Truman and the Recognition of Israel

By Michael T. Benson

Delivered at Truman Conference in Key Biscayne, FL

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am both honored and humbled to participate in this program with such a distinguished list of guests and thank those responsible for the invitation to be here, especially Professor Robert Watson. I thought things got off to a rousing start last night with the comments of Professor Berger and the stirring remarks of Rabbi Gordis. If I may, I would like to add one footnote to the Rabbi’s account of the Truman-Weizmann exchange as it was related to me by an eyewitness to the event, Abba Eban, over 10 years ago. . . (anecdote was extemporaneous)…

I certainly don’t mean to sound overly dramatic or maudlin, but studying the life and career of Harry S. Truman changed my life forever. The journey can be traced to a spring morning in 1992 when I entered the doors of the Truman Library for the first time. I hasten to add, Dr. Devine, that my initial research visit was made possible by a generous grant. I made some wonderful friends at the Truman, including my all-time favorite, Liz Safly, who is here this morning. What an amazing facility with such a dedicated staff committed to helping researchers and writers tell the various stories associated with Truman’s career and presidency. I owe all these people an enormous debt of gratitude for their many courtesies and help throughout the past 15 years.

I can state unequivocally that Harry Truman is my hero. And for those of my generation, it might be tough to find many of my associates who list a politician as one of his or her heroes. As Truman was inclined to say, a statesman is nothing more than a politician who has been dead for several years. But for those of us who grew up in an America and its presidency transformed by Watergate and subsequent scandals, we hearken back to an era when politicians were – well, different. There is an element to Truman that is highly rare in today’s politics. Perhaps it is best summarized by a statement made by Eric Severaid of CBS News. He said:

“I am not sure Truman was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea. But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.”

Indeed, Harry Truman does stand like a rock in our nation’s collective memory as we consider many of the decisions which – when made at the time – were incredibly difficult and famously unpopular.
Many revisionists have rushed to note our 33rd president’s faults and the inherent shortcomings in his policies. Their efforts notwithstanding, year after year the courageousness of Truman’s decisions propels him into the ranks of great or near great presidents as determined by America’s renowned political scientists and historians. Not bad for a man who left Washington with a 23 percent approval rating – 4 points lower than when Richard Nixon made his famed wave from the south lawn of the White House as he boarded MarineOne for the last time.
As was noted, I serve as president of a small rural college in central Utah. We even have a Jewish studies program helped along by my good friend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. When the Rabbi first visited our campus nearly 4 years ago, he maintained that such a program was a perfect fit in a town called Ephraim, which is located right next to Mount Nebo, north of a city named Moab, and on the way to Zion National Park!

Ever since launching into my administrative career 10 years ago at the University of Utah, I have taught a class in international relations, American history, government, or the U.S. Presidency each and every semester. And I intend to do so for the rest of my academic career. Each course begins with this same admonition regardless of the year or the course material or the level of students.

President Truman often stated: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

I have been privileged to try and tell a side of Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel which for years was – I believe – misrepresented and misunderstood. Contrary to what many held and propagated for decades after his historic recognition, I contend that Truman courageously took the action he did not motivated by Jewish money or the desire to win Jewish votes in the 1948 election. This was antithetical to Truman; it was simply not in his make-up. Rather, his decision was based on, in his words, “righting an historic wrong” and fulfilling a promise made by every administration since Woodrow Wilson in America’s support of the Balfour declaration: namely backing the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.

And this was founded on a fundamental commitment to doing what was right for the right reason and at the right time. How else to explain why Truman was willing to go up against a pantheon of political power with names all of us will instantly recognize: Marshall, Lovett, Rusk, Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, Kennan, and Forrestal to name just a few. To a man, each of these people opposed Truman’s recognition of Israel based on geopolitical and strategic grounds. And, in point of fact, it was not passive opposition. In the case of the man whom he admired most, General George C. Marshall even threatened to break with the President over his stance and to oppose him publicly just two days prior to the British withdrawal in May 1948.

When asked what most impressed him about Truman after spending 10 years of his life researching and writing about the President, David McCullough responded that 3 decisions made during his presidency revealed the inner core and character of the president:
  • Berlin Airlift – no idea how to do it, but we’re still going to do it
  • Desegregation of the Armed Forces – incredibly unpopular from someone from Missouri; Civil Rights Act signed by LBJ was actually signed at the Truman Library in Independence
  • Recognition of Israel

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 realization.

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 peace.

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:

And every wretch
Pining and pale before
Plucks comfort from his looks
His liberal eye doth give to every one
A little touch a Harry in the night.

May God bless America and the memory of Harry S. Truman. Thank you very much.