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Seeds of Doubt

Harry Truman's concerns about Israel and Palestine were prescient—and forgotten.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In this prepublication excerpt from his 2014 book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, TNR senior editor John Judis related the little-known story of President Harry Truman’s opposition to the creation of a Jewish state. The United States ended up recognizing Israel in May 1948, but Truman did so reluctantly, preferring instead an Arab-Jewish federation or binational state. After Truman relented and recognized Israel, he expressed private frustration with “the manner in which the Jews are handling the refugee problem.” This buried history was highly relevant to Middle East unrest in 2014 and even more so to the war unfolding in Gaza today.

—Michael Tomasky, editor,
The New Republic

In November 1953, after he had left the presidency, Harry Truman traveled to New York to be feted at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When his old friend Eddie Jacobson introduced him as “the man who helped create the state of Israel,” Truman responded, “What do you mean ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus.” Truman was referring to the Persian King who overthrew the Babylonians in 593 B.C.E. and helped the Jews, who had been held captive in Babylon, return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

In his Memoirs, published in 1956, Truman cast himself as a consistent proponent of the Jewish state, and some of his noted biographers have followed suit. In Truman, David McCullough writes that when Truman recognized the new state of Israel in May 1948, he had “no regrets” about what “he achieved.” Truman’s reputed devotion to Israel has become the standard by which subsequent president’s commitment is measured. In 1982, Richard Nixon described Ronald Reagan as the “most pro-Israel president since Truman.” A Boston Globe editorial in 1998 described Bill Clinton as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” In 2009, Charles Krauthammer described George W. Bush as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” And Vice President Joseph Biden declared in 2012 that “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.”

To be sure, Truman had no regrets about Israel after he left office. Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion recounted how when, during a meeting in New York in 1961, he praised the former president for his “constant sympathy with our aims in Israel … tears suddenly sprang to his eyes.” But in the years leading up to, and in the months following, American recognition of Israel in May 1948, Truman was filled with doubt and regret about his role. The rosy portrayal of Truman’s unquestioning commitment to and constant sympathy with Israel, which is often linked to a picture of the younger Truman as a Christian Zionist, is dead wrong.

As president, Truman initially opposed the creation of a Jewish state. Instead, he tried to promote an Arab-Jewish federation or binational state. He finally gave up in 1947 and endorsed the partition of Palestine into separate states, but he continued to express regret in private that he had not achieved his original objective, which he blamed most often on the “unwarranted interference” of American Zionists. After he had recognized the new state, he pressed the Israeli government to negotiate with the Arabs over borders and refugees; and expressed his disgust with “the manner in which the Jews are handling the refugee problem.”

Of course, there were good reasons why Truman failed to achieve a federated or binational Palestine, and I don’t intend by recounting Truman’s qualms to suggest that he was wrong to recognize Israel. But Truman’s misgivings about a Jewish state and later about the Israeli stance on borders and refugees were not baseless.  Truman was guided by moral precepts and political principles and concerns about America’s role in the Middle East that remain highly relevant today. Understanding his qualms is not just a matter of setting the historical record straight. It’s also about understanding why resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians needs to be high on America’s diplomatic agenda.

Some of the same people who portray Truman as a dependable supporter of a Jewish state also describe him as having been a proto-Zionist or a Christian Zionist along the lines of Britain’s Arthur Balfour or David Lloyd George, who in 1917 got the British government to champion a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Truman biography Michael T. Benson says that Truman’s support for Israel was an “outgrowth of the president’s religious upbringing and his familiarity with the Bible.” But Truman’s love for the Bible was partly based on his flawed eyesight. The family Bible, with its extra large print, was one of the few books at home the young Truman could read. By his teens, Truman’s favorite author was the irreverent Mark Twain, and like Twain, he would come to have no patience with religious piety.

Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

Truman was first lobbied to back a Jewish state in September 1945 by Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, the leaders of the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), a coalition of Zionist groups. They urged him to support turning all of Palestine, which was about thirty percent Jewish, over to the Jews. Truman told them that he objected to a religious state, whether Catholic or Jewish. He also expressed fear that trying to establish one would lead to war. In November, Truman repeated his opposition to a Jewish state to a meeting of American diplomats in the Middle East. Proponents of a Jewish commonwealth, Truman said, “didn’t give consideration to the international political situation in that area.” In a December meeting with Jewish representatives, Truman said that “the government of Palestine should be a government of the people of Palestine irrespective of race, creed, or color.”

That fall, Truman had agreed to a British proposal for an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry that would recommend solutions to the refugee crisis and the future of Palestine. The committee handed down its findings in the spring of 1946. It called on Britain to permit 100,000 refugees to enter Palestine, but also recommended that Palestine not become either a Jewish or an Arab state. It proposed instead that it continue under a United Nations trusteeship, administered presumably by Britain. That part of the proposal infuriated the Zionists who successfully lobbied Truman to withhold his endorsement of the plan, but Truman, who favored the idea, sent a State Department official Henry Grady to Britain to devise with British representative Herbert Morrison a specific plan for Palestine’s future.

San Francisco Call Bulletin/University of California BerkeleyHarry Truman and Henry Grady at a dinner honoring the President.

Truman conferred regularly with Grady and in late July approved what was called the “Morrison-Grady Plan.” It would establish a federated Palestine with autonomous Jewish and Arab regions. The British, or whoever the United Nations appointed, would retain control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Negev until the Arabs and Jews, who would enjoy equal representation in a national legislature, were ready to rule all of Palestine without going to war with each other. Truman and State Department were eager to publicly endorse the plan, but Silver and the Zionist lobby mounted a furious campaign against the proposal.

The Zionist lobby, which itself could call on thousands of activists around the country, was joined by Democratic officials and White House aides who were worried that without the Jewish vote in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio, the Democrats could lose Congress that November. (At that time, New York was the important political prize, and the Jewish vote had proven decisive in New York elections.) At a cabinet meeting on July 30, Truman held up a stack of telegrams protesting Morrison-Grady that, according to Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, was “four inches think.” Speaking of the Zionists, Truman exclaimed, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” Truman, who was sensitive to criticism from the British, insisted that he was immune to political pressure on Palestine, but he gave in, and failed to endorse the proposal he had helped to design.

Truman’s defeat on the Morrison-Grady plan marked the end of his active involvement in trying to shape Palestine’s future. From then on, Truman followed a pattern of fleeting involvement and resentful withdrawal. After agreeing under political pressure to take the Zionists’ side, he would withdraw from the issue, leaving it to the State Department, which generally opposed the Zionists. The State Department would then take a position unfriendly to AZEC, and the Zionist lobby would begin pressuring Truman, using the threat of electoral defeat. With the 1948 presidential election looming, this threat was even more credible than in 1946. Truman and the Democrats had to worry not just about the Jewish vote, but also about fundraising from wealthy Jewish contributors. And they had to worry, too, not just about the Republican opponent, but about Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, who charged that a vote for Truman was a “vote to rebuild Nazi Germany.” The political pressure would finally get to Truman, and the pattern would recur.

Thus, after having given in on Morrison-Grady in August 1946, Truman withdrew and turned his attention elsewhere. When the Jewish Agency in Paris issued a new proposal for partitioning Palestine—a breakthrough that occurred over AZEC’s opposition—Truman initially refused to take a public stand, and assured a visiting diplomat that he still could only support “some local autonomy arrangement.” But after visits from Democratic officials worried about Jewish support, lobbying from a major Jewish contributor, and the threat of a Zionist ad campaign against the Democrats, Truman gave in and issued a statement of support. Afterwards, however, a disgusted Truman washed his hands of the issue, writing to a Democratic National Committee official that “the situation is insoluble in my opinion.”

When the British gave up and ceded Palestine’s future to the U.N. in the winter of 1947, Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall initially attempted to take no position whatsoever. Finally, with the 1948 election only a year away, and telegrams, calls, and visits mounting, Truman, after tentatively backing a plan that would divide Palestine into parts roughly proportionate to the Jewish and Arab populations, agreed to help win support for a partition proposal that gave the Arabs only 40 percent of the lands. “I don’t think I’ve ever had as much pressure put on the White House,” Truman wrote in a letter. But after the U.N. passed the proposal in November 1947 and the Arabs took up arms, as the State Department had warned, Truman, resentful toward the “pressure boys,” withdrew and let the State Department handle the repercussions.

That winter, the State Department, worried about the raging war, won Truman’s tacit support for abandoning partition and reviving the idea of a U.N. trusteeship. But when America’s U.N. representative introduced the proposal, the Zionist movement reacted sharply. The movement planned hundreds of nationwide rallies to take place on the evening of May 14, when the new state of Israel was supposed to be announced. Truman’s political advisors warned that the rallies would be used to denounce the president. Truman once again gave in and agreed to recognize the new state that evening.

Yet throughout this period, Truman continued to admit privately that he preferred the Morrison-Grady plan for a federated Palestine and to blame AZEC and also (at various times), the British, the Jews in Palestine, and the Arabs for its abandonment. What’s most remarkable is that he continued to insist Morrison-Grady was the right choice in the months before and after his having recognized the new state of Israel.

In February 1948, Truman told an American diplomat that in 1946 he had “found a sound approach … Grady had gone to London to get implemented but had failed because of British bullheadedness and the fanaticism of our New York Jews.” On May 6, Truman told Rabbi Judah Magnes, the president of the Hebrew University, that it “was a thousand pities” that the Morrison-Grady plan “had not been carried out.” “You Jews and your Arabs are spoiling things,” he complained.

On May 15—the day after he recognized Israel—Truman wrote leftwing editor Bartley Crum, a supporter of the new state, that he thought “the report of the British-American Commission [sic] on Palestine was the correct solution, and, I think, eventually we are going to get it worked out just that way.” On May 18, he told Dean Acheson, who was between jobs at the State Department, that in 1946 “we had the problem solved, but the emotional Jews of the United States and the equally emotional Arabs in Egypt and Syria prevented that settlement from taking place.”

Months later, Truman was still at it. In early September, a delegation of Jewish War Veterans led by Brigadier Julius Klein visited the White House. Truman expected a handshake, a few photos, and a request to appear at the war veterans’ next event, but what he got instead was strenuous lobbying by Klein for arms to Israel. An irritated Truman told the war veterans that he and the British “had agreed on the best possible solution for Palestine, and it was the Zionists who killed that plan by their opposition.”

Was Truman right that Morrison-Grady was the “best possible solution” all along? Certainly, as an American, one has to believe that the best possible solution is one where peoples of different religions and nationalities get along in one country. And it remains, perhaps, an ideal solution, but it was not going to happen in those years after World War II. Even if one sets aside the fierce political opposition in the United States to the proposal, there were ample reasons why the plan for a federated or bi-national Palestine was not feasible.

The Arabs and Jews in Palestine both rejected the plan. The Arabs, who, in Rashid Khalidi’s words, had been “envenomed” by their failed rebellion against Zionism and the British, saw the arrival of more Jewish immigrants as a harbinger to a Jewish-controlled Palestine, while the Jews saw any restriction on their sovereignty (or the size of their state within Palestine) as a threat to their survival in the wake of the Holocaust. Still, in the year before Britain gave up trying to mediate between the contending forces, there were hints of compromise from the Arabs and the Jews. What was finally lacking, however, was an outside power capable of imposing and then enforcing a compromise.

Britain was crippled by its war debts after World War II. It could no longer support an overseas military, and in February 1947 announced the withdrawal of its troops from Greece and Turkey. It threw the future of Palestine into the lap of the U.N. in the hope of being able to remove its troops from there, where it was in the midst of war with Zionist forces. The British believed they could only oversee Palestine if the United States contributed money and troops. They could have believed, with some justification, that they could intimidate the Arabs and that the Americans could intimidate the Jews into co-existing with each other. Truman, however, was willing to contribute money but not troops. The United States had undergone rapid demobilization after World War II, but the Cold War had begun. By 1947, Truman and the State Department were preoccupied with having enough troops to defend Europe against Soviet communism. As the final debate over partition was occurring in the United Nations, the U.S. was in the midst of the Berlin crisis with the Soviet Union. There was no support in the American government, or in the public, for sending troops to Palestine.

Truman rejected sending troops to enforce Morrison-Grady and later to enforce the original U.N. partition plan. Without American troops, the British and then the U.N. were powerless to prevent a civil war and to alter the final results, which left the Jews with almost 80 percent of Palestine, and the Palestinian Arabs stateless and dispersed as refugees throughout the region. Even with an American-led intervention force, the U.N. might still have been unable to prevent a civil war from breaking out or the subsequent war between Israel and the Arab states, but without such a force, there was simply no chance of realizing the Morrison-Grady plan or the original U.N. plan of November 1947. Truman’s nostalgia for the Morrison-Grady plan was based on a fantasy.

United NationsProposed partition of Israel/Palestine in 1947

But the considerations that led Truman to favor a bi-national or federated Palestine were not fantastic, and remain relevant today. There was always a strong moral streak in Truman’s foreign policy. He thought of the world divided between underdogs and bullies and good and evil. He genuinely hated Nazis and sympathized with Jews as their victims. His support for the right of the refugees to emigrate to Palestine reflected his moral conviction rather than any concern about electoral support. And in Palestine, he wanted a solution that was fair to the Arabs as well as to the Jews.

Truman didn’t know all the details of the history of Palestine, but he knew that the Jews had come to Palestine a half century before to establish a Jewish state where another people had lived, and had made up the overwhelming majority for the prior 1,400 years. He was offended by the proposal, pressed by Silver and American Zionists, that a minority should be allowed to rule a majority. He wanted an arrangement that would respect the just claims of both Jews and the Arabs.

After he dropped his public opposition to a Jewish state, and supported some form of partition, Truman continued to be guided by moral considerations. In October 1947, he had endorsed a partition that would more accurately reflect the size of the existing populations. After Israel was established, and had defeated the Arabs, he supported a peace agreement that would allow some of the 700,000 Arab refugees from the war to return to their homes. (The Israeli ambassador to the United States complained that Truman was “sentimentally sympathetic” to the refugees.) In each case, however, Truman backed down under pressure from the Zionist lobby. In August 1949, Truman and the State Department finally gave up trying to influence the Israelis.

Today, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a moral issue. The Jews got their state in 1948, but the Palestinians did not. After the 1948 war, Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt Gaza, and the term “Palestine” was banned from Jordanian textbooks. After the Six Day War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and took over the West Bank and Gaza. It evacuated its settlers from Gaza after 2006, but continues to control its outer access and air space. The Israeli government has allowed over 500,000 Jews to settle in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The “underdogs,” as Truman once put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, are now acting like the “top dogs.”

Truman and the State Department were also worried that the attempt to create a Jewish state in an Arab-dominated region would lead to war and continued strife. Many of their concerns have become outdated. They were worried originally that the Arabs would slaughter the Jews and that the United States would have to prevent a second Holocaust. They worried for decades that American support for Israel would drive the Arabs into the arms of the Soviet Union. But their underlying concern—that a Jewish state, established against the opposition of its neighbors, would prove destabilizing and a threat to America’s standing in the region—has been proven correct.

That’s been even more the case in the wake of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, a Muslim holy site, and its occupation of the West Bank. Opposition to the Israeli occupation was central to the growth of Islamic nationalism in the Middle East in the 1970s and to the rise of international terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa was directed at the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” America’s continued support for Israel—measured in military aid and in its tilt to Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians—has fueled anti-Americanism. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, General David Petraeus, then in charge of operations in Afghanistan said publicly what many American officials privately believe:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Operations]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.

Resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians would not necessarily calm the turbulent Middle East, but at a time when Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and even Lebanon are in chaos and could become havens for international terrorism, it would remove an important source of unrest and allow the United States to act as an honest broker rather than a partisan in the region.

Truman’s solution to the conflict was, of course, a federated or binational Palestine. If that was out of the question in 1946, it is even more so almost 70 years later. If there is a “one-state solution” in Israel/Palestine, it is likely to be an authoritarian Jewish state compromising all of British Palestine. What remains possible, although enormously difficult to achieve, is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That is what the last three American Presidents, sometimes facing opposition from Israel’s lobby in Washington as well as from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Hamas organization, have tried unsuccessfully to promote, and what Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to negotiate.

If Truman were still around, he would wish Kerry well. The same moral and strategic imperatives that led Truman to favor the Morrison-Grady plan for Palestine now argue in favor of creating a geographically and economically viable Palestinian state. And if it is going to happen, America, the leading outside power in the region, has to play a major role. It has to be “Cyrus”--not just for the Israelis, but for the Palestinians.