Harry Truman and the Recognition of Israel
In April of 1943, a little-known, Midwestern senator stood before a stadium rally in Chicago “to demand rescue of doomed Jews.” His address was a forceful call to establish the foundation of the post-war order, even as the world war raged on. “We must make sure that when final victory is achieved all men throughout the world will live in peace, free from all oppression.”
“Today—not tomorrow—we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them. Their present oppressors must know that they will be held directly accountable for their bloody deeds. To do all of this, we must draw deeply on our tradition of aid to the oppressed, and to our great national generosity. This is not a Jewish problem. It is an American problem—and we must and we will face it squarely and honorably.”
The following year, in July, that junior senator from Missouri found himself being drafted as the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice president—much to his surprise and even against his will. History is full of examples of people being thrown out of office, but the events of this war-time election give us a rare glimpse of someone being thrown in to office.
That November, Senator Harry Truman was elected vice president of the United States. Seventy-four days after the election, he watched Franklin Roosevelt take the presidential oath of office for an unprecedented fourth time. Eighty-two days later, Harry Truman took that same oath himself, having met privately as vice president with Roosevelt only twice.
Almost two years to the day of his address at Chicago Stadium regarding the “doomed Jews,” Harry Truman now felt the fate of what he called the “ancient” people—and every other people for that matter—rest directly on his shoulders.
But what kind of shoulders were they, and what could the world expect from a Missouri farmer who had failed in business and never even gone to college? As one pundit put it: “The simple fact is that Truman isn’t the type of strong man to whom folks turn in time of national danger. The idea of Truman as a ‘man on horseback’ is just funny.”
Now, I fully concede that George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan all looked better on a horse than did Harry Truman. But I further submit to you that the measure of leadership is greater than one’s equestrian prowess.
With or without a horse, the man who would come to be known as “Give ‘em hell, Harry” inherited a world that was careening, albeit hopefully, towards the end of what had been the most destructive, cataclysmic event in all of human history. But the end of the war did not mean an end to the suffering, dislocation, and devastation it had brought about. To Harry Truman fell the task not of waging war, but of orchestrating peace.
Peace for Truman was more than the absence of fighting. It was the presence of justice. As he surveyed the ravaged European continent, Truman was determined to do something for those who had survived what he termed “the mad genocide of Hitler’s Germany.” Their fate, he wrote in his memoirs, “was a matter of deep personal concern to me. I have always been disturbed by the tragedy of people who have been made victims of intolerance and fanaticism because of their race, color, or religion. These things should not be possible in a civilized society.”
One of the solutions Truman had supported, even as a senator, was the idea of a national Jewish home. For Truman, ancient history, modern history, and recent events all pointed to such a conclusion. As an inveterate reader, Truman knew the Bible and other antiquarian texts as well as anyone in public life. The context of a passage like the 137th Psalm, for example, was not lost on him: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” The notion of the gathering of scattered Israel was not an allegory or a mythological tale. It was literal history.
The history of the WWI era, in which Truman had participated, was also a factor, bringing at least two critical elements to bear on the president’s decision-making process. The first was the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jewish people a homeland—a promise Truman felt strongly should be kept. The second was the formation of his life-long friendship with Eddie Jacobson. It was the Jewish Jacobson, a Kansas City salesman and erstwhile business partner, who convinced President Truman to meet with Chaim Weismann (which Truman initially pronounced “Cham”) in the weeks leading up to the creation of the State of Israel. That crucial meeting likely would not have occurred but for Eddie Jacobson’s personal plea to his old friend.
Despite Truman’s many personal connections and motives that made support of the newly forming state a reasonable and even logical extension of his perspective and experience, it was not quite that straightforward. As the question of whether to extend recognition came to a head, forces swirled in and around Harry Truman that pressed as few factors ever have on a presidential decision. The persistence of what he called the “problem of Palestine” set Truman at odds with a close US ally, the British. It caused him to be undermined by his own state department. It pitted his closest advisors and friends against one another. And it threatened to jeopardize his upcoming reelection campaign.
But, in the end, it was more than friendship, it was more than faith, and it was certainly more than politics or even foreign policy that brought Truman to the decision to recognize Israel. What stands out for me about this and so many of Truman’s decisions is the simple fact that he not only consistently did what he believed to be the right thing, but he did so for the right reasons.
A phrase he used over and over again when he addressed this topic was “to relieve human suffering.” This was ever his primary concern. He later stated that his policy in Palestine was not an Arab policy or a Jewish policy. It was an American policy “because it was based on the desire to see promises kept and human misery relieved.”
When Truman extended recognition to Israel just minutes after the new Jewish state was declared, reactions varied from elation to devastation, from the highest praise to the deepest criticism. But Truman never wavered. “I had faith in Israel even before it was established,” he once said. “I knew it was based on the love of freedom, which has been the guiding star of the Jewish people since the days of Moses.” “I believe it has a glorious future before it, not just as a sovereign nation but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.” Years later, Truman grew visibly emotional when Rabbi Isaac Herzog told him, “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years.”
No less a statesman than the great David Ben-Gurion said of Harry Truman, “as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our state so quickly and his steadfast support since then has given him an immortal place in Jewish history.” If I could be so bold as to augment Ben-Gurion’s observation, I would only add that Harry Truman has an immortal place in the history of the world.
Perhaps Lyndon Johnson said it best when he stated, “The American people voted for and loved Harry Truman not because he gave them hell but because he gave them hope.” It is no coincidence that the anthem of the new-born, ancient nation is “The Hope,” Ha Tik Vah.
In an effort to extend Truman’s sense of hope and optimism to a new generation, those of us who work in what we like to call the Truman business, are undertaking a major renovation of the Truman Library in Independence. We will not only bring our offering up to contemporary visitor experience standards, but we will also expand our interpretation of some of Truman’s most important decisions, such as the one we celebrate today. When we reopen on April 12, 2020 (the 75th anniversary of Truman becoming president), our galleries will include a robust treatment through interpretive exhibits, interactive media, and film of Truman’s role in the rebirth of Israel.
We believe there is no better place in the United States to tell the story of the founding of Israel than the Truman Library. We cannot, and we do not, assume that the rising generation will somehow absorb this important narrative by osmosis. To be learned, it must be taught. Ours is an educational mission, pursued through exhibits, programs, and curricula. And we realize that the future of his legacy rests on our collective shoulders, just as the fate of an infant nation once rested on his.
When the destiny of an entire people was at stake, Truman not only recognized their plight, he recognized them. He recognized more than a problem; he recognized a solution—a solution born not merely of diplomacy, but of humanity.
And now, my friends, the tables have turned, and it is Harry Truman who needs to be recognized. He needs to be recognized for doing the right thing for the right reasons. He merits recognition because he always returned to his core values when facing a complex decision. For the character, principles, and leadership he brought to the highest office in the land, he deserves to be recognized.
And so, for those of us who work in and support the Truman business, it is now our responsibility, and indeed our privilege, to see that he is.
This speech was delivered at AJC Global Forum 2018 in Jerusalem on June 12, 2018 by Kurt Graham.