A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and The Founding of Israel
By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
Published by Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2009 Buy this Book!
The authors, both associated with the City University of New York, Allis as teacher and Ronald a professor emeritus of history, have written a thorough history of the founding of the nation of Israel, from its early beginnings, when during World War I the League of Nations awarded Britain a Mandate over Palestine, to its recognition as a nation by President Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972) on May 14, 1948. Although expositions of the outstanding contributions of many personalities and organizations are detailed throughout the book, the authors have centered their work around the biography and the role of Harry Truman, revealing that his motives in carrying much of the weight for this achievement were fundamentally, unmistakably humanitarian. The authors add cautionary emphasis in several places, of course, that Truman was also a politician, and faced at times with seemingly unending frustrations, became disgruntled with the Jewish people (see the Truman Wikiquotes referenced below). The Nazi atrocities had been made public through newspaper articles in May and June of 1945, and Truman, who had also seen the harrowing newsreel footage of the concentration camps, said in 1964 to CBS News: “It was a horrible thing. I saw and I dream about it even to this day.”
Truman as vice president became the 33rd president of the United States following the sudden death by stroke of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Truman had been vice president for only a few months, and had been a compromise choice over the alternative candidate, Henry A. Wallace. Roosevelt had kept Truman at arm’s length, out of the loop, and when Roosevelt died, Truman, who had never expected or wished to become president, found himself immediately confronted with the enormous and pressing problems of a nation still at war. Though the decisive, down-to-earth, straight-talking Truman left office with the lowest popularity polls of any American president to date, “eventually the public as well as professional historians would rate him as one of the greatest American presidents… Harry Truman was insecure about many things when he became president, but he was confident he could handle the issue of Palestine in a just way. He did not anticipate the maelstrom he was about to enter.” The task “would consume him from the day he became president to the day he recognized Israel… The story of why he made the decisions and took the actions he did is the subject of our book.”
Because the Introduction and the 428 pages of this book are packed with facts, many of which will either be new or a new point of view for readers, a few stops at Wikipedia along the way will be helpful. For example, the information given by the authors on page 5 regarding the “British Mandate over Palestine” or the “Balfour Declaration” established by the League of Nations, and its later ill-destined amendment called the “White Paper,” are two critical events in the history of Israel that are continuously referred to throughout A Safe Haven. On November 2, 1917, Lord Arthur James Balfour (1848 – 1930) wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.” Since Balfour’s consultations with Jewish leaders regarding this decision are noted, these must surely have involved one of Israel’s most outstanding founders, Dr. Chaim Weizmann (1874 – 1952), who later was appointed First President of Israel. Balfour and Weizmann had first met in 1906. David Lloyd George (1863 – 1945) supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but only because it would help secure post-war British control of Palestine, a strategically important buffer to Egypt and the Suez Canal. Palestine was later to serve as a terminus for the flow of Petroleum (Wikipedia). The Mandate was amended in 1939 by the “White Paper.” From page 6 of the book: “In 1939, Britain adopted a White Paper that limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over a five-year period, to be continued only with the consent of the Arabs, who were unlikely to grant it. Britain also sought to halt the growth of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine] by limiting land sales to Jews. This meant that at a time when many Jews were trying to escape from Hitler’s clutches, the door to Palestine was closed to them, condemning multitudes to death.”
In May of 1939, Truman, then a senator, wrote remarks in a newspaper article, printed as an appendix in the Congressional Record, to the effect that the British government “has made a scrap of paper out of Lord Balfour’s promise to the Jews, which amounted to nothing less than another addition to the long list of surrenders to the axis powers.” From page 47: “Truman drew on the Bible as a source of knowledge of the history of ancient Palestine. And in the Bible he read of the Jewish people’s longing to return to their ancient homeland and God’s desire for them to do so. His favorite Psalm was number 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’ ” Truman, like earlier presidents before him, sympathized with the aspirations of Christian Zionism. However, add the authors: “John Adams had supported the idea of the Jews’ returning to Judea as an independent nation, although he thought that they would possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”
Chapters four through eight detail Truman’s initial call in 1945 for immediate action in relocating an estimated 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine, where most of them wanted to go as soon as possible.” But the maelstrom began, caused in large measure by British obstinacy and ultimately resulting in Britain’s request that Palestine be put on the United Nations General Assembly’s agenda for the 1947 fall season. Truman had been galvanized by the Harrison report (Earl G. Harrison was the U.S. commissioner of Immigration) that “the situation at many of the camps… was practically as bad as it was under the Germans,” and considered the suffering of the Jewish concentration camp survivors in particular to be of the “highest humanitarian importance and urgency.” (The refugees in Germany and Austria were the responsibility of the United States.) He did not believe that a Jewish state was “in the cards yet,” but had personally written to Clement Attlee (British Prime Minister, 1945 – 1951) urging action for immediate transport of the Jewish refugees to Palestine. Truman was very disappointed with Attlee’s response and considered it “devoid of all human and moral considerations.” Probably for secretive reasons in the interests of elect groups (the authors hint at such activities on page 140), the British were determined to adhere to the restrictions of the White Paper and would not agree to any amendment of it.
The authors describe the harrowing march of painful and tragic events from April 1946 to May 1948, including the Black Sabbath in Tel Aviv – the Jewish insurgency of June 1946 as a result of the British announcement to undertake major military operations against the Yishuv; the Truman-supported Morrison-Grady Plan calling for partition of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs; the refusal of the Arabs to cooperate in any way; King Ibn Saud’s (King of Saudi Arabia) publication of the promises given to him in February 1945 by FDR; the British finding themselves behind barbed wire in Palestine; the smuggling of European Jews into Palestine; and finally the British appeal to the United Nations resulting in the establishment of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the prelude to a partition that seemed the only solution. Truman, with the assistance, among others, of Chaim Weizmann, James G. McDonald, David K. Niles, Clark Clifford, and Eddie Jacobson (Truman’s good friend from Missouri who also happened to be Jewish), put his seething moral indignation and the full weight of the White House behind what finally became a favorable outcome for Israel: the securing of the majority of United Nations’ votes for the establishment of the new nation.
From Chapter Twelve, A New Country is Born: Truman Recognizes Israel: “The last British official quietly boarded the cruiser Euralysus at Haifa Harbor and slipped out of Palestine.”
Harry S. Truman is highly regarded in Israel today. There has been a commemorative Israeli stamp in his honor. On May 25, 1948, Dr. Chaim Weizmann presented him with a Torah, at which time Truman quipped: “I’ve always wanted one.” “Truman later said it was one of his most prized possessions.” From the legend accompanying another photo: “Eliahu Elath (Epstein), the Jewish Agency’s representative in Washington and later Israel’s first ambassador to the United States, presenting an ark to President Truman, October 26, 1949.”
From Truman Wikiquotes (address below): “I never gave anybody hell. I just told the truth and they think it is hell.” “The Republicans favor a minimum wage – the smaller the minimum the better.” “Whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship.” “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
“I am Cyrus.” (address below)