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How Truman, who was known to disparage Jews, became godfather of Israel

President Harry S. Truman, left, holds a copy of the Torah presented to him by Israeli leader Chaim Weizmann in May 1948. (AP)
7 min

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.

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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.”

“Today, not tomorrow,” he bellowed in his closing comments, “we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers.”

The president Truman criticized also picked him to be his running mate in 1944, and Truman assumed the presidency the following April, just weeks into his tenure as vice president, following Roosevelt’s death. Though he had presided over the end of World War II, Truman and his political advisers were seriously concerned in 1948 about his reelection chances, and they had reason to be. A Gallup poll that February suggested he probably would lose to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the eventual Republican nominee, or any of the other popular alternatives, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Truman’s waning chances, McCullough wrote, encouraged him further to recognize Israel. “Support for a Jewish homeland was extremely good politics in 1948,” he said, “possibly crucial in such big states as Pennsylvania or Illinois and especially in New York where there were 2.5 million Jews. Nor was there any doubt that the Republicans stood ready to do all they could for the Jewish cause and for the same reasons.”

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But beyond the so-called “Jewish vote,” McCullough added, there was vast popular support in the United States for a Jewish homeland in 1948. “As would sometimes be forgotten, it was not just American Jews who were stirred by the prospect of a new nation for the Jewish people, it was most of America.”

“Politics and humanitarian concerns and foreign policy were closely, irrevocably intertwined,” wrote McCullough, who died last year. “Yet for Truman unquestionably, humanitarian concerns mattered foremost.”

Secretary of State George Marshall was among those who believed that Truman and his advisers were paying too much attention to both political and humanitarian concerns in their deliberations over Palestine, rather than strategic ones. And Marshall told Truman so at the tense Palestine strategy conference on May 12, two days before the mandate was about to expire.

“This is just straight politics,” the livid general burst out as Clark Clifford, Truman’s chief political adviser, stated the case for American recognition at that historic meeting. Marshall dismissed Clifford’s argument that Washington recognize the new Jewish state before Moscow, which six months earlier had backed the U.N. move to partition Palestine, laying the groundwork for independence.

Clifford continued with his presentation, as McCullough recounts it. “No matter what the State Department or anybody thinks,” he said, “we are faced with the actual fact that there is to be a Jewish state.”

Marshall was unmoved. In the most electric moment of the meeting, and the most excruciating for Truman, who revered Marshall, the latter declared that if the president followed Clifford’s advice and recognized the state, he would vote against him against in November.

The president’s “expression, serious from the start, changed not at all,” McCullough wrote. “He only raised his hand and said he was fully aware of the difficulties and dangers involved, as well as the political risks involved, which he himself would run.” Truman dismissed the tense meeting, suggesting that all present “sleep on the matter.”

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Hence the suspense surrounding Truman’s final decision to recognize the new Jewish state two days later, as well as the shock with which it was received in some diplomatic circles, including at the State Department itself. “The American delegation at the United Nations was flabbergasted,” said McCullough. “Some American delegates actually broke into laughter, thinking the announcement must be somebody’s idea of a joke.”

It was not. Jubilation followed in Jerusalem, dancing in the streets of New York, and consternation and anger at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon and elsewhere, including and particularly in the Middle East.

Three-quarters of a century later, the decision looms as momentous.

“What would have happened had Truman yielded to Marshall and withheld US diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state?” Harris, the former AJC chief, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Would independence still have been declared on May 14, 1948? Most likely, I believe. The momentum for Jewish sovereignty was in high gear. But recognition added incalculable legitimacy and prestige.”

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Truman regarded the pivotal role he played in Jewish history as one of his greatest achievements. Israelis wished that he would do even more in the days and months that followed, such as lifting the U.S. embargo on arms shipments, but none could deny his role as guarantor of Israeli independence. When the chief rabbi of Israel later called at the White House, he told Truman, “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years.”

In an interview filmed at the Truman Library after his retirement, Truman said that he “antagonized a lot of people by recognizing the state of Israel as soon as it was formed. Well, I had been to Potsdam, and I had seen some of the places where the Jews had been slaughtered by the Nazis. Six million Jews were killed outright — men, women and children — by the Nazis.

“And it is my hope,” he said, “that they would have a homeland.”