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."

Perhaps because the authors take for granted the justice of the establishment of a Jewish state, they tell us little about the half-century of Zionism in the Middle East that preceded the Roosevelt-Ibn Saud encounter. Jewish settlers had begun to filter back to the land of ancient Israel in the late 19th century when it was still a backwater of the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour endorsed the concept of a Jewish homeland there. Awarding Palestine to Britain in 1922, the League of Nations authorized "the establishment of the Jewish national home." Jewish settlement increased sharply during the twenties. In response to the rise of Nazism and other varieties of European fascism, it exploded during the thirties. The Arab population, harboring its own national aspirations, responded with sporadic violence.

The young journalist Theodore H. White, himself the offspring of Zionist socialists, visited Palestine at the end of 1938. By then the Jewish population--450,000--was approximately half that of the Arabs. White found a gifted young violinist who had been a year ahead of him at Harvard working in a citrus kibbutz, striving "to make an Israel and .  .  . learning to use a gun," he wrote in his memoir. Jewish militiamen guarded the high ground around their settlements. A thin British force struggled to maintain order and saw the immigrants as a source of trouble. "You Jews are simply a bloody nuisance," one of their officers told White.

Moved by their own sense of nationalism and destiny, the Arabs resented both British imperialism and the Jewish incursions. By the late 1930s they were in a full-scale guerrilla revolt. In 1939 the British declared a limit of 75,000 on all future Jewish immigration, calming the Arabs somewhat, but setting the stage for a postwar crisis.

By 1945, little had changed. The Arabs were more determined on national independence than ever, the British hoped to preserve as much imperial influence as possible, and the Jews were an irritant to both. In Europe, squalid displaced persons camps were filled with survivors of the Holocaust determined to make their way to a Jewish national home.

The United States might have been an acceptable alternative, but Congress was unwilling to allow generous immigration quotas for any Europeans, Jew or Gentile. American Jewry, before the war largely indifferent to Zionism, had undergone a mass conversion. Heavily Democratic and an important source of campaign funds, its opinion could not be ignored by President Truman.

Truman, a Baptist, had long possessed numerous Jewish contacts; the most important was a cherished World War I comrade and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson. Jacobson would become the primary conduit of communication between the Zionist movement and the president, but numerous pro-Zionist presidential advisers--Clark Clifford, David K. Niles, and Samuel Rosenman among them--played critical roles in the struggle for the president's mind. State and Defense department officials, agreeing with the British that good relations with the emerging Arab oil states were vital, saw a prospective Jewish state in the Middle East as detrimental to American interests. They pushed back hard.

Larger Cold War goals, and Britain's need for U.S. financial support, kept the two countries aligned, but the going could be rough at times. In mid-1946 the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, a blunt and burly trade unionist, responded to an American demand for the admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine: "I hope I will not be misunderstood in America if I say that this was proposed with the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York."

The matter proceeded from an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to the fledgling United Nations, which in those innocent days seemed capable of mandating a solution. In the meantime, what really mattered were facts being created on the ground. Increasing numbers of Jewish refugees found ways to get into Palestine, Jewish armed forces grew rapidly, and the British found themselves facing a small-scale war. The Soviet Union--although Josef Stalin considered Jews "profiteers and parasites"--threw its line into the troubled waters by sending arms to the Jewish forces. By then, the White House was enmeshed in a covert struggle with its national security bureaucracy.

Truman has struck many observers, myself included, as badly battered, and at times confused, by the vehement debate and difficult policy choices he faced. The Radoshes make a persuasive case that he secretly promised Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, that the United States would be the first nation to recognize a new Jewish state and that his apparently erratic behavior was a symptom of his determination to do so without losing his revered secretary of state, George Marshall.

In the end, he prevailed, ordering instant recognition of the new state of Israel and suffering not a single resignation in protest. His motivation doubtless had a political tinge, reflecting to some degree his longtime friendship with Jacobson, and may have been strengthened by the widespread Protestant belief that biblical prophecy ordained the reestablishment of Israel. Subsequently lionized as a friend of an oppressed people, Truman, and most Americans, would have no regrets.

Almost all readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD--and, I suspect, most Americans--if required to spend the rest of their lives in a Middle Eastern country would choose Israel. Its society is free, democratic, broadly tolerant, scientifically advanced, and--to be blunt--more civilized than any other in the region. Nevertheless, its birth was a violent, bloody event in which both its founders and their antagonists committed indefensible acts.

In 1947 Richard Crossman, a conflicted British participant in the Palestine controversy, wrote that Americans, impressed by the material improvements the Jews brought to Palestine, saw a parallel to their own national history of settling and developing a continent, unavoidably pushing aside aboriginal peoples who, however regrettably, had to yield to progress. Nineteenth-century Americans called the process "manifest destiny."

In Palestine, Arabs and Jews invoked competing versions of historical and religious entitlement as arguments for control of the land. But in the end, Crossman's insight was more telling: Nations have been made by settlers--whether Americans, Canadians, Australians, or biblical Israelites--with superior weaponry, organizational skills, and fighting determination. The Israelis of 1948 mustered these characteristics to beat back superior numbers and establish a small state that survives in a sea of hostility.

The ambiguities of Israel's founding and of the policies it has adopted for its survival are rightly troubling to the liberal conscience, but the Arab side is rife with its own quandaries. It is no small irony that liberals of 1948 were nearly unanimous in their backing of a Jewish state that so many of their successors, 60 years on, see as the Little Satan. Perhaps the fundamental lesson we can draw from the story that the Radoshes tell so well is that history is written in shades of gray, and moral perfection is not a phenomenon of this world.

Alonzo L. Hamby, biographer of
Harry Truman and the author, most
recently, of For the Survival of
Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt
and the World Crisis of the 1930s,
teaches history at Ohio University.