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The behind-the-scenes struggle in 1948 between the President and the State Department
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
But the State Department group did not see it that way. Several days later Loy Henderson, who earlier had described the UNSCOP majority plan as unprincipled and “full of sophistry,” wrote Marshall complaining that the “partitioning of Palestine and the setting up of a Jewish State [is opposed] by practically every member of the Foreign Service and of the Department who has been engaged … with the Near and Middle East.” This may have been true. Rather than swallow their discomfiture, however, and accept the President’s orders, these department officials preferred rather to oppose presidential policy.
In late July of 1947, for example, during the UNSCOP hearings, Marshall brought the White House a memorandum, drafted by the NEA desk, recommending the nomination of State Department officers as advisers to the American UN delegation. These men were Phillip Jessup and John Ross. It may not even have occurred to Marshall that the appointment of these men projected at the least a signal of ambivalence on the government’s Palestine position. In fact, it was only over Marshall’s objections that the President succeeded in adding a third member, Major General John Hilldring, who had won the respect of the Zionists for his handling of the displaced persons problem in Europe. As it turned out, Hilldring was the indispensable conduit through whom the White House was kept abreast of the Palestine negotiations in the United Nations.
Later, too, as the UNSCOP reports were being debated in the General Assembly, the President had agreed that he would approve only minor refinements in the majority report before it was submitted to a final vote. Yet Truman was not informed that a plan was afoot, one that again originated in Henderson’s office, to remove the Negev Desert from the proposed Jewish state and reduce the latter’s size to something resembling the ghetto envisaged in the rejected Morrison-Grady plan. Even Warren Austin, our ambassador to the UN Security Council, and surely no pro-Zionist, warned that if the American delegation pressed for an amputation of the Negev “a major doubt” would be raised “as to the justice of the partition plan,” and partition might then be rejected altogether. Truman learned of this attempt to circumvent his policy from the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. Immediately the President phoned Hilldring in New York and instructed him to countermand the proposed amputation. As Matt ConnelIy, President Truman’s appointments secretary, has written, the President by then was intensely annoyed by the State Department’s sabotage efforts. Indeed, word was sent to Hilldring afterward that henceforth the latter was “to operate independently and without restraint” from the NEA.
By the autumn of 1947, as the partition issue reached its climax in the United Nations, the State Department cast doubt upon the Jewish community in Palestine and its potential Jewish immigrants. The department’s Office of European Affairs accepted the credibility of reports that “Soviets and Communists are using Jewish migrations for infiltration purposes.” A spokesman for the department warned that “Jewish immigration may be used by the U.S.S.R. as a means of establishing a Communist state at the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean.” The purpose of this unproved warning was to justify the continuation of the British blockade against Jewish immigration at the very moment the President was requesting that the port of Haifa be made available to accept Jewish immigrants.
In the months following the UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, fighting broke out in Palestine, as the Arab majority in the hill areas sought to throttle Jewish supply routes to Jerusalem and outlying Zionist farm colonies. By the spring of 1948 it began to appear as if a fullscale Arab invasion might follow the scheduled termination of the British mandate. It was against the background of these hostilities that the American delegation to the UN dropped a bombshell of its own. On March 19, 1948, Ambassador Austin, speaking before the Security Council, recommended that partition be suspended and that a special session of the General Assembly be convened to consider the establishment of a temporary trusteeship over Palestine. The Zionists and their supporters, of course, were horrified. They asked how the President could have abandoned partition when only the day before he had assured Chaim Weizmann of continued United States support.
In truth, Harry Truman had not abandoned his support of partition. The evidence, which includes documents that are not found in the recently published fifth volume of Foreign Relations of the United States , confirms again that the President was not being well served on the implementation of American policy regarding Palestine. The trusteeship proposal was a case in point. Within the State Department, the opponents of partition theorized that the UN Security Council, while it might have been authorized by the Charter to determine if the Palestine violence threatened international peace, nevertheless was not empowered to effect “political settlements.” Thus, if the Security Council decided that a threat to the peace existed, it conceivably could dispatch forces to Palestine to halt internecine strife, but not to implement partition. This was their initial rationale for their long-cherished ambition for displacing partition with a trusteeship solution.