April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
The unquiet history of the modern state of Israel has been tied up with the United States from the beginning
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.
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.
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.