Given to Antisemitic Rhetoric in Private, Why Did Harry Truman Champion Israel?Historians in the News
tags: Israel, Zionism, Harry Truman, antisemitism
Seventy-five years ago Sunday, precisely on schedule at midnight, the first Jewish state in nearly 2,000 years was declared in Jerusalem.
Exactly 11 minutes later, the historic announcement was followed by another: The U.S. government had recognized that newborn state, called Israel.
The first announcement, which coincided with the end of the contentious British mandate over Palestine, was widely expected. The second was not, even for American officials. Some members of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations were so surprised by President Harry S. Truman’s decision that they broke into laughter:
Why would Truman, a pronounced antisemite, choose to become the American godfather of Israeli statehood?
Yet, of all the momentous decisions that fell to the 33rd U.S. president — dropping the atomic bomb, integrating the armed forces, going to war in Korea — Truman’s decision to recognize Israel stands out as perhaps the most misunderstood. The decision, which launched a fierce international alliance that today is being challenged, was in fact a long time coming.
Denigrations of Jews and the Jewish people were a running topic in Truman’s private correspondence with his wife and friends, as well as his conversations — particularly when he discussed Zionist leaders, and what he felt were their undue pressures on him as the end of the British mandate neared.
“In private,” David McCullough writes in “Truman,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Truman was a man who still, out of old habits of the mouth, could use [an antisemitic slur] or, in a letter to his wife, dismiss Miami as nothing but ‘hotels, filling stations, Hebrews, and cabins.’”
David Harris, the former longtime CEO of the American Jewish Committee, maintained that to simply call Truman an antisemite “would be grossly unfair,” citing Truman’s close friendship with his Jewish “Army buddy” Eddie Jacobson, his respect for Jewish history and his actions as a political leader.
In his biography, McCullough highlights a Chicago speech that Truman made in 1943, when he was still a U.S. senator from Missouri and the Nazi extermination apparatus was accelerating, as evidence of Truman’s prosemitic feelings. The thundering address, at the United Rally to Demand Rescue of Doomed Jews, portended his actions to come.
“The history of America in its fight for freedom and the history of the Jews of America are one and the same. … Merely talking about the Four Freedoms is not enough,” Truman declared, in an apparent dig at then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he would serve as vice president. “This is the time for action. No one can any longer doubt the horrible intentions of the Nazi beasts. We know that they plan the systematic slaughter throughout all of Europe, not only of the Jews but of vast numbers of other innocent peoples.”