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President Harry S. Truman and US Support for Israeli Statehood

United States support for the partition of Palestine was crucial to the adoption of the UN partition plan and to the creation of the state of Israel. During World War II, the USA was anxious to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. President Roosevelt had promised King Saud that the USA would make no policy decisions about Palestine without consulting the Arabs, though Roosevelt tried to enlist Saud's support for allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine. Following Roosevelt's verbal promise to Saud to consult the Arabs about Palestine policy, he reiterated the promise in writing on April 5, 1945. However, a week later, Roosevelt was dead, replaced by Vice President Harry S. Truman, and the end of the war created a different political reality as well as bringing the revelation of massive murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

Despite his plainspoken ways, Harry S. Truman had a sweeping grasp of geopolitical realities. He was also a friend of the Jews who had made clear his support for the Zionist cause before WWII. He was strengthened in his resolve to help the Jews following the revelations of Nazi atrocities. On May 25, 1939, following the British White Paper of 1939 that limited Jewish immigration, Truman inserted a remark in the Congressional Record condemning the White paper as a repudiation of British obligations. At a Chicago rally in 1944, then Senator Truman said, "Today, not tomorrow, we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven for all those who can be grasped from the hands of Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them."

Truman wrote in his memoirs, "The question of Palestine as a Jewish homeland goes back to the solemn promise that had been made to them [the Jews] by the British in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 - a promise which had stirred the hopes and the dreams of these oppressed people. This promise, I felt, should be kept, just as all promises made by responsible, civilized governments should be kept."

Truman  was inexperienced in foreign affairs and initially felt he was out of his league and crushed by the burden of his new office and responsibilities. Nonetheless, he did not forget the Palestine question as soon as World War II was over.

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About 250,000 Jewish displaced persons, refugees who had survived Nazi concentration camps, exile in Siberia and partisan battles, were now living in miserable camps in Europe, awaiting clearance for immigration and final settlement. The US, at Truman's instigation, began pressuring the British to modify their Palestine policy and admit displaced persons to Palestine.  At the same time, Truman tried to gain support for admission of Jewish displaced persons to the United States. However, domestic opposition to enlarging immigration for Jews was fierce and adamant. Following the Harrison report on treatment of European refugees, President Truman wrote to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee,  urging Attlee to allow a reasonable number of the displaced persons to emigrate to Palestine, but to no avail. On October 22, 1945, Senators Wagner and Taft introduced a resolution favoring a Jewish state in Palestine. The British were not interested in Truman's ideas or in admission of any Jewish refugees. However, as they were anxious to obtain a loan from the US to support their tottering economy, they suggested a commission of investigation that would report on the matter.

Truman was still averse to the idea of a Jewish state despite his support for immigration, mostly out of concern that it would require excessive US resources to defend it. This concern was to surface again and again and influence policy in the months ahead. He wrote to Senator Joseph Ball of Minnesota on November 24, 1945:

"I told the Jews that if they were willing to furnish me with five hundred thousand men to carry on a war with the Arabs, we could do what they are suggesting in the Resolution [favoring a state]  - otherwise we we will have to negotiate awhile.

It is a very explosive situation we are facing, and naturally I regret it very much, but  I don't think that you, or any of the other Senators, would be inclined to send half a dozen Divisions to Palestine to maintain a Jewish State.

What I am trying to do is to make the whole world safe for the Jews. Therefore, I don't feel like going to war for Palestine."

He had used the "Five hundred thousand" figure previously at a press conference following Potsdam, when asked about Palestine. Apparently, Truman had been convinced by the State Department  that Saudi Arabia would go to war if Palestine were given to the Jews, and that the Saudis had vast armies at their command. The US State Department was also, in the main, strongly opposed to a Jewish state, citing somewhat imaginary concerns that the Zionists were all communists who would put the new state in the Soviet orbit as well as the need to ensure Arab friendship and the flow of petroleum.

On November 29, 1945, Truman told a press conference he did not support the Taft-Wagner resolution, and wanted to await the report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry.  The Anglo American Committee recommended immediate admission of 100,000 refugees, and other provisions, but did not recommend partition of Palestine or formation of a Jewish state. On April 30 Truman publicly backed the committee's request for 100,000 certificates and its call to end the White Paper.  His statement, endorsing only part of the committee report, was drafted by Emmanuel Neumann, a Zionist who worked with Rabbi Silver.  The State Department had urged Truman in vain not to make the statement as it would seriously hurt Anglo-American consensus on Palestine, though there was no such consensus.   Truman wrote to Atlee in support of this plan on May 8, 1946. Britain ignored the recommendation despite a previous undertaking to respect the findings of the commission.

Truman's Jewish war buddy and ex-business partner, Eddie Jacobson, visited him for the first time at the White House on June 26, 1946, bringing with him some American Zionist officials. This was the first of many such visits by Jacobson.

To reconcile their differences, Truman and Attlee set up yet another bilateral group, the Morrison-Grady team.  By late July the Morrison-Grady team devised a compromise that both London and the US State Department  accepted.  It allowed entry of 100,000 refugees.  It proposed federalization of Palestine, with a small Jewish enclave and a larger Arab one.  Zionists did not accept the federalization scheme or the small amount of land allotted to them. Truman was for endorsing the Morrison-Grady Plan, which he thought fair.  At a July 30 cabinet meeting held to discuss endorsement, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and Navy Secretary James Forrestal were for approving it. Forrestal noted that war clouds were gathering, and that if another war came, the United States would need oil from Saudi Arabia. Truman said, " I will handle this problem not in the light of oil, but in the light of justice."

However, Zionists had launched an intense campaign against Morrison-Grady. Then Secretary of State  Byrnes (in Paris) realized the issue could hurt Truman in that congressional election year and wired that he took a neutral position.  Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace warned Truman that Morrison-Grady was "loaded with political dynamite" and asked him to examine it more fully before endorsing it.  According to Wallace, Truman brought to the meeting "a sheaf of telegrams about four inches thick from various Jewish people."  He stated that he was "put out" with the Jews, that he had no use for them and did not care what happened to them.  According to Henry Wallace, Truman said, "Jesus Christ couldn't please them when he was here on earth, so how can anyone expect that I would have any luck?"

Despite his exasperation, Truman decided not to endorse the Morrison-Grady  plan.  Acheson later told British ambassador Lord Inverchapel that Truman could not endorse it because "intense Jewish hostility" made it a political liability. Truman  believed it was a good plan. In fact however, both the Jews and the Arabs had rejected the Morrison-Grady Plan, which called for minuscule Jewish cantons in a federated state.

Pressured by Clark Clifford and others, on the eve of the Jewish High Holy Day, Yom Kippur, October 4, 1946, Truman gave a speech calling for a change in U.S. quotas so that more refugees could enter America.  He again asked for the 100,000 Palestine certificates, and said the U.S. government could support a "viable Jewish state in an adequate area of Palestine."  The speech was very likely intended to help Democrats in the upcoming elections to congress, though the call for allowing more immigration to the USA was a political bombshell that required courage. The speech was probably timed to ensure that it would be mentioned by Rabbis in their Yom Kippur sermons.  Later that month, Truman wrote to the King of Saudi Arabia, stating his support for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, and inviting Saud to the USA to discuss the question.  This was a break with the policy of former President Roosevelt.

The State Department and Defense Department were working hard to dissuade Truman from the partition plan. Loy Henderson, director the State Department's Near East Agency, Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal cited the importance of Arab petroleum to US interests and intelligence reports indicating that Zionists were communists. Loy Henderson warned in October of 1946 that the immigration of Jewish communists into Palestine will increase Soviet influence there, and Marshall later cited evidence presented by the British that Zionists in the Balkans included many communists.

British FM Bevin had written to Marshall on February 9, that partition could be imposed only by bayonets, and that "the British troops who fought for freedom in the late war shall not now be used to enforce a policy by force in Palestine". At the time he said it, British soldiers were turning Jewish immigrant ships back and forcing passengers to disembark in Cyprus and hanging Jewish underground members. On February 18, British Foreign Minister Bevin announced in Parliament that Britain would be turning over the problem to the UN. He made the mistake, however, of pounding on the table and blaming the situation on the US  and on Truman's insistence on immigration, claiming that US policy was dictated by domestic politics, . Truman regarded Bevin's speech as a personal, undiplomatic and "almost hostile" affront to himself, and was probably influenced in favor of partition by this speech.

The UN met in special session in April to form a special UNSCOP committee that would come up with a solution for Palestine. The USSR was surprisingly no longer opposed to partition. On May 14, Ambassador Gromyko announced to the UN that whereas the USSR favored a binational state, if this proved impossible to achieve, the USSR would support partition.

In July of 1947, while UNSCOP was in Palestine, the British turned the Exodus immigrant ship back to Europe. Following a night-long hand to hand battle, immigrants rescued from concentration camps languished on the hot filthy decks in Haifa as newsreel cameras whirred away. All of this was observed by UNSCOP chairman Sandstrom. When the passengers were ultimately returned to Hamburg Germany, the cameras and reporters were there again. A vast wave of public sentiment for partition and a Jewish state was generated. Support for Israel in the United States was not a function of the Jewish vote alone; 65% of Americans supported partition according to a poll taken in  late1947.

Despite the 'heartwarming' stories about Harry Truman and his Jewish World War I buddy and business partner Eddie Jacobson, it is evident that Truman had no special love for the Jewish people. On the contrary, many of his off-the-record utterances betrayed frustration with Jews who were pressuring him to change  US policy. One letter from a Jewish citizen accused Truman of preferring Fascist and Arab elements to the democracy-loving Jewish people of Palestine. He was sore and referred the letter to his Jewish, and pro-Zionist assistant David Niles, saying "It is drivels [sic] as this that makes anti-Semites. I though maybe you had best answer it because I might tell him what's good for him."

He wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt on August 23, 1947, apparently in the wake of one or another Jewish terrorist atrocity:

"I fear very much that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath. I regret this situation very much because my sympathy has always been on their side."

Despite Truman's record on Israel, and likewise his courageous desegregation of the US Armed forces in 1948, his utterances about Jews were not always politically correct. Judged by standards of the twenty-first century, they might be considered racist, but Truman was a mid-twentieth century Missouri politician who carried the weight of his cultural heritage, as well as a sharp and dry sense of humor.  For better or worse, Truman was given to frank self-expression at all times, so these beliefs found their way into the historical record as well. His diary entry for July 21, 1947, written on three loose pages interleaved in the diary book, is revealing, both concerning his attitude toward Jews, and concerning the attitude of Americans toward settling DPs in the United States. The entry repeats the earlier theme about underdogs:  

6:00 P. M. Monday July 21, 1947

Had ten minutes conversation with Henry Morgenthau about Jewish ship in Palistine [sic]. Told him I would talk to Gen[eral] Marshall about it.

He'd no business, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement on world affairs.

Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed. When the country went backward-and Republican in the election of 1946, this incident loomed large on the D[isplaced] P[ersons] program.

The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.

Look at the Congress[ional] attitude on D[isplaced] P[ersons]-and they all come from D[isplaced] P[erson]s.

The last lines are revealing. At least in this case, Truman was expressing a philosophy about underdogs rather than venting against the Jews in particular. He was also frustrated by the opposition to allowing admittance of Jews to the United States. The 250,000 displaced persons were a problem he had to solve somehow, yet all rational solutions seemed to be blocked.

Special Adviser Clark Clifford had warned Truman that the Soviets would use Palestine as a lever to gain influence to the Middle East, on the one hand supporting Jewish immigration, and on the other inflaming the Arabs against the US.  On September 17, 1947,  Secretary of State George Marshall, addressing  the United Nations, indicated that the United States was reluctant to endorse the partition of Palestine. However, as the Soviet Union had now come out in favor of partition, Truman, having previously supported it, could certainly do no less. On October 11, Herschel Johnson, United States deputy representative to the United Nations Security Council, announced United States support for the partition plan.

Truman's support for a Jewish state remained cautious and conditional. He was especially irritated by the torrent of support for a Jewish state from Zionists, and became more so as time went on. On October 17, 1947,  Truman wrote to Senator Claude Pepper regarding mail he received during the deliberations of UNSCOP:

"I received about 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from the Jews in this country while this matter was pending. I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it -- I never looked at a single one of the letters because I felt the United Nations Committee was acting in a judicial capacity and should not be interfered with."

Nobody else recalls any such documents being burned however. The State Department now attempted to detach the Negev from the Jewish State. Truman was apparently persuaded by Chaim Weizmann, brought to the White House in November by the indefatigable Eddie Jacobson, to support keeping the Negev, about half the area of Israel, in the Jewish state.

The partition resolution required a 2/3 majority to pass, and it became evident that due to Arab pressure and resistance to the US by third-world countries, it might not pass. On  November 25, a Tuesday, UN General Assembly  members, acting as an ad hoc committee on Palestine, voted. The partition resolution passed the "committee" vote,  twenty-five to thirteen with  seventeen abstentions. However, this vote was one one short of the 2/3 majority that would be needed to pass the General Assembly itself.

The vote was postponed from Wednesday, giving the lobbyists Thursday, the Thanksgiving holiday, to change votes.  The Arab countries exerted pressure against partition. Pressure from Zionists, US officials and former officials was brought to bear on countries that were intending to vote against partition. Greece was threatened with loss of foreign aid.  Apparently on the prompting of former Secretary of State Stettinus, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone threatened Liberia with a rubber embargo. Paraguay, the Philippines, Haiti  and  other countries reversed their positions and voted for partition. Though newspapers accused State Department officials of acting against partition, at least some State department officials were directly involved in lobbying for it. Dean Rusk, head of the State Department's UN desk in Washington, later wrote, "when President Truman decided to support partition, I worked hard to implement it....The pressure and arm-twisting applied by American and Jewish representatives in capital after capital to get that affirmative vote  are hard to describe."  The vote was again postponed to Saturday November 29, one more day, at the request of the Arabs. Greece voted against partition anyway, but other countries changed their vote. The partition resolution was duly passed.

As soon as the resolution passed however, the State Department went to work systematically to undo it. The Palestine problem was dwarfed by the problems arising in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, where country after country was falling under Soviet influence. The US was demobilizing rapidly and had to decide whether to maintain a military footing to counter the USSR, and to face the possibility of another war, that would increase US dependence on Arab oil. Truman  was deluged with memoranda about the situation in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in Greece, as well as with the Palestine question. The Presidential staff in those days was tiny, and Truman had to read each and every one of these documents.

Palestine was a side show, so the State Department could act more or less independently in many ways, and despite official support for partition, most State Department officials remained opposed. On December 5, the US declared an arms embargo in the Middle East, which prevented the Jews from getting arms, but did not affect contracts of the Arab states with Great Britain. The stand of President Truman on this embargo is unclear. Having withdrawn the means of defense, the State Department then tried to prove that the Jews would not be able to defend themselves in case of Arab attack.  A secret memo on December 17 called for the US to renounce partition as impractical and asked that the US should convene a special session of the UN General Assembly to work out a "middle of the road" solution that would win support from Jews and Arabs. If this would be impossible, the US should favor a trusteeship plan, an idea that was favored by Loy Henderson, and that had been incubated for several months in the State Department.

Another secret report, at the end of 1947 from the American Consul General in Jerusalem, Robert Macatee, warned that "if the UN expects to be able to partition Palestine without forces to help maintain order and to enforce partition, its thinking is most unrealistic and its efforts will be in vain."

A position paper issued January 19, 1948 claimed that whereas the US had voted for partition believing that the Arabs would cooperate, and that this was doubtful now. On January 15, the Arab League had again announced their intention to prevent partition by force. "Therefore, one of the major premises on which we originally supported partition has proved invalid." The paper argued that the Jewish state could not survive without outside help, and that the US could not intervene on behalf of the Jewish state without incurring Arab ire. The paper recommended returning the question for discussion in the UN.  The notion that the US had voted for partition believing that the Arabs would cooperate is difficult to believe. Truman was certainly aware of Arab opposition. The Arab League and the Arab Higher Committee had made clear their opposition to partition both before and after the partition vote, in quite unequivocal terms, and had graphically described exactly what they planned to do to the Jews of Palestine. However, the State Department wanted to defuse the Palestine issue to leave it free to deal with Europe, and the notion of committing US troops to Palestine in the face of possible obligations in Greece and Czechoslovakia was unpalatable. During this period, George Marshall said that in Europe, the United States was playing with fire without having anything to put it out. 

Zionist pressure continued. An American Zionist delegation  met with Truman in January 1948 at  the White House and demanded immediate help for the thousands of homeless Holocaust victims seeking refuge in a Jewish state. Truman's response was not satisfactory, and the visitors became adamant. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, Ohio pounded on the President's desk. Truman was outraged. "No one, but no one, comes into the office of the President of the United States and shouts at him, or pounds on his desk. If anyone is going to do any shouting or pounding in here, it will be me."

Truman had them ushered out of the Oval Office, and said to his staff. "I've had it with those hotheads. Don't ever admit them again, and what's more, I also never want to hear the word Palestine mentioned again."  Truman had developed an aversion to Rabbi Silver, and once remarked that many of the problems of Palestine were due to terror and Silver.

As the day of British withdrawal drew nearer, the State Department and Department of Defense did not despair of blocking partition. They cited initial Arab successes and argued that a large commitment of  UN troops, as many as 100,000, would be needed to defend the partition plan. Instead, they wanted the US to replace the partition plan with a Trusteeship plan. Truman had apparently in fact approved a draft of this plan in February 1948, and UN delegates understood from a speech made by UN delegate Warren Austin, on February 24, that the US might be abandoning partition and seeking a trusteeship solution.

Fearful that Truman would waver in US support American Zionists enlisted Eddy Jacobson to attempt to sway the President to see Weizmann once again, despite his earlier ban on Zionists. Truman at first refused. He wrote on February 27 to Jacobson that he would not learn anything new from Weizmann, and added:

"The Jews are so emotional, and the Arabs are so difficult to talk with that it is almost impossible to get anything done. The British have, of course, been exceedingly uncooperative. .. The Zionists, of course, have expected a big stick approach on our part, and naturally have been disappointed when we can't do that."

However, Jacobson met Truman on March 13, 1948. He was appalled. Truman was furious over the pressure tactics applied by Zionist leaders. Jacobson said later, " I suddenly found myself thinking, that my dear friend, the President of the United States, was at that moment as close to being an anti-Semite as a man could possibly be, and I was shocked that some of our own Jewish leaders should be responsible for Mr. Truman's attitude... after all, he had been slandered and libeled by some of the leaders of my own people whom he had tried to help while he was in the Senate and from the moment he stepped into the White House.."

Nonetheless, after considerable persuasion, Truman said, "You win, you baldheaded son-of-a-bitch. I will see him."

On March 18, 1948, Truman met Weizmann and reassured him of US support for a Jewish state, promising to recognize the state whether or not it was declared under UN auspices. However, the State Department was still working at cross purposes to the White house. On March 9, George Marshall had instructed Warren Austin, the US delegate to the UN, that if a United Nations special assembly on Palestine were convened, the United States would support a United Nations trusteeship for Palestine. This was contrary to a specific request made by Truman in February, in which he also instructed Marshall that the statement to be made by Austin should be cleared with Truman. As Truman was meeting with Weizmann, the  UN  Special Commission on Palestine reported its failure to arrange any compromise between Jews and Arabs, and recommended that the UN undertake a temporary trusteeship of Palestine. On March 19, 1948, Warren Austin, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, without the President's knowledge or White House clearance, announced on national radio as well as to the UN Security Council that the US government opposed the partition of Palestine. On March 20, Secretary of State George Marshal made a similar announcement.

Truman was furious. According to Clifford, Truman said, "I assured Chaim Weizmann that we were for partition and would stick to it. He must think I am a plain liar."  He quickly contacted Jacobson and Weizmann to reassure them that Austin had misrepresented the U.S. position. 

He wrote in his diary:

"The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today. I didn't expect that would happen. In Key-West or en route there from St. Croix I approved the speech and statement of policy by Sen. Austin to U.N. Meeting. This morning I find that the State Department has reversed my Palestine policy. The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Isn't that Hell! Now, I am placed in a position of a liar and double-crosser. I never felt so  in my life...

There are people on the third and fourth levels of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat. They've succeeded in doing so. Marshall's in California and Lovett's in Florida... 

 What is not generally understood is that the Zionists are not the only ones to be considered in the Palestine question. There are other interests that come into play, each with its own agenda. The military is concerned with the problems of defending a newly created small country from attacks by much larger and better trained Arab nations. Others have selfish interests concerning the flow of Arab oil to the U.S. Since they all cannot have their way, it is a perfect example of why I had to remember that 'The Buck Stops Here.'" 

(There are slightly different versions of the above given at the Truman Library Web site and in Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis, The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1945-1948. )

On the following day, Truman wrote to his sister that the "striped pants conspirators" in the State Department had "completely balled up the Palestine situation." But, he added, "it may work out anyway in spite of them." In his diary, he wrote,: "I spend the day trying to right what has happened. No luck. Marshall makes a statement. Doesn't help a bit." On the following day Truman wrote to his brother Vivian Truman regarding Palestine, "I think the proper thing to do, and the thing I have been doing, is to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell."

On March 25, Truman issued a statement about the trusteeship plan at a press conference, saying the trusteeship plan was a contingency that might be necessary only as an interim measure, and not as a replacement for partition: "Trusteeship is not proposed as a substitute for the partition plan but as an effort to fill the vacuum soon to be created by the termination of the mandate on May 15. The trusteeship does not prejudice the character of the final political settlement. It would establish the conditions of order which are essential to a peaceful solution. " In fact, the statement had quietly buried the  trusteeship plan with honors, but it left all options open.

On the strength of recent military victories in Operation Nahshon, which had opened the Jerusalem corridor, and in order to head off the trusteeship plan, the Zionist General Council declared on April 12 that on termination of the mandate, it would establish a Jewish state in the portion of Palestine allotted to the Jews. On May 4, Dr Jessup of the US delegation to the UN, cabled Dean Rusk that the USSR would recognize such a state, and that it could invoke Article 51 of UN charter to come to the aid of the Jewish state, thereby gaining a foothold for the USSR in the Middle East. Thus, the anti-communism issue that had been invoked by Henderson and Marshall against the Jewish state was now heavily in favor of the state.

Marshall recalled that he told Moshe Shertok of the Jewish agency on May 8:

"I ...stressed that it was extremely dangerous to base long range policy on temporary military success. There was no doubt that the Jewish army had gained such temporary success but there was no assurance whatever that in the long range the tide might not turn against them. I told Mr. Shertok that they were taking a gamble. If the tide did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk they were running."

It will be recalled, that at Marshall's initiative, the US State Department had placed an embargo on military shipments to the Middle East in December 1947, which affected the Jews, but not the Arab states.

Dean Rusk assessed the situation as follows on May 11:

" It is not according to plan, but nevertheless there is a community in existence over there, running its own affairs. Now that community is going to get an open shot at establishing itself. We have told them that if they get into trouble don't come to us for help in a military sense. Nevertheless I don't think that the boss will ever put himself in a position of opposing that effort when it might be that the U.S. opposition would be the only thing that would prevent it from succeeding." 

The denouement came two days before the termination of the British Mandate.  On May 12, 1948, Clark Clifford, Robert Lovett  and George Marshall presented opposing arguments in an Oval Office debate over whether the United States should recognize the Jewish State.  According to one version, Clifford wanted Truman to announce on May 13 that the US would recognize the state in advance, as this would again establish that the US was for partition. (Robert Donovan, Conflict and Crisis). Lovett again brought "evidence" that the Zionist movement was infiltrated by communists. Marshall argued that the Jewish State would be overpowered by the Arabs, and that it would need US military help, pitting the US against the  Arabs. He claimed  argued that those pressuring Truman to recognize the Jewish state, meaning Clifford, were more interested in domestic politics than in international stability. There is no doubt that the upcoming elections loomed large in all these considerations, explicitly or implicitly. Truman, a Democrat, had been come into office on the death of Franklyn Roosevelt. He was now facing an election in which Dewey, his opponent, was evidently leading. The Republicans had strongly criticized the administration for lack of support for Israel. Clark Clifford argued that the United States had morally committed itself to the Jewish people since the time of Great Britain's Balfour Declaration, and that further delay after  the Jewish suffering in Europe would be unconscionable. It is likely that he cited the looming election.

It seems that Truman rejected Clifford's suggestion to recognize a Jewish state on the 13th, and did not quite make an explicit decision about recognition when the mandate ran out. Lovett had pointed out that the UN General Assembly was meeting at US request to discuss the future government of Palestine, and that it would seem improper if the US forced the outcome of the debate by recognizing the state while it was going on.

As the meeting closed, Marshall recalled:

"I remarked to the President, that speaking objectively, I could not help but think that the suggestions made by Mr. Clifford were wrong. I thought that to adopt these suggestions would have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by Mr. Clifford. The transparent dodge to win a few votes would not in fact achieve this purpose. The great dignity of the office of the President would be seriously diminished. The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford was based on domestic political considerations, while the problem that confronted us was international."

"I said bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr. Clifford's advice, and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President."

At a press conference the next day, Truman said, in answer to a question about recognition, "I will cross that bridge when I get to it."

He got to the bridge on May 14. While the UN was still meeting in special session, Clark Clifford got Eliahu Eilat (Epstein) who was representing the Jewish state, to send a note informing the President that a Jewish state had been declared (see  Israeli Declaration of Independence ). and asking for recognition. Lovett, informed by Clifford of the President's intentions, asked that the President wait until 10 PM, when the UN would no longer be in session. However Truman signed the letter of recognition shortly after 6 PM, giving de facto recognition to the new state and its government. In the prepared statement, written before the name of the state was announced, he crossed  out the words "the Jewish State" and wrote "Israel." Likewise, he inserted the word "provisional" before the word "government." Rusk notified Warren Austen, at the UN, who headed the US delegation. Austen got into his limousine and left without telling the rest of the US delegation. When the news of US recognition came in over the news ticker, it caught the US delegation by surprise. Angry UN delegates fumed that the US had been duplicitous. Ambassador Belt, of Cuba, announced his intention to make a speech withdrawing from the UN, on the grounds that Cuba could not participate in an organization in which one of the leading members was guilty of duplicity.  To prevent the Cuban delegate from going to the podium, the US delegation press officer Porter McKeever, sat on his lap! 

When word of the recognition reached the UN, US delegate Warren Austin went home to tender his resignation, and Secretary of State Marshall hurriedly dispatched Dean Rusk to New York to prevent the rest of the delegation from resigning. Following the election of a permanent government in 1949, The U.S. granted Israel de jure recognition on January 31.

Truman's support for a Jewish state had evolved over time, shaped by a number of factors. Though Loy Henderson and others in the State Department had insisted that a Jewish state would compromise the position of the US in the Middle East, the opposite position was equally tenable. The notion that Henderson and Marshall advocated, that the Zionists were communists and would therefore side with the USSR was founded on personal prejudice rather than fact, and backfired when the possibility was raised that the USSR would intervene on behalf of Israel, absent US support. The idea that Truman had initially entertained, and that the State Department encouraged, that a Jewish state could only be defended by hundreds of thousands of US troops, proved to be groundless. It is probably this realization more than any that turned the tide, and overcame the single greatest objection.

The policy was undoubtedly influenced by electoral considerations.  Loy Henderson admitted, "Many of the leaders of the Republican Party, including Dewey...were almost constantly criticizing Truman for failure to give full support to the Zionists.  If Truman had taken positions that would have resulted in a failure to establish the Jewish State, he would almost certainly have been defeated in the November [1948] elections since the Zionists had almost the full support of the Congress, the United States media, and most of the American people. The new Republican Administration would then have gone along with the Zionists." 

From the point of view of the Americans, and world opinion, the creation of Israel was a more or less conscious and willful act that was meant to compensate for the Holocaust. This view has been accepted by the Arabs, who protest that the Palestinians should not have been made to pay for the Holocaust. For his part in the drama, Harry S Truman is revered by Zionists and hated by Arab partisans.

This view ignores some pertinent facts. After the British Mandate was established, the  Jewish Agency came into being as the expression of the administrative arm of the Zionist organization in Palestine. The state had begun to become a reality in the 30s, with its own government institutions, tax system, economic policy, labor unions, embryonic armies, school system and health facilities. The dissolution of the British mandate, like all colonial holdings, was only a matter of time. While the Jews were still a minority in population and land ownership, they already had the major part of the economy of Palestine in their hands, and they were the only well organized national force, and in fact, probably only the Jews had the potential to control the destiny of Palestine, as was shown decisively by the Israeli War of Independence.

In the final analysis, it seems the US supported partition because  there was no real alternative. The British were unwilling and unable to continue the mandate. They could not admit Jewish immigrants in keeping with the terms of the mandate owing to Arab pressure. They could not continue to bar immigration in the face of Jewish pressure and underground resistance. No country, certainly not the US, was willing to send troops to enforce a trusteeship, which would have met the same problems as the mandate, a point that was never raised apparently, but which must've come into consideration. The binational state was opposed by both the Arabs and the Jews, and would've come apart at the seams as soon as it was established. The "single state for all" proposed by the Arabs, led by Nazi collaborator Haj Amin el Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was not likely to be a state where Jews would survive in peace, given that Husseini had told the British that his plan for solving the 'Jewish Problem' in Palestine was the same as the one adopted by Nazis in Europe. Certainly, such a state would not allow immigration of Jews from Europe, and therefore, a civil war would have ensured whatever decision the UN made, as soon as the British had left. The UN was unwilling and unable to enforce even its decision to partition Jerusalem. No country outside the Middle East was willing to send troops to Palestine after Britain left, so no trusteeship schemes or other alternatives could have been enforced. The Arabs wanted to establish a single state in all Palestine, but they had not the wherewithal even to establish a state in the half granted to the Palestinians. The Jews would certainly have risen against such a state, with effects little different than those that resulted.

Ami Isseroff

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