Present At The Creation Again?

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In March of 1948 these two seemed to have gotten their way. It was a terrible time for Truman. Polls showed that he might not be nominated, much less elected. There were calls for his resignation. Palestine was possibly the last thing on his mind. He closed the door to all appeals except for a visit on March 18 from Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first president) arranged by Truman’s old friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson. Truman seems to have told Weizmann that the United States was still behind partition. Yet on the very next morning the U.S. State Department pulled the rug from under him. Warren Austin, chief U.S. delegate to the UN, announced the American recommendation that for purposes of cooling off, the partition plan should be abandoned and replaced by a UN trusteeship. Truman’s first news of it was in the morning papers.

What hurt Truman most was not the tidal wave of indignation at the sellout but the fact that he personally had been placed in the role of a “liar and double-crosser” (an assessment that Weizmann, incidentally, did not share). He had no choice but to support his State Department with a lame statement that trusteeship did not preclude partition at some future time. After that events rushed toward climax. The British mandate expired at midnight Jerusalem time (6:00 P.M. in Washington) on May 14. The Jewish Agency promised to proclaim a Jewish state at that moment and defend it against the five Arab armies that would be certain to invade it. The question then was stark and simple: Would the United States recognize this Jewish government or ignore it? So the last act began.

When an exhausted Britain left it to the UN to devise a future for Palestine, the problem dropped right into Truman’s lap.

On May 12 Truman called a meeting of top State Department officials at the White House. Clark Clifford, at his order, made a forceful and eloquent presentation in favor of immediate recognition. The Jewish state would, in hours, be an accomplished fact. The United States had already, as Clifford privately told Truman earlier, “crossed the Rubicon” in November. Besides, the Soviets had also supported partition (only later would they become patrons of Egypt and Syria), and they might well recognize the new state first, giving them an unwelcome entry into the Middle East.

Marshall’s face grew redder with suppressed anger as Clifford argued on. Looking straight at Truman, he said that if the President followed Clifford’s advice and he, Marshall, were to vote in the fall, he would vote against his chief.

Clifford knew that Truman revered Marshall, so he assumed that the game was over and he had lost his case. The truth was precisely the opposite. Truman’s mind was made up, but he diplomatically wanted to give Marshall, in whom he never lost faith, more time to come around. The next day Lovett saw Clifford, told him that Marshall might resign, with catastrophic diplomatic and political results, and urged him to work on Truman. Clifford answered that the President’s decision was made. It was Lovett who would have to persuade Marshall. However reluctantly, Lovett went back and reminded the general that it was, after all, the President’s choice. And in the end the old soldier called Truman on the afternoon of the fourteenth to say that he would not publicly oppose recognition. “That,” said Truman to Clifford, “is all we need.” Shortly after six the presidential press secretary announced the de facto recognition of the eleven-minute-old state of Israel.

The deed was done. Harry Truman was the boss of his own State Department. The outcome might have been different if he, almost alone in 1948, had not rejected firmly the notion of his ineptitude—or unelectability. While pondering that, think of another possibility: that Carter and Clinton may someday be regarded as midwives of an Arab state of Palestine, which would bring matters back to the proposed solution of 1947. As I said, history is dramatic—and works in mysterious ways.