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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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.