Few events, if any, have had such a dramatic impact on Arab-American relations as the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948. Though the affair itself was the culmination of at least sixty years of effort on the part of multi-national Zionist advocacy groups, it looked for a time as though the project were doomed to fail. There was simply too much resistance to the idea, and too little support from influential nations abroad. The events of WWII changed everything though, and the Truman administration found itself in the unenviable position of having to address the issue in light of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of six million European Jews.
This would have been a full-time job had it been the only issue on Truman’s agenda, but it was not. He was also dealing with the beginnings of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the infrastructural and economic reconstruction of postwar Europe, and a fragile domestic political climate that was still recovering from the sudden loss of Franklin Roosevelt. To make matters worse, while Truman had extensive experience in Midwestern machine politics, he was a relative neophyte in the realm of foreign policy. He had been largely excluded the circles of power as Roosevelt’s vice president, so he also had to work against a tremendous information deficit generally speaking.
How Truman coped with the problem of Palestine under such difficult circumstances is the subject of A Safe Haven Allis and Ronald Radosh. It is a relatively straight-forward history of the events that led up to the U.S. recognition of Israel just eleven minutes after its declaration of independence, and that is the great strength of the book. The authors begin with a brief summary of the development of Arab-American relations under Roosevelt, dwelling particularly on the 1945 Bitter Lake meeting between Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud. This is a critically important event, which would set the tone for Arab intransigence regarding the idea of a Jewish State in Palestine. Importantly, it also reveals at least part of the motivation behind U.S. State Department reluctance to move ahead with the proposal and gives the context for the adversarial relationship that would develop between State and the White House over Israel. The authors go on to relate the most relevant developments between 1942 and 1948, including the Biltmore Declaration in support of a Jewish Home in Palestine, the Harrison Report, which revealed the deplorable conditions of postwar Jews (which probably influenced Truman more than any other single event), and the Anglo-American Committee, formed subsequently to study the feasibility of admitting 100,000 European Jews into Palestine. Allis and Ronald Radosh treat the issues that arise over these 100,000 at length; this is extremely helpful, as an understanding of the U.S., British, Soviet and Arab political maneuverings over it explains why the British eventually referred the issue to the U.N. (although there were economic considerations as well), the growing chasm between the U.S. and many other U.N. member nations, and the eventual general disappointment many of them expressed when the U.S. recognized Israel, essentially unilaterally.
The assumption throughout the book is that Truman acted largely for humanitarian purposes, and that domestic politics played only a small role in the president’s decision-making process. The authors plant this foundational assumption in the preface: “Truman wrote that his challenge was to create neither an Arab nor a Jewish policy, but an American policy [that] ‘…aimed at the peaceful solution of a world trouble spot…based on the desire to see promises kept and human misery relieved.’” There is no doubt that this is true; it is not the only time Truman said something like this. Truman also stated in a letter to Senator Walter F. George (R-GA) that “[he was] not interested in the politics of the situation, or what effect it will have on votes in the United States. [He was] interested in relieving a half million people of the most distressful situation that has happened in the world since A. Hitler made his invasion of Europe.” The authors also recount Truman’s well-known response to Defense Secretary James Forrestal’s advice to move cautiously so as not to endanger U.S. access to Arab oil: “Truman had heard enough and answered that he didn’t want to handle this from the standpoint of oil, ‘but from the standpoint of what is right’.” This depiction of Truman as an essentially moral person, who thought in terms of what was right or wrong, squares neatly with David McCullough’s award-winning biography of him.
This is not to say that the authors entirely discount the importance of domestic politics with respect to Truman’s decision-making process. This is, from the reviewer’s perspective, the weakest aspect of their argument, as they repeatedly emphasize the impact (or potential impact) on the Democratic constituency of every decision Truman made relating to Israel, while simultaneously minimizing it. For example, they relate the story of a meeting between the President and Max Lowenthal, a prominent Washington political figure and one of the most influential Jewish voices on the issue of Israel, wherein Lowenthal directly, almost crassly, addressed the political capital to be gained by support of increased Jewish immigration into Palestine: “[t]he important thing politically, he emphasized to Truman, ‘was to have authorization before the election for the admission of a large number of displaced persons in Palestine.’ If they managed to get this done, Lowenthal was certain, ‘it would bury the Republican party in [the upcoming] election’.” Indeed, the foreign policy arm of British Parliament expressed similar sentiments. According to British Diplomat, Lord Inverchapel, Truman refused to delay making a statement of support for the immediate admission of 100,000 Jews to Palestine in order to scoop Truman’s Republican rival Thomas Dewey, and thereby “catch the whole Jewish vote in the five eastern states.” This is why, he explained, Truman “dare not keep quiet.”
Moreover, the authors’ assertion that Truman’s decision to support Israel’s declaration of Statehood was driven primarily by humanitarianism is fraught with other kinds of difficulty. First, it is simply not very believable. From the time of Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Truman was understandably motivated to continue the work that Roosevelt had started. Truman understood the importance that “the United States’ European allies…be assured that the country was in good hands and that FDR’s policies would continue as planned.” Despite Truman’s assertion to his cabinet that he would be “president in his own right,” the pressure to advance Roosevelt’s agenda must have been acute, and would have required the support of a strong political left, which would necessarily have included liberal and progressive legislators, a large number of whom were strongly in favor of Jewish Statehood. The pressure those pro-Zionist legislative delegations exerted on Truman was so significant that he eventually refused to meet with them at all. Secondly, there is a significant and growing body of scholarship that seeks to refute the humanitarian argument, contending that the president was primarily motivated by domestic political concerns, most notably the need to be elected in his own right, ironically. In 1948 Truman was facing a formidable Republican opponent in Thomas Dewey, not to mention a potential spoiler with Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who threatened to split the Democratic vote. Even given the jump start of incumbency, the president needed every Democratic vote he could get, and the majority of those voters were strongly pro-Zionist. Furthermore, Truman himself claimed to have no Arab constituency to speak of and no need to make a decision that they would view favorably.
With A Safe Haven, Allis and Ronald Radosh have produced a thoughtful addition to the corpus of scholarship on the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine. It is a detailed, erudite treatment of a very complex series of events that never descends into academic pedantry, and for those reasons is an excellent resource for the casual reader. It is also a useful primer for the more serious student, though a more thorough exploration of the historiography of the event is needed for a more balanced understanding.
Armstrong State University
Frank Oesterheld is a senior Liberal Studies major who specializes in the history of the Christian Church, particularly American Fundamentalism. He has spent many years studying Arabic and working in the Middle East. He is currently developing a thesis on the connection between Christian Fundamentalism and Islamic Fundamentalism, which he will develop more fully as a graduate student in the History Department at Armstrong State University.
Frank Oesterheld, review of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, by Radosh, Allis and Ronald, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no.1 (Jan. 2012)