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.

Goldmann presented his plan to an impressed Dean Acheson in August, reassuring the under secretary that partition was acceptable to King Abdullah of Jordan (who was keen to annex Arab Palestine and Jerusalem’s holy places), and that the new Jewish state would willingly join an Arab-dominated Near East Federation. Once partition became Jewish Agency policy, the Morrison-Grady plan was, in effect, moot. In October on the eve of Yom Kippur, Truman addressed American Jews, gesturing toward a compromise between partition and Morrison-Grady. But this was illogical, for the question that needed to be settled was how quickly, and under what circumstances, partition might be implemented: immediately, or after five years; under the auspices of an international force, or upon the withdrawal of the British administration?

* * *

Judis returns repeatedly to Truman’s enthusiasm for Morrison-Grady, which the president decided to suppress, he argues, mainly because of Zionist lobbying. Judis is in his comfort zone when writing about such diplomatic maneuvers, and much of Genesis is a gripping play-by-play woven from the key actors’ biographies, long-forgotten memos, and the minutes of meetings in which American Zionist officials faced off against US foreign policy advisers, White House political strategists and Jewish Agency icons. Most of us who write about Middle East history have an impressionistic grasp of these events. We are in Judis’s debt for reconstructing them here densely, accurately and dramatically. Most important, he gives us a sense of how contingent were the decisions long since taken as inevitable:

Truman continued to see the Morrison-Grady plan for a federated Palestine as an ideal solution to the conflict between Zionists and Arabs, but he would abandon any attempt to implement it. From then on, Truman had no solution of his own, but was buffered between competing plans from the Zionist movement and his own State Department. In the end Truman would accede to the Zionists’ pressure—not because he believed in their cause, but because he was worried about Democratic losses in 1946 and again in 1948. A pattern had been established that would prevail for the rest of the century.

With Morrison-Grady having been superseded, Britain threw up its hands. The problem migrated to the United Nations, where the UN Special Committee on Palestine took over from the Anglo-American Committee. Not surprisingly, UNSCOP proposed a partition resolution in the fall of 1947 much like Goldmann’s. The committee’s hearings were boycotted by the Palestinians who mattered; Zionists, meanwhile, went into high gear, testifying before UNSCOP and lobbying the White House so intensely that Truman forbade meetings with all Zionist advocates—a rule he famously violated to meet with Weizmann for the sake of his old business partner, Eddie Jacobson.

Finally, after the Soviet Union reversed itself and supported partition, the UN General Assembly endorsed the plan. All Truman had left to settle was whether to approve the sale of arms to the Jewish forces—he would not—and whether to push for a UN trusteeship to implement the partition plan in stages or just leave it to the forces on the ground. The State Department argued for gradualism and against recognition of the Jewish state. Facing an uphill battle for re-election in the fall of 1948, Truman overruled it.

It is at this juncture that Judis asks most daringly how things might have been otherwise. Great-power intervention, a more binational federal and international approach, and, in any case, a fairer territorial allocation to the Palestinians—could all of this have come to pass? After he became secretary of state in 1947, Gen. George Marshall would echo a preference for a UN trusteeship, as would George Kennan after he became chief of policy planning at the State Department.

“By ruling out American intervention,” Judis writes, “Truman made it difficult to achieve what he continued to believe was the fairest outcome in Palestine. Relentless Zionist pressure made what was difficult impossible.” Presumably, John Kerry—with no presidential election looming—should get the point. Judis reinforces it with an afterword showing how AIPAC grew from an offshoot of Silver’s defunct Zionist group, and exhorting Kerry and his boss to bear down hard on Netanyahu.

* * *

Judis wrote much of Genesis during Obama’s first term, when Netanyahu unleashed AIPAC—which seemed more invulnerable then than it has in recent months—to insinuate that the administration’s toughness on settlements meant that Obama was not enough of a “friend.” You can sense between the lines—and, at times, in them—Judis’s irritation with Netanyahu’s diplomatic jujitsu: “Palestine’s Arabs had still gotten screwed, and screwed by people who over the centuries had suffered even worse indignities, yet who had always claimed to stand for better.” Judis’s editor should have saved him from that line, but his pique is understandable. Moreover, one may argue, as I have myself, that given how small Israel and Palestine are as territories—together, about the size of greater Los Angeles—any reasonable two-state solution will require various confederal institutions to be improvised. In this sense, the Morrison-Grady plan was pointing in a sensible direction.

Nevertheless, does its failure provide a distant mirror of current obstacles and lobbying? Not really. By Judis’s own account, Morrison-Grady could not solve the triangular tragedy that Palestine had become. Postwar Britain was broke, roiling with class turmoil, grieving its wartime losses and pulling back on colonial enterprises. As for the United States, enforcing immigration rights for Jews would have entailed a commitment of 50,000 troops—“our entire present ground reserve, both Marine and Army,” wrote Defense Secretary James Forrestal—which no American leader, from Truman and Marshall on down, was willing to entertain. Palestinian leaders opposed any great-power plan. UNSCOP had issued a minority report that pretty much echoed Morrison-Grady, which the Palestinians’ Higher Arab Committee rejected out of hand. They were convinced that the Arab armies couldn’t lose. Most of the world, including specialists at the State Department, assumed the same.

The Zionists of Palestine, meanwhile, sensed a momentum that could not be reversed: “The appeal to halt our work,” Ben-Gurion had told the St. James Palace Conference in 1939, “resembles an appeal…to a woman who, after many years of childlessness, is about to give birth…. The mother cannot stop. It is possible to kill the child or kill the mother; but it is impossible to expect her to cease giving birth.” By the summer of 1946—in the wake of death camps and Stalinist purges—the ideal of a Jewish state, in whatever configuration, was as fiercely urgent for Labor Zionists as emancipation for black slaves was at the end of the Civil War.


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