Armstrong State University
On May 13, 1948, the Jews of Palestine declared independence, claiming for themselves the lands into which they had immigrated over the previous sixty years. Statehood came as the solution to increasing Jewish persecution in Europe (but over the opposition of the British government which had held the Palestinian Mandate since the end of WWI). The Arab reaction was immediate and violent. They called the day alnakbah, the catastrophe, a word that aptly describes the events that followed: Arab armies mounted a massive assault on the new Jewish Nation. The ensuing violence led to the destabilization of the Middle East, threatened American access to vital regional oil reserves, and opened up the possibility of Soviet involvement that, in the context of increasing Cold War tensions, had particularly dangerous worldwide implications.
President Harry Truman, who presided over the decision to support Jewish statehood, acted against the best advice of nearly every foreign policy expert within his sphere of influence, both at home and abroad, all of whom accurately predicted disastrous results. Although historians and biographers have emphasized his humanitarian motives,President Truman’s support for Israel is best explained as the product of a complex interaction between his American Judeo-Christian worldview and domestic political exigencies.
America’s long history of interest in a Jewish homeland forms an essential part of the background for Truman’s worldview. One can trace the earliest efforts for a Jewish statehood to England in the seventeenth century with the publication of The World’s Great Restauration, or the Calling of the Iewes. This text was critical in inspiring the Puritan belief that they were a new Israel, liberated from English oppression by God, who was delivering them into a new promised land. This sense of kinship with Israel would become a guiding principle for the Puritans and would come to form a part of the American cultural mindset. John Adams famously expressed his support for a homeland for the Jews, although he envisioned it as step on the way to their conversion to Christianity. The notion of a new nation of Israel attained more popular support with the advent of eighteenth century evangelical Christianity with its more pointed end-times focus, within which the re-establishment of Israel in the Promised Land played a critical part. Interestingly, support was low among early Jewish immigrants to the United States, for whom assimilation was the goal. It was only later, near the end of the nineteenth century that Jewish advocacy increased, as Jews from Eastern Europe, who had placed greater value on the preservation of orthodoxy, made their way to the United States in greater numbers.
During the same period, although fewer and less influential, there were small pockets of support throughout Western Europe for a Jewish homeland. It was there that Zionism found formal expression from Hungarian journalist Theodore Herzl, who had covered the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, an infamous incident of institutionalized anti-Semitism in the French Army. Herzl, who was Jewish, responded by publishing Der Judenstaat in 1896, which would become the manifesto for a Jewish State. In it he clearly articulates the problem of continuing Jewish persecution, and suggests a radical solution: “that sovereignty be granted [the Jews] over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation…” Thus, the Zionist ideal was born.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, Zionism had gained an audience in America as well, especially among evangelical Christians, in part as a function of a wider fundamentalist reaction to the encroaching evils of modernism. There was an ardent element of dispensationalism associated with Christian Zionism in this era, which longed for the establishment of Israel as a way of hastening the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is best illustrated in the work of William Blackstone, a lay preacher and author of the “Blackstone Memorial” in 1891. It was a petition, eventually signed by 413 prominent Americans including the Speaker of the House, several Congressmen, industrialists, intellectuals, and a variety of famous Christian and Jewish clergymen, calling on President Benjamin Harrison to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Published five years before Der Judenstaat, it indicated that Zionism was not just a European Jewish movement, but was diverse and widespread. The “Memorial” was persuasive enough that it caught the attention of one of Harry Truman’s heroes, President Woodrow Wilson, and led to a 1922 congressional resolution “favoring the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This resolution formed the basis for later declarations, setting an official precedent for American advocacy for Jewish statehood.
Arab resentment of Jewish immigration into Palestine has an equally long history. There were editorials in major Arab newspapers going as far back as 1898, expressing resentment that “the impoverished of the most miserable people [the Jews], whom all the governments of the world are expelling from their countries, have so mastered [requisite] knowledge and civilization that they can come to [our] country, colonize it and transform its [former] masters into wage laborers and its affluent into paupers.” This sentiment was by no means unique. The overwhelming majority of Arabs believed Jewish immigration to be a form of European colonization, clearly expressed in a 1910 editorial from the Egyptian newspaper Al Manar: “[n]o one doubts that Zionist colonization, in other words foreign seizure of the land of Palestine, is based on political and economic matters which cannot be hidden from those with eyes to see…the [native] inhabitants become slaves to those who have ambitions in this land... ” Within a short period of time Arab reaction acquired a more hostile tone; threats of violence against Jewish immigrants and elements of Arab governments that supported Jewish immigration, were common.
The situation became still more complicated near the end of WWI. The Arabs found themselves presented with an opportunity for independence from the Ottoman Empire, as France and England divided up the Middle East between them. This hope was primarily based on the secret correspondence between Hussein Ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca, and British High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, which seemed to contain a commitment from the British to help create and defend an independent Arab nation in exchange for assistance in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. So it was that the Balfour Declaration in 1917 led to confusion and outrage from every corner of the Near East, as it expressed British intent to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This attracted American attention. Woodrow Wilson, who had initially expressed approval for the Declaration, sent a delegation to Syria to investigate. This delegation, the King-Crane Commission, responded sympathetically to the Arab position, and recommended “serious modification of the extreme Zionist program for Palestine of unlimited immigration of Jews, looking finally to make Palestine distinctly a Jewish State.” This finding was not popular in America, coming as it did near the high water mark of American Zionism. So began the contentious relationship between the American foreign policy community, which dealt with the issue of Palestine as a complex policy problem with long-range implications, and the American public, for whom the issue was laden with emotional and religious meaning. It was another precedent that would influence Harry Truman decades later.
Just a few years after, in 1922, the League of Nations assigned the British the postwar Mandate for Palestine. Predictably, conflict between Arabs and Jews escalated as immigration increased, requiring an increased British military presence, which heightened the perception of a European imperialist agenda. This, in turn, fed the flames of Arab rage, which led to more violence. To make matters worse, what had been a steady trickle of Jewish immigration into the Holy Land since the late nineteenth century (with the exception of the years of the British Mandate) became a flood by the mid-1930’s in response to the rise of totalitarian governments in Germany and the Soviet Union. Simmering Arab resentment exploded in open revolt against the British occupation forces in 1936. The rebellion reached its peak in 1938 when the British government, unable to bring resolve the conflict militarily, initiated peace negotiations. The resulting settlement in 1939 included the White Paper, which placed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Although this appeased the Arabs, from the Zionist perspective it came at the worst possible time. A humanitarian crisis was building in Europe on a scale that the world was just beginning to understand. At best, millions of Jews were displaced and were in desperate need. There were European countries willing to absorb some of them, but none of them offered a permanent solution to the problem. The United States was not an option either, as immigration had been strictly limited under the National Origins Act of 1924. The Roosevelt administration made an effort to lift the restrictions, but politics at the time created an atmosphere where change was unlikely since it would probably come at the cost of its domestic agenda. On the other hand, Arab anger put American oil interests in the Middle East in jeopardy.
No one will ever know how things would have turned out had Roosevelt handled the issue. He died suddenly at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, and Harry S. Truman, former Missouri farmer and self-made man of the people, found himself catapulted into the Oval Office. There was a lot to learn and little time in which to learn it. Although Truman had ample political experience and was ostensibly pro-Zionist, he had little exposure to foreign policy, nor was he well-briefed on events in Palestine before he assumed the presidency. What little he knew about the creation of a Jewish state he had learned a few years before as a Senator through interactions with Zionist extremists interested in his support for the creation of a Jewish army. The State Department brought him up to speed in short order, however. The issue of Palestine was pressing, part of a whole network of connected crises worldwide, and not something that could have been put on the back burner. There is scholarly consensus on this point. The issue under consideration is not whether Truman knew what he was facing, but why he made the decisions he made given his knowledge of the devastating results that would surely follow statehood.
It is clear that the president was well served by his State Department, given the amount of information they gave him during the first few months in office. The matter was urgent enough to solicit a memo from Edward Stettinius, acting secretary of state, just three days after Truman assumed the presidency. In it he warns the new president that “there is continual tenseness in the situation in the Near East largely as the result of the Palestinian question and as we have interests in that area which are vital to the United States, we feel that this whole subject is one that should be handled with the greatest care and with a view to the long-range interests of this country.” Just two weeks later, Joseph Grew, a career State Department officer, sent Truman another memo which reiterated the warning.
In the interests of thoroughness, Grew also sent along a copy of the minutes of a critical 1945 meeting between Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud, signed by both afterward to ensure their authenticity, in which Ibn Saud made clear Arab animosity toward the creation of a Jewish state. In his Memoirs, Truman admits to having received, read and understood them. Grew sent yet another memorandum to the president about two weeks later in advance of a meeting between Truman and Winston Churchill, where the issue of Palestine was expected to come up. Grew again reminded the president that it was standing policy that “no decision regarding [Palestine] should be taken without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.” A little more than a month later, Truman responded to a worried message from Egyptian Prime Minister Nokrashy Pasha, reassuring him that “in view of the Government of the United States no decision should be taken regarding the basic situation in Palestine without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.” His use of the “full consultation” formula indicates that he accepted it as established and reasonable policy.
Of course, the president relied on the opinions of others as well, especially David Niles and Clark Clifford. Niles, who was Jewish, had served with FDR as an adviser on issues related to minority and ethnic groups and stayed on with Truman in a similar role. Clifford was Chief White House Counsel and one of Truman’s closest political advisors. Both Niles and Clifford were experts in the byzantine complexities of Washington politics, but neither of them had any diplomatic or foreign policy experience. Plainly speaking, they functioned primarily as political consultants, and although Niles was somewhat more circumspect, working to guide the president with respect to the needs of his Jewish constituency, Clifford’s priorities were more blatantly political. Truman biographer David McCullough relates an exchange between Clifford and career State Department diplomat Loy Henderson, in which Clifford insists that “the most important thing for the United States is for the president to be reelected.” Both Niles and Clifford were strident and persistent in their support of a Jewish state, and consistently criticized the State Department, the Defense Department, the British Foreign Service, and any other agency or person that opposed it.
This was a problem because Truman needed as much help as he could get from all of those sources. An unstable Middle East was not Truman’s only worry. The situation in Europe was deteriorating, and by 1947, two things were clear: the refugee crisis was worse than anyone had imagined, and it was going to complicate postwar recovery significantly. Moreover, there was a Cold War dimension to the problem, a real danger of Soviet intervention on the side of a Jewish State should the United States not support statehood, and an equivalent danger that the Arab world would align with the Soviet Union and deny the United States access to its oil reserves if the United States did support statehood.
It is quite clear that, although the situation was volatile and complex, the president was more than adequately informed. Although Truman’s subsequent decisions are often examined in the light of humanitarian idealism, it is ultimately a simplistic and unsatisfying explanation for his support of statehood. There is no doubt that Truman was horrified by the full implications of the Holocaust and was deeply moved by the unimaginable suffering of refugees who remained in the camps after the war, all of which he received in detail in the Harrison Report. Clearly there was a humanitarian element, but the president was at least equally subject to the force of his western, Christian worldview, which interacted seamlessly with the domestic political situation.
A worldview is more than just a set of strongly-held opinions. Historian N.T. Wright explains that a worldview is “the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerg[ing] into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims [author’s emphasis], which function as principle expressions of the worldviews.” A worldview includes stories, symbols and basic questions and answers, all of which form a transparent basis for what one does; behavior, in other words, arises irreducibly from worldview. One cannot escape its influence. It is both the message and the medium through which it is sent. Paradoxically, it compels us to action and constricts our perceptible freedom. As extraordinary a man as Harry Truman was, he was still subject to the confines of his worldview. His stories and symbols arose from the Bible and from American history. His basic questions and answers were a function of his frame of reference as a struggling mid-western farmer before WWI, as an officer during the war and in the Jackson County political machine after it. Taken as a whole, all of these things made the plight of European Jews even more compelling and predisposed him to act on behalf of the Jewish refugees at great risk and against the best expert advice he had at hand.
The president’s willingness to intervene to support Jewish statehood and the fact that the recipients of the intervention were white Europeans, was probably not a coincidence. Truman was, after all, the product of his time and nativist Missouri upbringing; even as charitable a biographer as David McCullough is clear about the presence of some degree of bigotry on Truman’s part, although a charge of racism in the modern sense would be anachronistic. Furthermore, Truman did not lump Jews into the same category as “negroes and Chinamen,” a fact he makes clear when he criticizes the State Department for doing so. The strong relationship he formed with his Jewish friend Eddie Jacobsen, and the fact that some of Truman’s closest advisers were Jewish, is further indication of his differentiation of Jews from other minority groups.
While one might think that Truman’s white, Protestant background prejudiced him against Jews, the opposite was true. Instead, Truman’s Christian beliefs led him to sympathize with Israel, the people he saw as the rightful owners of the biblical Promised Land. Clark Clifford, one of Truman’s closest advisers, and Alfred Lilienthal, an Arabist working in the State Department during the Truman administration, both indicated that the president was a biblical literalist who believed that scriptural truth formed the basis for moral decisions and that secular government naturally arose from its principles. In his Memoirs, Truman remembered wishing that “God almighty would give the Children of Israel an Isaiah, the Christians a St. Paul, and the Sons of Ishmael [the Arabs] a peep at the Golden Rule.” The establishment of Israel was not just a moral imperative, but a way in which Truman could participate in the work of God on earth.
At some level Truman seems to have understood his role in just those terms. In summarizing the importance of Truman’s support of Israel during the struggle for statehood in a 1949 meeting, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog explicitly equated Truman with Cyrus the Great, the Persian King who liberated Israel from captivity in Babylon in the seventh century B.C., allowing them to reestablish themselves in the Promised Land after a long exile. According to Herzog, Truman reacted emotionally, rising from his chair with tears in his eyes to ask the Rabbi if “his [Truman’s] actions for the sake of the Jewish people were indeed to be interpreted thus and the hand of the Almighty was in the matters.” Years later at a Jewish Theological Seminary graduation ceremony, when his lifelong friend Eddie Jacobsen introduced him as the man who had helped create Israel, Truman responded, “[w]hat do you mean helped create? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”
Predictably, Truman’s humanitarianism did not extend to the native Arabs who were living in Palestine during this period, although they outnumbered the Jewish newcomers at least three to one. It was not one of the large, open spaces of the world as Zionist advocacy groups claimed, but a land teeming with an indigenous population that was not eager to share limited resources with European Jews. Truman was well aware of this, as it was the opinion of his State Department, the Department of Defense, the British Office of Foreign Policy and the United Nations delegation sent to assess the issue in 1947. This is has also been the dominant historiography since then, a few revisionist treatments to the contrary.
One might explain this apparent callousness by returning to Truman’s Christian roots, particularly the ancient biblical relationship between the Jews of the Bible and their enemy the Philistines (an ancient Semitic word from which we render the English word “Palestinian”), with whom they fought almost constantly for a millennium. The Bible portrays the Philistines as violent, territorial pagans, prone to dishonorable activities such as espionage, sabotage and simple theft. In a literary sense, they are the nemesis against which God’s covenant people Israel are contrasted. It is worth repeating that Truman identified himself as a Christian who believed that the Bible was the literal word of God, a reliable historical account. He was operating from within the confines of his biblical worldview. Against this religious background, he probably perceived no alternative other than to judge the Palestinian Arabs less worthy of the land that the Jews.
Another facet of Truman’s worldview emerges when one considers the symbolic relationship between the Jewish struggle to carve out a homeland in the midst of a resistant native population, and the similar events that marked European colonization of the New World. The Spaniards, for example, swept aside the native inhabitants of Central and South America in order to claim that land for Church and country in the fifteenth century. The English pursued much the same course in their colonization of America, displacing countless indigenous people as they expanded further west. The justification lay in the early acceptance of Puritan John Winthop’s vacuum domicilium; they were expanding into “empty lands” that belonged to them by virtue of their ability to make “fair use” of them. Truman’s other “hero” was Andrew Jackson, whose life the president had studied in depth. Jackson, infamously, was an ardent supporter of the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the southeast to make way for white settlers moving west. Truman himself came from settler stock; these were not just old stories, but his family history. The pioneering spirit of the Jewish immigrants would likely have touched on his some of his deepest values, compelling him to act on their behalf.
Moreover, even a cursory perusal of the way that Jewish colonization of Palestine played out reveals a striking similarity to this early American Christian narrative and suggests the influence of the worldview in terms of how the Truman administration handled it. The Jewish immigrants were fleeing persecution into a land promised them by God; the fact that the desirable land was populated already was irrelevant. The Arabs, like the Native Americans and indigenous Latin Americans, were too primitive to make good use of it, which justified their removal in favor of a people who could. If force was required to accomplish this, then surely the goal justified it. This was a narrative to which God-fearing, patriotic Americans could connect, flowing as it did from their own history. Furthermore, Truman’s American colonial cultural narrative made it easy to identify with another country fighting for freedom against an oppressive occupying government (which happened to be England).
After all, Truman was famously prone to siding with the underdog, which perfectly describes the position in which the nascent Jewish state found itself. It was a label with which he himself identified for a number of reasons. Small in stature and possessing no extraordinary presence, he was always the little guy batting in the big leagues, the scrappy farm boy no one could keep down. The most obvious example of these characteristics was his climb up the political ladder from a family of no particular means to attain the Vice Presidency as the second choice. Also, he experienced a string of failed business, so he knew what it was to struggle. However, Truman also enjoyed significant success as an Army officer, earning the respect his men despite his nondescript appearance. His start as a politician in the Pendergast organization in Jackson County followed the same track, as he worked his way up from the bottom to become a Senator in 1935 (as Boss Tom’s fourth choice). Through it all, Truman sympathized with the ordinary people and expressed contempt for politicians who advanced themselves at the expense of the people. Accordingly, it is understandable that he connected so powerfully with tiny Israel struggling against the British government and the Arab world. It probably seemed to be the biblical story of David and Goliath come to life.
Truman could not resist supporting such courageous people living under such tough circumstances. Indeed, his experiences had conditioned him to take responsibility for the less fortunate, and to defend those who could not defend themselves. His life is rife with examples. He stayed on the farm after his father died, nearly working himself to death in the process. His service as the commander of an artillery battery during WWI instilled in him the value of compassionate, sacrificial leadership. He took the oath to protect the men under his command seriously and was always proud that none were killed. Furthermore, although it seems trite by modern cynical reasoning, Truman truly believed that the purpose of American involvement in the War was to “make the world safe for Democracy,” just as Woodrow Wilson had said it was. He was there to make sure that weaker, more vulnerable nations stayed free.
It is not surprising that he would feel accountable for the well-being of the Jewish refugees who were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves and needed a powerful ally. At his most basic, Truman was a populist politician, a man of the people who always identified most strongly with the ordinary folks. No putting on airs for Harry Truman. Instead he chose to refer to himself as “Mr. Citizen” after leaving the White House. This populist temperament is also important as it relates to Truman’s views on Israel, which follow the pattern of populist support for Jewish statehood going back to the 1919 King-Crane commissioned cited above. To Truman, the issue of Jewish statehood was black or white, right or wrong. Although he clearly grasped the nuances and implications of statehood, he was unwilling to withhold support no matter the consequences. To the contrary, he considered the career diplomats at the State Department to be effete, elitist, and coldly bureaucratic when they insisted on greater diplomatic caution.
Truman was never one to take direction from subordinates easily. At the crux of difficult decisions, when other leaders might have taken the advice of experts, Truman preferred to make the call himself. Although it was in the Army that Truman first learned where the “buck” stopped, his involvement in Tom Pendergast’s Jackson County political machine refined his thoughts on the matter. The “buck” stopped with Boss Tom, who made decisions that subordinates carried out. This mentality had tremendous significance in the way Truman related to his State Department. The president was clear that he would dictate foreign policy and no one else, and he chafed against perceived interference by mid-level State Department bureaucrats. The letters from Joseph Grew and John Stettinius, advising extreme caution with respect to any action taken in Palestine, only made the president more determined to drive policy himself and keep it out of the hands of “the striped pants boys at State.”
Truman’s stint in machine politics did more than just influence his leadership style; it also taught him the fine art of patronage. Although Truman biographer Roy Jenkins insists that Truman avoided corruption at all times, Truman reveals his feelings about the practice in a letter to Bess Wallace, his wife-to-be: “Still, if I were rich I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and officers as yachts and autos.” To be clear, this does not mean that Truman was a corrupt politician any more than his views on race meant that he was a racist in the modern sense. Truman was a man of his time; no more, no less. However, it does suggest a certain mentality. In the practice of patronage, there is an implicit obligation to return favors. This happens both formally and informally, and one can see this operating in Truman’s decision-making process. He had a duty to his Jewish constituency, not simply because they were an influential Democratic voting bloc, but because Jewish Democrats played so important a role in the passage of the New Deal legislation. Disloyalty to his supporters would have been an unthinkable transgression of Truman’s ethical code.
Ultimately, these domestic political exigencies would become inseparably entwined with Truman’s worldview, each influencing the other. The issues were many and varied, but perhaps the clearest is the fact that Truman was serving out the end of Roosevelt’s term. He presided under the auspices of Roosevelt’s mandate and lived beneath Roosevelt’s long shadow. Truman felt an obligation to complete the work that his predecessor had started, and understood that a smooth transition was a critical element in prosecuting the war and, later, maintaining stability in Europe. One can see this mindset operating in several ways.
First, even after calling for the immediate admission of 100,000 European Jews into Palestine, at no time did Truman contemplate allowing unrestricted refugee immigration to America (although he did assign two-thirds of the yearly quota to Germany and eased sponsorship requirements somewhat). This is not to say that the president did nothing to reform strict U.S. immigration laws, just that more radical action was not politically expedient. Of immediate concern were the social reforms that were the crowning achievements of the Roosevelt administration. It was not simply an issue of preserving Roosevelt’s legacy, either; Truman was a reformer at heart and everything the New Deal represented was important to him personally. However, immigration was still a heated political issue and a repeal of the National Origins Act would have been intensely unpopular. The idea was so unpopular that even later, between 1948 and 1950, under his own mandate and near the height of his popularity, Truman was unable to effect any major change to the quota, instead opting for a bizarre workaround that mortgaged increases against future quotas. As the sitting president, Truman was head of the Democratic Party, responsible for creating favorable electoral conditions; the opening of U.S. borders to European immigration would certainly have accomplished the opposite. The pressure was especially high given the disappointing results of the 1946 midterm elections, which gave the Republican Party a slim majority for the first time since 1930. Any further Democratic losses in Congress posed serious threats to the all of the reforms of the 1930’s. In the end, Truman was unwilling to sacrifice his domestic agenda on the altar of the European refugee crisis. Jewish immigration to Palestine, by contrast, was an appealing alternative. One senses here the intersection of several elements of Truman’s worldview: loyalty to his party, a desire to safeguard Roosevelt’s legacy, and a drive to protect the ordinary working folks in the United States, those for whom the New Deal was intended, and who tended to vote Democrat.
Of perhaps equal importance was the upcoming 1948 presidential election. Truman needed money and votes; the New York Jewish lobby had a lot of both, and it strongly favored a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Although humanitarian accounts tend to downplay the importance of the Jewish lobby, it was actually a very powerful and effective interest group, able to quickly marshal popular support and efficiently apply political leverage. They were so persistent, in fact, that Truman banned them from the White House, and refused to meet with Congressional delegations over the issue of Jewish Statehood. Moreover, he had a strong Republican challenge from Thomas Dewey and, worse yet, the possibility that Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry Wallace would dilute the Democratic vote even further. Things looked grim for Truman in 1948; he needed every vote he could get and, while the New York Jewish vote had typically gone to Roosevelt, the Republicans were eagerly courting it by making a public spectacle of pressuring Truman on the issue of Palestine. The wrong decision could cost him the election and the party even more seats in Congress; Truman had a responsibility to prevent that if he could.
Zionist support was not limited to Jewish people in New York. David McCullough points out that, “[s]upport for a Jewish homeland was…extremely good politics in 1948… It was not just American Jews who were stirred by the prospect of a new nation for the Jewish people, but most of America.” Sympathy for European Jews was intense and widespread and Truman knew it. Polls from that period show overwhelming support, on the order of 70 percent or more of those who followed the issue. Three times as many Americans supported Israel as supported the Arabs. These statistics are striking when one considers that Jews comprised less than 4 percent of the U.S. population at that time. The bottom line is that Truman had a responsibility to the people who elected him, and they supported the creation of a Jewish state. Although presidents can make decisions contrary to the will of the people, those decisions are few and far between because of the tremendous expenditure of political capital they require. By 1948 the economy was sputtering due to the austerities of postwar demobilization, unemployment was high and strikes were breaking out all over the country. Truman was at a low point in his popularity ratings (around 38 percent) and simply did not have the capital to spend on an unpopular decision with respect to Israel.
American support for Judaism was diverse, too. It came from some unexpected places, crossing racial and gender barriers when very few other issues did. African Americans identified first with the plight of Jews in Germany, likening their oppression to racist treatment under Jim Crow in the South. With the rise of U.S. sympathy for European Jews, African Americans saw an opportunity to contrast that sentiment with the government’s relative indifference to civil rights. Notable black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston and Phillip Randolph supported the creation of a Jewish army during WWII, and the establishment of the precursor to the Israeli Likud Party in Palestine. Such public support influenced other blacks, who were becoming a political force to be reckoned with.
The reasons behind the support of Israel by women are less well understood, but are probably similar to the reasons for black support. Women sympathized with the Jewish struggle to exist in a hostile environment against overwhelming odds. Also, it is possible that women tended to identify more readily and emotionally with Christianity, particularly its more expressive evangelical form, so they may have had a greater religious connection with the idea of a new nation of Israel in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Here again, in the support for Israel from African Americans and women, one sees the synthesis of politics and worldview, both Truman’s and that of his constituency.
Finally, although the domestic influence of Cold War politics tends to be minimized in discussions of the establishment of Israel, it was a critical domestic policy issue with complex political implications. Postwar Europe was a mess. Money and food were scarce, and recovery efforts were breaking down under the weight of the disastrous refugee situation. To some of these displaced persons, Soviet communism was a viable option if it could meet their minimal requirements for food and shelter, which led to worry about the potential destabilization of Western Europe and the possibility of Soviet intervention. It was Truman himself who warned of this very scenario in the same address in which he articulated what would come to be known as the Truman Doctrine. Truman, as the quintessential “Cold Warrior,” felt a heavy moral responsibility to prevent just such interventions wherever they might arise and certainly took seriously the obligation to draw the line against totalitarian aggression and hold it. He makes this abundantly clear in his Navy Day address given in New York in 1945, which is widely credited as the earliest expression of the doctrine of containment. Truman clearly understood that he could not be perceived as being soft on communism abroad without paying the political price at home. A Jewish homeland in Palestine solved some of those problems, as it relieved some of the refugee pressure in Europe, reduced the possibility of Soviet interference, and provided an option for the Jews still suffering in the camps. It is easy why it was such an attractive alternative for the president; the moral element interacted seamlessly with the political element.
Fear of Soviet subversion, however, was not limited to Europe. Frustration was building in the United States, especially from those with displaced relatives in Europe, over the administration’s failure to resolve the crisis. This, and fear that large parts of Europe were sliding into communism, contributed to concern that domestic radicalism was on the rise. Truman found himself squarely in the crosshairs of the Republican Party, which was determined to make the “soft on communism” charge stick with American voters. Ironically, Truman himself created a sort of scapegoat in Progressive candidate Henry Wallace, accusing him of being a communist dupe, possibly to draw the heat away from himself. Again one finds oneself at the junction of Truman’s worldview and his politics. On one hand, the president was undoubtedly sincere in his desire to help the displaced persons, in his belief that Soviet communism posed an existential threat to the United States, and that he was morally compelled to act protectively. On a deeper level, the very philosophy of communism struck against the core of Truman’s deepest Christian beliefs and most cherished American values. It was godless, anti-capitalist and oppressive; a more fitting foe could hardly be imagined. Indeed, the Cold War is frequently and accurately described as a battle of worldviews for just that reason.
There is no question that standing firm against communist aggression or subversion made very good political and economic sense at home, so allowing a Soviet intervention in the Middle East was unthinkable. As soon as the Soviet Union expressed its desire to support Jewish statehood in advance of any similar move from the United States, the die was cast. Truman had to support Israel or accept a Soviet intervention by default and suffer the political fallout. But there was also the risk of the Arab world allying itself with the Soviet Union, a threat that the Arabs clearly articulated. Although the danger of a Soviet/Arab alliance was real in the event of American support for Israel, former labor attorney and Truman advisor Max Lowenthal convinced the president to call the Arab bluff. Lowenthal was confident that the Arabs would not abandon the West in favor of the Soviet Union, as crude oil sales to the U.S. and Europe made up fully 90 percent of the Arab market. The Soviet economy, by contrast, was still a wreck, reeling from the abrupt termination of Lend-Lease in 1945. Lowenthal was right. Truman played the right card, acquiring the reputation as a hard line anti-communist and reaping a windfall of popularity in America, which likely played a part in propelling him into the White House for a second term.
In the end, whatever the reasons, the United States has become linked with the establishment of Israel, and no single reputation is more bound to that act than Harry Truman’s. What he knew and when he knew it is no longer a compelling historical question. Truman made the only decision he could have made given his religious beliefs, his background as an American with our shared colonial history, and the specific political pressures he faced. Perhaps the most intriguing element is Truman’s self-identification with Cyrus the Great, not just for the religious symbolism but because, intentionally or not, the two men accomplished the same thing. Cyrus released the Jews from exile in the seventh century B.C. not for humanitarian purposes, but to establish a friendly country as a buffer between the Persian Empire and the Egyptian Empire. Truman’s support of a Jewish homeland was similarly understood in the Arab world. When Israel declared statehood in 1948, the Arab world largely perceived it as a projection of American power, an invasive ploy to secure American interests in the Middle East at the expense of its rightful inhabitants. Ultimately it is this perception that has survived and grown, not just in the Middle East, but throughout much of the rest of the world. Since May 13, 1948, Americans have borne this responsibility and are still counting the cost politically, economically and in human lives.
Frank 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, “Worldview and Realpolitik:Harry S. Truman and the Establishment of Israel,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 2 (Aug. 2012).