Present At The Creation Again?

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Peace was not in evidence in the Holy Land last Christmas Eve. Outbreaks of violence still rocked the West Bank and Gaza Strip three months after the signing of the accord between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat at the White House, with a beaming President Clinton standing by. Thinking of how grimly the uneasy mood of December contrasted with September’s euphoria, I was reminded of another sunny fall day in 1978, when Jimmy Carter embraced Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin as those leaders signed the Camp David accord that supposedly began the still unfinished “process” of bringing peace to the whole Middle East.

 

It occurred to me that sometime soon my grandchildren may wonder why two churchgoing United States Presidents played any part at all in these turning-point moments in the history of a faraway Jewish state and its mostly Muslim Arab neighbors. Then I will remind them of something more curious yet: that a third American President, Harry Truman, played a key role in the very birth of Israel.

It is worth recalling that 1948 story not only to put current events in perspective but because it mingles so many themes: ancient rivalries on the soil sacred to three faiths; the collapse of colonialism after World War II; the start of the Cold War; United States politics in a new era of world power; the personality clashes of some fascinating individuals, among whom Truman unexpectedly shone. History never lacks for theatricality.

We begin in 1947. The British had administered Palestine (the Roman name for the ancient kingdom of the Jews) for twenty-eight years under a League of Nations mandate. It was a stormy tenure. The British had in cautiously promised to create there a “Jewish national homeland,” of unspecified nature, while at the same time acknowledging obligations to their Arab allies and clients, who were implacably opposed to any significant Jewish presence in their midst. After years of clashes the British government backed away from its “homeland” pledge in 1939 and promised thenceforth to limit the admission of more Jewish settlers and to work toward an independent Arab Palestine.

The next important date is 1945, when the Holocaust became common knowledge. Zionism had been an identity-building program that encouraged and brought about the voluntary migration of some Jews in “exile” to the historic turf of their destroyed sovereignty and Temple. Now it became an urgent drive to rescue the wretched remnants of European Jewry and furnish them the secure haven. The Jewish Agency for Palestine began to organize a shadow government and an underground army.

In April of 1947, unable to end the struggle, a war-exhausted and broke Great Britain declared its intention to withdraw and leave the young, untested United Nations to devise a future for Palestine—in effect dumping the problem on Washington and on a beleaguered U.S. President.

Harry Truman’s desk was already piled high with unresolved war legacies, and he himself was still widely seen as, a run-of-the-mill Midwestern politician floundering in Roosevelt’s oversize shoes. He had just lost Congress to the Republicans in the 1946 elections. The last thing he needed was a fresh problem on which conflicting advice boiled around him. None of the players realized how stubborn Truman could be about making up his own mind.

But he was not yet sure of his own mind. He sympathized deeply with the refugees. He told Clark Clifford, his young friend and political aide: “Everyone else who’s been dragged from his country has someplace to go back to. But the Jews have no place to go.” However, he was no friend to Jewish nationalism. He wanted reasonable Jews and Arabs to agree on running a Holy Land they shared. He did not want the United States cornered into the role of peacekeeper and protector. And he was personally irritated by certain American Zionist spokesmen who were too “emotional” for his taste. He hated people with pet ideas who pushed him.

Late in 1947 the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine came up with a surprising and explosive recommendation: the partition of the country into independent Jewish and Arab states. Although the proposed Jewish area was small, the Jewish Agency eagerly accepted the gift of nationhood. The Arab world, however, refused unanimously. Its resistance was echoed by the Near East experts in the U.S. Department of State. It would be fatal to take the Jewish side, they told Truman, in the war that was sure to follow. Why alienate the vastly more numerous Arabs, who would, as Defense Secretary James Forrestal predicted, push the Jews into the sea?

The President kept his own counsel during the November General Assembly debate that ended with the approval of partition on Thanksgiving weekend. Only at the last minute, apparently, and from behind the scenes, did he invoke the White House authority to direct the American UN delegation to vote for partition.

But the battle was not yet over. The State Department turned up the heat on Truman to retreat from partition. Secretary of State George Marshall was convinced that an American embrace of the Zionists would seriously endanger the long-range interests of the United States. So was Undersecretary Robert A. Lovett, who called Zionist lobbyists “the most disloyal minority in America.” This was no light opposition. Marshall was, in Truman’s own words, the man who had won the war; Lovett one of the “wise men” who had directed U.S. wartime mobilization and its postwar global strategy.