Truman’s Folly? | The Nation


Truman’s Folly?

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Harry Truman sits with White House counsel Clark Clifford in Key West in 1949

Harry Truman, left, sits with White House counsel Clark Clifford in Key West in December 1949.

Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict.
By John B. Judis.
Buy This Book.

The Mandate had, with reservations, enabled Jewish immigration and land purchases; the British essentially put an end to both with the White Paper of 1939, which left the Zionists inflamed as well: they had counted on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of immigrants from Poland and the Soviet-occupied republics when they rallied to the Biltmore Resolution of 1942, which called for Mandate Palestine to be established as a “Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.” Three years later, the Zionist movement was absorbing the double shock of the Holocaust: an intensified hunger for self-determination, wedded to the realization that most of the Jews who would have built the state were dead. The half-million or so people of the Labor Zionist–led state-within-a-state thought themselves insurgent but under siege. The Yishuv, the Zionist colony, was enriched by providing construction and other services to the British army during World War II; the Haganah, Labor Zionism’s defense forces, and the Irgun, the rightist terrorist underground, were increasingly organized, nearing 25,000 men and women under arms.

The new Labor government in Britain was doubtful that the country could maintain a colonial administration even in India, let alone preside over a Palestinian occupation it had no appetite to extend without some kind of political settlement reinforced by American power. Truman was finding his way in the Middle East, and the State Department, under James F. Byrnes, was increasingly preoccupied with the Soviet challenge in Eastern Europe. With the huge American army demobilizing, the State Department was keen not to alienate the Arab world or lose access to Gulf oil. Nevertheless, crucial US midterm elections were approaching in the fall of 1946—which, Judis shows, gave Zionist leaders their opening.

Politicians and publications with strong Zionist sympathies, including Senators Robert Taft and Robert Wagner, The New York Times and this magazine, were advocating forcefully for a vague notion of Jewish statehood, beginning with finding an urgent solution for the 100,000 Jews still in camps. Public opinion was strongly Zionist, but Truman’s feelings for “the underdog” did not mitigate his reliance on the State Department. Growing as a counterweight, however, was an informal Zionist lobbying effort, led by American Zionists like the firebrand Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and the more moderate erstwhile friend of FDR, Rabbi Stephen Wise. The two men did not like each other much—Wise thought Silver an “extremist”—but they eventually improvised a common front under Ben-Gurion’s discipline.All of this set the stage for Morrison-Grady and its vexations. Clearly, the fate of Palestine would be determined by an evolving Anglo-American partnership. Truman and Clement Attlee, the new British prime minister, agreed to appoint a joint commission of inquiry—six representatives from America, six from England: judges, writers, politicians—that began its hearings in January 1946. The idea was to offer some kind of detailed compromise leading to a longer-term vision—an approach last taken up by the British Peel Commission in 1936–37. By April, an Anglo-American report was published in Lausanne calling for the immediate immigration to Palestine of 100,000 displaced Jews and the annulment of the White Paper’s restrictions on the Jewish purchase of Arab land.

But it also determined that Palestine would be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab one. The government of Palestine would stay in place under “a trusteeship agreement under the United Nations.” “We have reached the conclusion,” the report read, “that the hostility between Jews and Arabs and, in particular, the determination of each to achieve domination, if necessary by violence, make it almost certain that, now and for some time to come, any attempt to establish either an independent Palestinian State or independent Palestinian States would result in civil strife such as might threaten the peace of the world.”

The report served as the basis for the Morrison-Grady plan, released in July and named after Herbert Morrison, the British deputy prime minister and a member of the commission, and Henry F. Grady, the US ambassador. It proposed a unitary federal trusteeship in Palestine: Jewish and Arab “provinces” would exercise self-rule under British oversight, while Jerusalem and the Negev would remain under direct British control. Britain would maintain responsibility for defense and foreign affairs and would also guarantee the administration of, and access to, the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Attlee made it clear to Truman that Britain would accept the terms of the plan—if the United States provided the necessary support.

The trouble, Judis explains, was twofold: Truman badly wanted to protect the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, and Zionism was wildly popular. White House insiders like David Niles and Max Lowenthal—associates of the political fixer Clark Clifford—skillfully exacerbated Truman’s anxieties. Judis writes that Jews had “considerable clout in New York—the nation’s largest and most important state—and some influence over results in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland. In New York that year, a Senate seat, the governorship, and forty-five House seats were being contested. Ohio had a closely watched Senate race.”

The Zionist leadership countered the Morrison-Grady plan with a proposal for partition, pushed by Nahum Goldmann, the Jewish Agency’s chief representative in Washington. Partition was actually meant as a step down from the Biltmore Resolution’s assumption of a state in all of Palestine; sovereignty now meant the taking of as much territory as might be feasible. This compromise did not sit well with Silver, who was by now a nationalist radical, a foe of the judicious Goldmann and persona non grata in the White House. It does not sit well with Judis either, even in retrospect; he assumes that any hypothetical division of land in the 1940s would have shortchanged the Arabs, who were two-thirds of the population and unlikely to get even half the land. Indeed, Goldmann’s projected Jewish state would have had a 45 percent Arab minority. In any event, partition won over the admirably pragmatic Ben-Gurion, who expected a very large Jewish immigration to augment his majority—and most Zionists in Washington fell into line.


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