- Historic Sites
The behind-the-scenes struggle in 1948 between the President and the State Department
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
In the nearly thirty years that have passed since President Harry Truman issued the directives to support the partition of Palestine and afterward to recognize the State of Israel, the motivations of the President have been the subject of extensive historical discussion. A school of revisionist historiography has emerged which argues that President Truman’s Palestine policy was motivated by the purely political consideration of wooing the Jewish electoral vote. This argument casts a shroud of suspicion over the Truman Presidency, and portrays the birth of Israel, one of the most seminal events of modern times, as somehow illicit and ignoble. I had the privilege of serving as White House Counsel during this period and was in a position to observe the attitude of the President and the role of the State Department toward the Middle East. I am gratified that my recollections ofthat period are confirmed by documents now available. It is clear to me that the facts totally refute the assumptions of the revisionists.
Harry Truman assumed the Presidency at a critical moment in American history. His task was to look beyond the imminent defeat of the Axis and to begin the formulation of a comprehensive policy for the postwar era. He well appreciated that international peace and security were impossible until the havoc of the war was repaired by an American policy of enlightened rehabilitation. Not the least of the havoc, surely, was the appalling tragedy inflicted upon the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of whose pathetic survivors were still impacted in the displaced persons camps of Europe. By then Harry Truman’s long history of sympathy for the underdog, in politics, economics, and religion, was a matter of record. Moreover, the President had evinced a sympathetic understanding of Zionism since his early manhood. As he wrote later in his autobiography: I had familiarized myself with the history of the question of a Jewish homeland and the position of the British and the Arabs. I was skeptical … about some of the views and attitudes assumed by the “stripedpants boys” in the State Department. It seemed to me that they didn’t care enough about what happened to the thousands of displaced persons who were involved. It was my feeling that it would be possible for us to watch out for the long-range interests of our country while at the same time helping these unfortunate victims of persecution to find a home.
To that end, the President appealed to Prime Minister Churchill, and afterward to Clement Attlee, Churchill’s successor, to facilitate the immediate transfer of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine. In June of 1945, too, the President directed a personal representative, Earl G. Harrison, to visit the DP camps and to make recommendations for alleviating the refugees’ plight. In his report afterward, Harrison pointed out that the Jews alone of European displaced persons had no ethnic sanctuary awaiting them on the Continent. “They want to be evacuated to Palestine now,” Harrison wrote, “just as other national groups [are] being repatriated to their homes.” The report concluded that “the civilized world owes it [to these] survivors to provide them with a home where they can settle down … to live as human beings.”
The President was deeply moved. In late summer he wrote General Eisenhower, instructing the general to extend every facility to house and feed the Jewish survivors. The President then once more pressed the British to lift their restrictions against Jewish refugees in Palestine. But as he embarked toward this humanitarian goal, the President encountered the opposition not only of the British government, but of elements within the United States State Department. From the outset, the department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs made it its business to block Harry Truman from implementing a policy that was animated by his deepest human instincts. For one thing, they warned the President that he was contravening the approach adopted by his predecessor. Franklin Roosevelt had indeed met Ibn Saud, the Arabian monarch, in February of 1945, and on the basis of the summary drawn of the meeting by the American minister to Riyadh, evidently had promised that the United States would “not assist the Jews against the Arabs,” and “would make no move hostile” toward them. These views ostensibly were further endorsed in a letter from Roosevelt to Ibn Saud on April 5.
As it happened, my predecessor as Special Counsel to President Truman, Samuel Rosenman, who had been associated with Roosevelt since 1929, pointed out to President Truman that F.D.R.—s letter of April 5 had been drafted by the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs and hardly represented Roosevelt’s most concentrated thinking. This view was confirmed by Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was present with F.D. R when the latter met with Ibn Saud. In a memorandum to President Truman, Leahy commented: “I do not believe that President Roosevelt at any time said he would not support a plan to establish a Jewish colony in Palestine.” In any case, Harry Truman had come to the Presidency at a time when the trauma of the displaced persons first became acute, as it had not in Roosevelt’s lifetime. With a clear conscience, and out of deep conviction, President Truman continued to press for the admission of 100,000 Jewish survivors into Palestine.