The Magazine

Instant Recognition

Israel's debt to Harry S. Truman.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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A Safe Haven

Harry S. Truman
and the Founding of Israel

by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh

HarperCollins, 448 pp., $27.99

The two major wars of the 20th century left in their wakes fatally enfeebled empires, raging national ambitions, hordes of displaced persons, bloody postwar conflicts, and unstoppable population transfers. Of the numerous such eruptions over the past hundred years, none has been so persistent in its impact on American engagement with the world than the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict that has simmered and sporadically flared up ever since.

In this timely, very well-researched work, Allis and Ronald Radosh cover the beginnings of what has become an ever-enduring challenge of American foreign policy--the creation of Israel in the three years after the end of World War II in Europe. They steer us authoritatively through rivalries among Jewish factions in Palestine and within the United States, explore thoroughly an Anglo-American relationship that at times was strained to the limit, and in the end credit President Harry S. Truman with a sense of purpose and determination not readily evident to his contemporaries.

Their narrative begins with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, detouring on the way home from the Yalta conference in February 1945 to meet King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia aboard the U.S. cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake at the south end of the Suez Canal. Roosevelt, who met his visitor seated beneath three of the Quincy's eight-inch guns, commanded the greatest aggregation of economic and military power in human history. Ibn Saud presided over a vast desert with a relatively small population, staking his claim to Arab leadership on his role as protector of Islam's holiest sites.

But it was Roosevelt who came as a supplicant--the oil beneath those desert sands was beginning to be pumped and clearly would be of great importance to the future of the Western world. He extended lavish hospitality. A great patch of the Quincy's forward deck was covered with oriental carpets, a commodious desert tent, and a sheep pen. The king, guarded by barefoot Nubian soldiers, was accompanied by his astrologer, a coffee server, and "nine miscellaneous slaves, cooks, porters and scullions."

The president, although seriously ill, mustered the charm for which he was famous as he sought the Saudi monarch's acquiescence in a goal of great importance to a vital political constituency in the United States: the admission into Palestine of hundreds of thousands of European Jews displaced and made homeless by the war that was moving toward an end in Europe. Ibn Saud peremptorily rejected the request. Responding to the argument that existing Jewish settlements had developed a desert countryside, he declared that the Jews had done so only with large amounts of U.S. and British capital and would share none of their prosperity with Arabs. They should stay in Europe; the money and land necessary for their resettlement should be taken from Germany.

Arabs, he warned, would fight and die rather than cede their patrimony to the Jews. Roosevelt, apparently surprised by the King's vehemence, backed off. In what was probably a tactical retreat rather than a genuine change of mind, he assured Ibn Saud that he would never help the Jews at the expense of the Arabs.

Two months later, Roosevelt was dead. The Palestine question was just one of many unresolved issues that he bequeathed to his successor, Harry Truman. At the time, it seemed a small one compared with the huge matters of a European settlement and the closure of the Pacific war. Over the next three years, magnified by the importance of Jews as a Democratic party constituency, it would nonetheless nearly consume Truman's presidency.

The immediate postwar issues in Palestine involved displaced persons, and the conflicting imperatives of Anglo-American diplomacy. Still, one wishes the Radoshes had given us a fuller sense of the ways in which both Jews and Arabs were motivated by a powerful blend of religious identity and ethnic nationalism. They do tell us, in passing, that when Winston Churchill also pressed Ibn Saud to approve large-scale Jewish immigration, the king responded that to do so would be "an act of treachery to the Prophet and all believing Muslims which would wipe out my honor and destroy my soul."