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An Exclusive Interview With Clark Clifford

May 2024
7min read

The article beginning on the preceding pages was read by Mr. Clifford to a joint session of the American Historical Association and the American Jewish Historical Society in Washington, D.C., on December 28, 1976. Shortly afterward, Bernard A. Weisberger, a Contributing Editor of this magazine, interviewed Mr. Clifford for AMERICAN HERITAGE to elaborate on some of the details of his article. A transcript from Mr. Weisberger’s notes (no tape recording was made) follows:


Mr. Clifford, why didyou write this article at this particular time?


For three reasons, essentially. First of all, I had been in a “slow burn” for some time over the appearance of works by some so-called “revisionist” historians which made me out to be something of a Machiavellian figure in this episode, but whose authors had never taken the trouble to come and talk to me. These works had two tendencies which concerned me. By suggesting that the recognition of Israel was simply a partisan political gesture, they unfairly denigrated Harry S. Truman. They also tended to cheapen and degrade the circumstances surrounding the birth of the state of Israel, and I detected a note of anti-Semitism in them. Both these aspects of the “revisionist” works disturbed me.

Then, in November, the State Department issued its volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series which covered these 1948 events. That made part of the story public, but I knew that the records in the volume did not tell the entire story and were in some cases incomplete.

And then, while I was brooding about this topic, I received the invitation to address the American Historical Association. The invitation went right to the heart of my concern by asking me specifically to deal with the allegations of political motivation in the recognition. I welcomed the opportunity, and undertook a thorough and exhaustive research effort. I had research assistance, and not only were my own files examined, but also the relevant papers in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence. The paper is the result of an enormous amount of digging.




You say that there are documents supportive of the President’s views which do not appear in the 1948 Foreign Relations volume. Do you think that there were deliberate efforts at suppression?


No, I could not make such an accusation. In preparing these records for publication, the department always makes some omissions. They argue that in the evolution of a department action, many hypothetical alternatives are considered, until the official department position emerges. And they say that to publish all of the preliminary materials which appear to contradict that position would be both impossibly cumbersome and misleading. I can see something ofthat argument, but all I can say is that it’s not quite good enough. It simply is not quite enough.




You quote one State Department official in a telephone conversation of May 11, 1948, as saying that the Jews’ running their own affairs was “not according to plan. “What plan doyou think was meant?


It was pretty clearly the State Department’s plan to prevent the establishment of an independent Jewish state. They were against partition and in favor of a UN trusteeship. In the statements made by Ambassador Austin on February 24 and March 19, 1948, they were trying to end United States support for partition and to destroy the concept before the mid-May deadline of the British withdrawal. The fact that the Jews were taking control of the situation upset that course of action.




When did you find out that the State Department Legal Adviser believed that partition was a legitimate option, and that the department ‘s Division of International Security Affairs recommended the arming of a Jewish militia?


Not until the review of the record undertaken for this article.




Why was General Marshall so firmly opposed to recognition?


Well, the general was reflecting the view of his senior advisers. He was a military man, after all, without any special expertise in diplomatic and particularly Near Eastern affairs, and he needed to rely on the opinions of his specialists. Those who were closest to him were able to see to it that he did not get advice contrary to their own. Like other men in such positions, he became the prisoner of his staff.




The President had enormous respect for General Marshall. He must have found the general’s opposition rather difficult for him. Did he ever express any feelings on this matter to you?


The President did, it is true, have an almost deferential attitude toward General Marshall—perhaps the feeling of a former captain in the Artillery toward a four-star general. But it did not prevent him from following his own course when he chose. I well remember that at the meeting of May 12, the general became very angry at my presence there. He literally grew red in the face, and pointing to me, asked: “What’s Clifford doing here? This is not a political matter.” The President answered quietly: “General, he is here because I asked him to be here.”




Mr. Clifford, canyon tell me a bit more about that meeting?


Well, let me go back over that meeting, and note that the account of it in Jonathan Daniels’ The Man From Independence is substantially correct. The President and I had, of course, discussed this matter frequently. Three or four days before that May 12 meeting, he asked me to prepare a statement. “I want you to get ready for this,” he said, “as if you were presenting a case to the Supreme Court. You will be addressing all of us present, of course, but the person I really want you to convince is Marshall. ”

The President opened the meeting by saying that in two days there would be an independent Jewish state in Palestine. Incidentally, we knew that it would not be called Palestine, but were unaware that the Jewish leaders were going to call their new country Israel. My information was that they were going to give it the name of Judaea. Anyway, the President asked for views on what we should do. Marshall and Lovett responded, as I indicate in the article, and then I spoke.




The Jonathan Daniels account, which relies on an interview with you, says that at the end of the meeting, the President indicated clearly that he would adopt Marshall’s view. Yet you say that he was “inclined to side with A4arshall” and thoughtyou all should sleep on it. Why the discrepancy?


Well, in fact he did seem to express a more direct support for the general’s view than I may now have indicated. But it seems clear to me that he simply did not want to embarrass General Marshall in front of the others, because as soon as they left, I began to gather up my papers and he said to me: “Clark, don’t feel too bad about this.” I answered: “Mr. President, I was a trial lawyer for many years, and I’ve lost cases before and I’ll lose them again. It’s all right.” And he said: “You haven’t lost this case yet.”




And you hadn ‘t. But what changed Lovett ‘s mind?


I simply think what he had heard and seen at the meeting. Later that afternoon he called me up and said : “Clark, I’m concerned about this matter. Let’s have a drink at my house and talk it over.” And we did, and eventually he did change his viewpoint.




The President must have been very upset at the State Department’s efforts to counteract his policies.


Well, he certainly was annoyed, and some of his private comments could only be reproduced with a lot of “bleeps,” if you follow me. And he was trying, without interfering with his own Secretary of State, to implement his policies, but it was hard going. For example, as I noted in the article, he emphasized very clearly before Austin’s March 19 speech that if the General Assembly was asked to consider a trusteeship, it could only be with the three caveats that I mention [ i.e. , that the Security Council exhaust its conciliation efforts, reject partition entirely, and call for another solution]. Well, not one of those qualifications appeared in the actual speech. Now that was an end run by the State Department if ever I saw one.




What do you think were the motives of those in the State Department who fought so hard against the Jewish state? It has been suggested in some quarters that anti-Semitism was involved.


I would not make that charge. The motives, I might suggest, were twofold. To begin with, at that time the British influence on the State Department, particularly when it came to Near Eastern affairs, was very strong. The British had been the mandatory power for all those years, they knew the personalities and the issues and the geography, and they were listened to. Of course, the original British intent under the Balfour Declaration had been to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But in 1948 that declaration was “old stuff” to the British foreign office, a policy shaped before some of its members were even born. They were not influenced by it, and as a result, neither was our own State Department.

Then, too, our military advisers, with rather unusual prescience, looked twenty-five years ahead and foresaw our coming great dependence on oil. It was rather foresighted of them, in fact. But they assumed that the only possible way to secure the oil was to placate the Arabs, because the Arabs were going to win any conflict with the Zionists. I remember Jim Forrestal [first Secretary of Defense, 1947-49] telling me once: “Look, Clark, it’s simple arithmetic. There are 450,000 Jews out there, and thirty-five million Arabs. The Arabs are going to push the Jews into the sea.”

You see, both the State Department and the military leaders were thinking in purely strategic terms, for which they can’t be blamed. But they were totally ignoring humanitarian and moral considerations. The President understood the strategic problems involved, but he always approached the issue with a deep concern for the fate of the Jews who had suffered so terribly during the war, and with an urge to do something for the survivors. He was always a great fan of the underdog, you must remember, because he identified himself with underdogs. And his own reading of ancient history and the Bible made him a supporter of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, even when others who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews were talking of sending them to places like Brazil. He did not need to be convinced by Zionists. In fact, he had to work hard to avoid the appearance of yielding to Zionist pressure, and that was one of the reasons why some Zionist tactics which were blatant and clumsy were actually counterproductive. All in all, he believed that the surviving Jews deserved some place that was historically their own. I remember him talking once about the problems of repatriating displaced persons. “Every one else who’s been dragged away from his country has someplace to get back to,” he said. “But the Jews have no place to go.”




Did he ever talk toyou about the role of his friend and former business partner Eddie Jacobsen, who is said to have influenced him in this direction?


Yes, he did. But of course it’s important to emphasize that Eddie Jacobsen did not in any way influence Harry Truman’s decision on the recognition of Israel. He did, in fact, as the President stated in his memoirs, come to visit the White House, and he urged the President to see Chaim Weizmann, which he did. The President was glad to see him as an old friend, but he was perfectly aware that Jacobsen was not familiar with the overall situation, and that he had been sent to see him by the Zionists, who naturally would use every conceivable channel to the President. He didn’t mind, but he told me that he said to him, in effect: “Eddie, don’t get involved in this. It’s more complicated than you understand.”




One final question about politics. By the spring of 1948, Henry Wallace was in the presidential race; the Dixiecrat walkout hadn’t happened but was in the offing. Surely some of the President’s advisers must have thought of the political impact of any decision on the Jewish state.


By that spring we had polls showing that Wallace was doing very well in New York—that he was murdering us, in fact. He didn’t have a majority, but he was going to get many, many votes—he did wind up with about 500,000—and they would all come from our camp, not from Dewey’s. So, frankly, we had written off New York. We knew Wallace was going to cost us the state, and the President therefore had no possible motive for recognition of Israel that was based on a bid for the “New York Jewish vote. “That was simply not a factor.


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