Harry S. Truman and Israel, Legacy of a Great Statesman

An act of fortitude that will always be warmly remembered by Israelis and Jews worldwide.

May 14, 2020 will mark the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel. Israel’s War of Independence was arguably its most difficult. Six-thousand citizens out of 600,000 were killed. More than 2,000 of these were civilians.

But the war did not begin on May 14. It actually began on November 30, 1947 one day following a United Nations General Assembly vote in favor of partitioning Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The following day, Arab brigands attacked two civilian Egged buses on route from Hadera and Netanya to Jerusalem, killing six and injuring several more. That incident marked the beginning of the conflict.

In the first four months of conflict, the outlook for the Jews was bleak. Three successive Arab terrorist bomb attacks targeting high profile Jewish targets in Jerusalem inflicted mass casualties and sapped morale. Two of those attacks – the bombing of the Palestine Post newspaper offices and the Ben Yehuda Street bombing – were facilitated by British soldiers. The topography also favored the Arabs, who held much of the high ground and specialized in ambushing Jewish vehicles heading to isolated outposts.

Making matters worse for the Jews were the British occupation authorities, who openly sided with the Arabs. Right up until the end of their mandate, the British zealously enforced immigration quotas against the Jews but turned a blind eye toward organized Arab infiltration. In addition, they attempted to prevent the Jews from acquiring arms while the Arabs were free to purchase weapons on the open market. In one ignominious incident, four Jewish Haganah operatives were disarmed by British soldiers and released into the hands of an Arab mob where they were promptly lynched.

Thankfully, these reversals were temporary in nature and by late March early April, the military initiative swung in favor of the Jews, who launched a series of successful counteroffensives. By May 14, the military situation had improved markedly. Notwithstanding the improved military situation, Israel’s Head of Operations Yigal Yadin informed David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, that the newly formed state had a fifty-fifty chance of fending off the combined might of five Arab armies in the invasion that was sure to come after the independence proclamation.

The political battle was no less important than the military one. The newly created State of Israel needed political recognition and extension of recognition by the world’s greatest superpower would amount to nothing short of a monumental success, equal to the victories on the battlefield.

The scale and magnitude of the disaster inflicted upon Europe’s Jews during the Nazi holocaust was not lost on President Harry Truman. In May 1946, he urged the British government to accept the recommendations of a joint Anglo-American committee to admit forthwith 100,000 Jews, displaced by the war, into Palestine. The British, who were openly pro-Arab, characteristically refused. In October of that year, Truman publicly declared his support for the creation of a Jewish state.

But Truman faced significant pushback from influential, high-level members of his own cabinet, and the initial reversals suffered by the Jews following the U.N. General Assembly partition vote gave impetus to their viewpoints. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was an ardent anti-Zionist and predicted that the collective might of the Arabs, with their population of 45 million would throw Palestine’s 600,000 Jews into the sea.

Opposition to Jewish independence also emerged from the State Department, where stridently pro-Arab attitudes prevailed among third and fourth level staffers. The general feeling at the State Department was that U.S. interests were better served by siding with the more populous Arabs and their oil. There was no room for morality and ethics in their calculus.  

Secretary of State George Marshall was among the Jews’ fiercest antagonists and strongly opposed Jewish independence. Instead, he favored a scheme in which the area of mandatory Palestine would be placed under temporary U.N. trusteeship. Truman allowed the State Department to examine the feasibility of such a plan.

Fearing the loss of American political support, the Jewish Agency – the governing body of pre-state Israel – sent statesman Chaim Weizmann to the United States to lobby Truman but Truman initially refused to meet with him. The Jewish Agency then succeeded in reaching out to Eddie Jacobson, who was Truman’s longtime friend and former business partner, in a desperate bid to have Jacobson convince Truman to meet with Weizmann. Jacobson prevailed upon Truman to meet with Weizmann, who was then spirited through a side entrance to have his audience with the president.

The Weizmann-Truman meeting took place on March 18, 1948 and Weizmann made a very positive impression. Truman committed himself to the Partition Plan as outlined by the U.N. General Assembly. But Truman was broadsided by his own state department when just the following day, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Warren Austin, gave a speech in which he stated that the U.S. was reneging on its initial support for partition in favor of the temporary trusteeship scheme favored by Marshall.

Truman was livid as the position enumerated by Austin was contrary to his own. More importantly, on a personal level, Truman did not want Weizmann to think he was a prevaricator, talking from both sides of his mouth.

The final showdown between Truman and Marshall came on May 12, 1948 during a heated meeting between the two. The meeting came at a time when the British mandate was nearing its end and the Jews were preparing to declare their independence, with or without U.S. recognition. By that time, the Jews had gained military dominance over Arab irregulars in Palestine, liberating the cities of Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, and Jaffa and securing a tenuous link to Jewish Jerusalem. The military situation was still far from certain as the Arabs nations were preparing to do battle with the embryonic state and finalizing invasion plans.

Also in attendance at the meeting were special counsel Clark Clifford and Undersecretary Robert Lovett as well as other foreign policy experts. Clifford urged Truman to support immediate recognition. Marshall countered by telling Truman that if he followed Clifford’s advice, he wouldn’t vote for him in the next election.

Truman wasn’t swayed by Marshall’s impudence. On May 14, 1948 the Jews declared their independence and the modern State of Israel came into being. That same day, the U.S. extended de facto recognition becoming the first nation in the world to do so. De jure recognition was extended on January 31, 1949.

Truman had a sense of history and understood that Jewish rebirth in the Land of Israel after two millennia of dispersion represented a pivotal moment. He also had a sense of moral conscience which trounced the soon to be discredited concerns raised by Marshall and his political allies. The nascent Israel Defense Forces – the successor to the Haganah – crushed the combined might of the Arab world, a pattern that was to be repeated throughout Israel’s history. Truman’s decision on that monumental day will forever place him on the right side of history.