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A Bad Rap for Truman

The Washington Post led its story about a newly discovered diary written by President Harry Truman with a quotation that called Jews “selfish” and went on to reveal other remarks that suggest the President was hostile toward Jews, if not anti-Semitic. It is unfortunate that these entries are now being used to tar perhaps the most important American in Israeli history.

One entry cited by the Post complained about Hans Morgenthau’s effort to get Truman to help with the Exodus. Truman ranted about the Jews selfishly caring only about themselves and not other ethnic groups displaced by World War II. He also seemed to complain that Morgenthau brought one-thousand Jews to New York on a temporary basis and they stayed.

These remarks need to be put in context. First, the primary motivation for Truman’s Palestine policy was his humanitarian concerns. He led the fight to reform U.S. immigration laws to allow homeless refugees from Europe to move to the United States. In fact, it was Truman who invited the 982 Jews referred to above to stay in the United States instead of return to Europe as Roosevelt had planned. It was also Truman who urged the British in 1946 to allow the immediate immigration of 100,000 Jews into Palestine.

Remember also that Truman showed support for the Zionist enterprise as a Senator, and it wasn’t because he was courting the tiny Jewish vote in Missouri. He protested the British White Paper in 1939, for example, and said that he would support the fight for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The diary quotations most likely reflect Truman’s hypersensitivity to pressure. He expressed anger and frustration with Jews on more than just the occasion referred to in his diary. For example, before the partition vote at the UN he said if the Jews would just keep quiet everything would be all right. At another point he wrote to Rep. Claude Pepper: “Had it not been for the unwarranted interference of the Zionists, we would have had the matter settled a year and a half ago.” He went on to complain that he had received 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from Jews and “put it all in a pile and struck a match to it.” Just before the vote, he wrote in his memoirs he was “disturbed and annoyed” by “extreme Zionist leaders.”

During the three crucial years of Israel’s establishment (1945-1948), Truman made a number of critical decisions. In 1946, he joined the Zionists in calling on Great Britain to allow large numbers of Jews to immigrate to Palestine. He also rejected the Morrison-Grady Plan that would have undone the Balfour Declaration. The following year, he supported partition and opposed efforts to excise the Negev from the Jewish state. In 1948, Truman prevented the State Department from sabotaging the partition plan, immediately recognized the new state of Israel, appointed as the first U.S. ambassador someone sympathetic to the Zionists, rejected the Bernadotte Plan to take away land from Israel, and offered Israel a generous economic loan.

One negative decision was to impose an arms embargo on the Middle East that hurt the Jews more than the Arabs. This was not an example of anti-Jewish feeling, but a naive effort to prevent further bloodshed at the behest of the State Department. Virtually every other decision Truman made was beneficial to the Zionists and contrary to the wishes of his top advisers, in particular the Secretaries of Defense and State.

Truman’s interest in the Palestine issue was basically in accordance with the Zionist program, but was far more ambiguous; that is, he was interested in helping Jewish refugees, redeeming past promises for a homeland, and bringing peace to the region, but he did not have a clear view of how to do any of these. He also acted out of what he sincerely believed was America’s interests.

While it is well-known that Truman had a close Jewish friend who had been his business partner, and had great respect and affection for some Jewish leaders, in particular, Chaim Weizmann, Truman did not have a special relationship with the Jewish people. His experience was primarily based on these personal relationships, rather than the type of biblical connection that many succeeding presidents felt toward the Jewish people. Still, it is grossly unfair to suggest from the selective quotation of passages in which Truman expressed frustration with political pressure from Jews that he was anti-Semitic or otherwise hostile.

Most important, despite whatever irritation Truman may have felt toward Jews lobbying him to support the Jewish state, he made the right decisions. Without Truman, it is debatable whether Israel would exist today.