workable solution in the region. Truman and the United States embraced this fact in 1947 in their support of the U.N. Partition Plan, even though the borders of the plan were highly controversial and probably unworkable. The principle, nonetheless, remains the same: Truman supported a free and democratic Israel and advocated a similar state-like entity for the Palestinians as well.
As we toured the Little White House last evening, I was reminded of the fact that President Truman and his card-playing friends attempted to teach Winston Churchill how to play poker. Some have recorded that the President even allowed Prime Minister Churchill to win every now and then – despite the fact that he was a very poor player – in order to make him feel better. I believe Truman’s place in history as it relates to his role in recognizing the State of Israel is best summarized by this Sir Winston quotation:
“To every man there comes . . . that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing unique to him and fitted to his talent. What a tragedy, if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the work which would be his finest hour.”
God be thanked that history and fate found Harry Truman both prepared and qualified for one of his finest hours in May of 1948.
If I may, I would like to conclude with this last illustration. One would be hard-pressed to find two more different backgrounds than those belonging to Harry Truman and Dean Acheson. Acheson, with his patrician upbringing and impeccable academic training that included Groton, Yale, and Harvard – and two terms as a clerk to the United States Supreme Court – was everything Truman was not. Truman, conversely, was the only president of the last century, to never have graduated from college and had a string of failed business and career ventures before his career in politics led him to Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, Acheson recognized in Truman those intangible traits that have separated him from so many other chief executives. The dedicatory page in Acheson’s pulitzer prize-winning memoir, Present at the Creation, reads: To Harry Truman – the Captain with the Mighty Heart.”
Well-versed as he was in the classics and Shakespeare, Acheson would often quote this section from Henry V and apply it to the Captain with the Mighty Heart.
Those who are familiar with this play will remember the eve of the famed battle of Agincourt when the British were outnumbered nearly 5 to 1 by the French. As King Harry makes his way through his troops as they contemplate the enormous odds they will face on the battlefield the next day, Shakespeare’s narrator records the scene:
May God bless America and the memory of Harry S. Truman. Thank you very much.