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The behind-the-scenes struggle in 1948 between the President and the State Department
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
I remember well the response from Marshall and Lovett. It can, of course, be found in the widely publicized “Marshall Memorandum” that appears in the recent volume of Foreign Relations. First, they argued that by advocating premature recognition we were adopting a procedure highly questionable under international law. I thought that this was without merit. Our draft simply “favored the creation” of a Jewish state and laid out guidelines by which recognition in the future could be extended. Then the Undersecretary intimated that we were in effect preparing to recognize “a pig in a poke.” At that point he pulled out a file of reports suggesting again that large numbers of the Jewish immigrants were Communists or Soviet agents. I felt that this was preposterous. Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in fact were specifically fleeing the Communists. Marshall’s warning of protracted war was equally specious in my opinion. It seems clear now that it was indecision, the possibility that the Great Powers might yet abort the birth of the Jewish state, that had been encouraging Arab belligerence all along. And if, as the State Department people suggested, and as the Defense Department insisted, we were forfeiting our relations by contemplating recognition—well, we had managed to come through relatively unscathed thus far. (I must add, post factum , that not a single Arab nation severed relations with us upon our recognition of Israel, nor did a single drop of oil stop flowing from the Arab world to the United States or to other nations that supported partition or recognized Israel.)
The spirited exchange of views created such a sharp division and such emotional tension that the President concluded the meeting by suggesting that he was inclined to side with Marshall and that we should all sleep on it. After the others had left, the President told me that following a short cooling-off period we would get into it again.
As evidence of the President’s perspicacity in this regard, I received a telephone call later that day from Lovett. He indicated that he felt considerable uneasiness over the events of the morning and that he was going to talk it out with his associates. Further talks the next day indicated a definite shift in Lovett’s attitude, and the matter culminated at a luncheon that I had with Lovett on May 14, at which time we worked up a statement to be released by the White House at the time Israel became a nation. President Truman approved the statement and the United States became the first nation to recognize Israel, some sixteen minutes after it came into existence.
It was clear to me that Lovett was the moving force that caused the change toward the White House position. I believe he persuaded Marshall to alter his attitude despite the implacable opposition of the NEA to the very end.
The President’s decision to recognize Israel was also consistent with his approach to international affairs since his incumbency. Recognition of Israel struck him as fair, to begin with, because it was an implicit invitation to the Arabs to get on with the business of declaring sovereignty in their portion of Palestine. Secondly, Truman preferred to take the act of recognition out of the hands of the State Department because he had good reason by then to suspect those officials, and he feared that if the so-called experts were entrusted with the process of recognition, they might have used the weapon to extract further territorial or political concessions from the Jewish state—even at the last moment. Thirdly, he believed that an immediate act of American recognition not only would countenance a political and military fait accompli , and do so with a grace that would redound to the credit of the United States, but also that it would anticipate a similar move by the Soviet Union, which hardly deserved a monopoly on Israeli gratitude.
But most importantly of all, the President envisaged recognition as the logical culmination of his three years of personal diplomacy and sheer human concern for a people who had endured the torments of the damned, and whose instincts for survival and nationhood still refused to be extinguished.
President Truman was deeply incensed at what he considered to be the consistent attitude of obstructionism on the part of the State Department to his policy toward Palestine. He was angered even more at the innuendoes and ultimately the specific charge by the department that the only reason for the President’s position was his effort to curry favor with Jewish voters in this country.
The department’s attitude contained the implication that the only correct position was the one they advanced. There could not possibly be any meritorious alternative, so that to oppose them indicated the presence of an unworthy motive. This type of argument has no doubt existed since the dawn of history, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take.
Was politics a factor in the decisions that President Truman made during these extraordinarily difficult days? Of course it was. Under our system, political considerations are present in every important decision that a President makes. But in this instance it was a minor factor because of President Truman’s broad national strategy.