“Was Truman Good for the Jews & Israel? An Exchange”
In the October 2019 issue of Commentary magazine, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik strongly praised President Harry S. Truman for recognizing the State of Israel in May 1948. The December issue of Commentary included a letter from Moshe Phillips (National Director Herut North America) regarding Truman, followed by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s response. Since Commentary does not publish letters responding to previous letters, Phillips’ reply is presented below, following the original exchange.
To The Editor:
President Harry S. Truman’s wildly exaggerated claim regarding his role in the creation of the State of Israel (“I Am Cyrus,” Meir Y. Soloveichik, October) is quite ironic in view of how little a role he actually played. Certainly Truman’s speedy de facto recognition of Israel following its establishment boosted the morale of many Israelis (and their American supporters). But that recognition was of little concrete help in the face of five invading Arab armies that were vowing to destroy the newborn Jewish state. Truman’s arms embargo against Israel had a much greater impact on the events of 1948 than his recognition of the new state’s existence.
Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett bluntly complained to U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall that the Jews were “carrying on the fight in Palestine ourselves without any aid whatever. We had asked for arms, but they had not been given; we had asked for military guidance, but it had been withheld; finally, we had asked for armor plating for buses, but even this had been refused.” To declare that armor plating, which would have shielded civilians from being massacred (as the 79 Hadassah doctors and nurses were, in April 1948), was a “weapon” and therefore subject to the embargo was almost inconceivably cruel.
Truman’s harsh stand forced the Israelis to look elsewhere for the arms and ammunition they need to survive. The Soviets, for their own reasons, stepped in. “They saved the country, I have no doubt of that,” David Ben-Gurion later said of the Soviet weapons which arrived via Czechoslovakia. “The Czech arms deal was the greatest help, it saved us and without it I very much doubt if we could have survived the first month.”
Likewise, Golda Meir wrote in her memoirs that without the Soviet weapons, “I do not know whether we actually could have held out until the tide changed, as it did by June 1948.” I certainly would not conclude that Joseph Stalin deserves to be hailed as a modern-day version of Cyrus, but Harry Truman doesn’t, either.
Director Herut North America (U.S. Division) – The Jabotinsky Movement
RABBI MEIR SOLOVEITCHIK RESPONDS:
There has been a recent effort to diminish Harry Truman’s legacy regarding Israel’s founding. Some critics have emphasized Truman’s caustic comments about Jews in the president’s diary, and others, such as Moshe Phillips, pointed to the United States’ maintaining its arms embargo during the War for Independence. Yet to level these criticism is to view history anachronistically, in light of the even more robust American-Israel relationship today.
The fact remains that Truman overcame notably some of his own prejudices, but also the forcefully expressed view of George Marshall, the man he worshipped, in order to support Israel’s creation at the United Nations and to recognize it at its founding. That he did so is worthy of our admiration and our gratitude; and he did so because he was inspired by the story of biblical Israel, which began with Abrahams’ journey and concluded with Cyrus’s call to return. Could Truman have done more? Certainly. But he could also have done much less, and it is very possible that the administration would have taken a more anti-Israel position had Roosevelt still been alive.
When FDR passed away, and much of America couldn’t come to terms with the fact that Harry Truman would replace him, it was Eddie Jacobson who told the media, “I wish they knew him as I do.” Knowing both the virtues and flaws of Truman allows us to judge him gratefully, 70 years later.
MOSHE PHILLIPS REPLIES:
An anachronism, according to the dictionary definition, is “something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time.” In other words, Rabbi Soloveichik is accusing me of projecting my later knowledge about Truman back onto an earlier time period. He thinks that since today we know about Truman’s hostile feelings toward Jews, I’m projecting that back onto 1948 and thereby casting unfair aspersions on the president. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The concerns I have raised about Truman are not of recent origin and have nothing to do with his diary. Truman’s harsh arms embargo against the newborn State of Israel was a major public issue at the time. It was one of the key campaign issues that propelled far-left candidate Leo Isaacson to victory in a Bronx congressional race in the spring of 1948 in a shocking upset of Truman’s candidate. (In fact, Isaacson’s debut address in the House of Representatives was a roundhouse attack on the embargo.) The arms embargo was discussed constantly in the Jewish press at the time.
It was the subject of a major debate at that year’s Democratic Party convention, as pro-Israel congressmen sought adoption of a plank against the embargo. It was also a major issue in the third-party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, who siphoned many Jewish votes from Truman with his sharp criticism of the arms embargo. A word about what Rabbi Soloveichik calls “Truman’s caustic comments about Jews in the president’s diary.” Readers of Commentary must be wondering what Soloveitchik is talking about, because in his October article, he didn’t mention anything about the diary or Truman’s “caustic comments.” Did he omit it because it would have undermined his portrayal of Truman as a philosemite? I would say “caustic” is far too generous a characterization. Again, to the dictionary: caustic means “sarcastic in a scathing and bitter way.” Truman’s diary comments about Jews were not merely sarcastic, scathing or biting. They were bluntly and unquestionably anti-Semitic. The diary entries were written in the summer of 1947.
President Truman was ruminating on requests by American Jews for the U.S. to intervene on behalf of the hapless Holocaust survivors aboard the S.S. Exodus. “The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement on world affairs,” Truman wrote. He continued: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog.” However, we didn’t need Truman’s diary to understand that he harbored anti-Semitic feelings. We already knew all about his views from the 1991 book Truman and Israel, by Prof. Michael Cohen. The book revealed, for example, that Truman privately referred to New York City as “kike town.”
When he wanted to describe to his wife, Bess, the unpleasant demeanor of a member of his weekly poker game, Truman wrote that the man “screamed like a Jewish merchant.” In a memo in 1945, Truman wrote: “The Jews claim God Almighty picked ’em out for special privilege. Well I’m sure He had better judgement. Fact is I never thought God picked any favorites.” At a cabinet meeting in 1946, here’s what he said about American Jews who urged him to support Zionism: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” Given the established facts that Truman disliked Jews and denied Israel the weapons it desperately needed to survive, it may seem perplexing that he rushed to extend de facto recognition to Israel just minutes after it proclaimed independence.
Meir Soloveitchik believes the answer can be found in a remark Truman once made to a Jewish audience, comparing himself to the biblical character of Cyrus, who facilitated the establishment of a Jewish state in ancient times. Rabbi Soloveitchik also points to the fact that Truman was pleased to display, in his presidential library, a Torah scroll that was gifted to him. Therefore, Soloveitchik, concludes, it must be that Truman recognized Israel because he was “inspired by the story of biblical Israel.” Maybe. It’s hard to know what’s in the hearts of presidents. Certainly, every president has wanted the public to believe that his policies were decided according to noble principles and lofty ideals.
Yet is it reasonable for us to assess a president’s decisions—in an election year—without any reference to political motives? Incredibly, Rabbi Soloveitchik does not even mention the possibility that any political considerations might have been involved. Think about it: less than six months before Election Day, in an extremely close race, a president makes a significant foreign policy move (recognition of Israel) which he knows will greatly please a crucial voting bloc (Jews) in the largest electoral state (New York). To top it off, Truman’s Republican challenger was the governor of New York—thus posing competition for some Jewish votes there—and the third-party candidate, former Vice President Henry Wallace, was making Truman’s arms embargo the main issue in his New York campaign rallies.
Given this political reality, how could Truman have NOT quickly recognized Israel? Sure, it would be pleasant to imagine a president being inspired by the Bible. We want our leaders to be good guys, not crass politicians. In this case, we wish Truman was a genuine Christian Zionist. However, extending recognition while denying weapons is not what Christian Zionism dictates.
The Bible didn’t command Truman to refuse to give a single bullet to newborn Israel as it faced extinction at the hands of five invading Arab armies. No Bible verses inspired Truman to deny armor plating to vulnerable Israeli buses, such as the ones carrying the 78 Hadassah doctors and nurses who were shot and burned to death on Mount Scopus in April 1948. No, abandoning the Jews was not Christian Zionism. Today, fortunately, there are tens of millions of genuine Christian Zionists across the United States who press the U.S. government to support Israel with weapons, not just words. They are true friends of the Jewish people.