BY: SHAAN FYE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
During the years following World War II, President Truman seemed without clear conviction on how to handle the impending crisis in Palestine that would spiral after the expiration of the British Mandate for the region. Alienating the revered Secretary of State George Marshall, Truman simultaneously tried to appease both the officials in his own department and the heavy Jewish lobby, led by Chaim Weizmann. In the end, however, Truman seems to have been swayed by the persuasive efforts of the Zionists in the United States and, more importantly, by their votes in one of the tightest reelections in American history. Truman’s shift from supporting the United Nations’ plan to administer Palestine under a trusteeship to supporting partition even as his own cabinet rejected that proposition highlights the extent to which the World Zionist Organization and Chaim Weizmann influenced him.
Truman’s personal correspondences in the years leading up to his decision to recognize Israel show a marked difference between his personal position regarding Zionist interests and the public position he eventually took. In October 1947, as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine attempted to grapple with the complex vacuum of power that would arise with Britain’s departure from the region, Truman clearly wanted to allow the body to exercise its authority. His letter to Senator Claude Pepper reveals his conception of the Zionist movement in the United States; Truman wrote, “I received about 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from the Jews in this country… 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.” In the year before, when the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry gave rise to the Morrison-Grady plan—a federal trusteeship administered by the British—Zionists were incensed at the supposed lack of independence. Truman, lamenting the failure of this earlier plan, privately told an American diplomat in February of 1948 that the inquiry committee 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.” These correspondences reveal Truman’s initial and festering hesitancies regarding the influence of the Jewish-Zionist lobby. Even though his initial position seemed to not change from 1945 until the months leading up to the decision to recognize Israel, he publicly shifted his position. Even as the war was still concluding in 1945, Truman recognized that he had “to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism,” while understanding he did “not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among [his] constituents.” He also personally told Jewish leaders that year that “the government of Palestine should be a government of the people of Palestine irrespective of race, creed, or color.” This dichotomy soon gave way to Truman publicly supporting a generous partitioning plan for the Jews, knowing full well that imminent war would grant them an independent homeland and, at the same time, gather domestic support for his campaign.
Truman swayed toward a generous, pro-Zionist view as the domestic political realities of his reelection campaign permeated into foreign affairs. Weizmann, in his numerous meetings with the president, did an excellent job of selling the importance of the Jewish vote and shifting Truman’s opinion. In his meeting with the Jewish leader, Truman privately agreed to support the independent Jewish state if and when the partition led to war. But to his dismay, the State Department released a statement through the UN the following day supporting an international trusteeship, putting Truman publicly at odds with Marshall. In a telling note on his calendar, Truman wrote “The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today. The first I know about it is what I read in the newspapers! Isn’t that hell?” This supports the notion that Truman was most worried about the newspaper response, potentially angering the Jewish bloc of voters he hoped to appease. This misalignment of policy between the State Department and Truman continued until the days leading up to the certain declaration of independence of Israel. In this time, Clark Clifford, an advisor to Truman, played a significant role in finalizing Truman’s decision, while Marshall simply complained, “I don’t even know why Clifford is here. He is a domestic adviser, and this is a foreign policy matter. The only reason Clifford is here is that he is pressing a political consideration.” Following these final days of debate, Truman decided to grant immediate recognition to Israel, knowing that failure to do so would turn the Jewish vote against him. Marshall, fortunately for Truman, did not go public with his opposition, avoiding a public split between high-profile members in the White House, but maintained “he would vote against the president.” After the de-facto recognition of Israel and Truman’s reelection, Weizmann alluded to the political capital Truman pocketed, saying, “We have special cause to be gratified at your re-election….” The combination of domestic politics and strong Jewish lobbying pushed Truman to make the politically expedient decision: recognize Israel.
Truman’s presidency was not marked by ardent private support of the Zionist cause. His personal belief, rather, seemed to support a more neutral solution that would satisfy both Arab and Jewish interests in Palestine. Moreover, he preferred that the United Nations handle the situation entirely. However, after weighing the political favor he could gain among American Jews and receiving a constant barrage of letters, telegrams, and pleas to join the Zionist cause, Truman shifted his public opinion, even fighting the State Department and Marshall to generously partition Palestine and recognize Israel immediately.
Why did Truman decide to recognize Israel? Is he a true champion of now one of America’s closest allies? Leave a comment below.