In the biblical book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that He would make him into a great nation in the land He would show him and that He would bless those who bless Abraham’s descendants. Ever since that time there have been those who sought to destroy that nation and those who sought to safeguard it. During the twentieth century there was an American president who was faced with the thorny question of whether or not to recognize the newly “re-formed” homeland of the Jews. His top foreign relations expert advised him not to get involved, yet he eventually chose to follow his conscience and recognize the country. His name was Harry S. Truman. This is the story of how he became the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel.
Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri in 1884, but he spent much of his early life in Independence. Religion and religious beliefs shaped the young Truman. In Independence he attended the local Presbyterian and Baptist churches and developed a habit of reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament. He performed chores for the Viners, an orthodox Jewish family living near him, on their Sabbath and often visited with them. Later during World War I, his service in the artillery brought him into contact with a young Jewish man named Eddie Jacobson. The two men became friends, and after the war, they operated a men’s clothing store together. In 1922 Truman became involved in Missouri politics when he served as a county judge. In that capacity he diligently worked to improve living conditions for all his constituents regardless of their ethnicity or beliefs, even paving the road leading to the Jewish cemetery. In 1934 and again in 1940 he won election to the U.S. Senate. It was at this time that Truman found himself increasingly involved in Jewish affairs.
As word of the Nazi persecution of Jews spread throughout the world, Harry Truman was petitioned by public and private citizens alike to help rescue Jews trapped in Europe. Beginning in the late 1930’s, he received letters from friends asking him to entreat U.S. officials to ease the immigration of Jews to America. He assisted in bringing a number of Jewish families into the country before America’s involvement in the war forced U.S. consulates to close. He was then asked by Jewish leaders in America to speak out against the crimes being perpetrated by Nazi leaders. He did openly condemn the Nazi regime for its actions, but he saw that the most effective solution to rescuing European Jews was to win the war quickly. He briefly served on a committee that contemplated forming a Jewish army to fight the Nazis, but for the most part he followed President Roosevelt’s example and refused to offer explicit support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Throughout the war he read reports of Nazi atrocities as they attempted to annihilate the Jews. Then at the 1944 convention, the Democratic Party adopted a platform plank that pledged support for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. Now Roosevelt’s running mate, Truman supported this position. In November he was elected vice-president, and upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, he was sworn in as president. With the end of the war a few months later, he found himself involved in the fight to create a Jewish homeland.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were slaughtered, President Truman saw the need for a safe haven for the Jewish refugees scattered throughout Europe. Over two hundred and fifty thousand Jews lived in Allied camps with no place to go. Truman received Jewish delegations who presented different proposals on how to alleviate these dire circumstances. Some Jewish leaders argued that the Jewish refugees should immigrate to the U.S. Truman was personally in support of this strategy, but he found himself hampered by congressional limits on immigration. In addition, there was a significant percentage of Americans who wanted to simply wash their hands of the whole situation. He was also opposed by American Zionists, whose only objective was the establishment of a permanent Jewish state in the “Holy Land” of Palestine, their traditional and Biblical home. Many lobbyists were Jewish, but there were also members from America’s Christian community. They argued that Palestine was the only place left where the Jews could settle in peace. Indeed, many American Jews already lived in Palestine. The State Department recorded that eighty percent of Americans living in Palestine were of Jewish ancestry. Additionally, it was well known that American Jews helped financially support the Jewish population of Palestine. President Truman decided that the best solution was to allow one hundred thousand Jews into Palestine. He worked with British authorities who controlled Palestine to permit this migration, but over time, he came to view the creation of a Jewish state as the right course to pursue.
Harry Truman’s desire to simply transform Palestine into a Jewish refuge under the protection of the British initially kept him from seeing the need to support the creation of an independent Jewish state. The British quickly convinced Truman that a Jewish-Arab peace had to occur before Jews could immigrate to Palestine. Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Atlee formed a committee that developed a plan whereby Palestine would operate as a unitary state with two semiautonomous Jewish and Arab provinces. Truman immediately came under attack from Jewish leaders for his support of the bifurcated plan, and he decided not to endorse the proposal. He was about to give up on a political solution when he received word that Jewish leaders had agreed to the partition of Palestine. He decided that now he too could give his support to partition. The British understood that American support likely meant international support for partition, and they began to make preparations to leave Palestine for good.
After he pledged his support, Harry Truman threw his energy into seeing that partition was implemented. In early 1947 he and the rest of the world watched as Britain announced that British troops would leave Palestine in early 1948. This meant that control of Palestine now rested in the hands of the United Nations. The UN immediately formed a committee to study the situation in Palestine and determine the appropriate strategy. The committee reported back that the region should be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states with the city of Jerusalem operating under an international trusteeship. As the date for the UN vote neared, Truman and his senior advisers persuaded leaders from the Philippines, Liberia, France and several Latin American countries to vote for partition. The final vote was held on November 29, 1947 with thirty-three nations in support and thirteen against. Among the thirty-three nations that voted for partition was the U.S. and each of the nations to which Truman had reached out. Truman was personally thanked by his old friend Eddie Jacobson and by countless other Jewish leaders for his role in bringing partition about. Over the next few months however, Truman faced stiff internal opposition even as events in the Middle East threatened the peaceful partition of Palestine.
The UN vote may have divided Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, but Truman’s own State Department now voiced their opposition as he contemplated recognizing Israel. The State Department feared that American support for Israel would drive the Arab nations into the arms of the Soviet Union. To prevent this from happening, Secretary of State George Marshall and the State Department supported the replacement of partition with a trusteeship. Truman refused to publicly condemn partition, but he did propose a trusteeship as a temporary measure to prevent the political instability that had resulted from Arab attacks on Jewish settlements. In contrast with the State Department, Truman’s aides began to urge him to provide early recognition for Israel. Early recognition meant accepting Israeli independence before independence was officially declared. The aides argued that recognition of Israel would provide America with a trustworthy and stable ally in the region who could help oppose the Soviet Union. In a meeting with Truman on May 12, 1948, Secretary of State Marshall opposed early recognition and believed the U.S. should wait until Jewish independence was actually declared. Over the next two days, Truman’s aides worked feverishly behind-the-scenes to procure not only State Department acquiescence to recognition but also an official request by the new State of Israel for recognition. The formal request from Israel quickly followed. At 6:11 P.M. on May 14, 1948, or 12:11 A.M. on May 15 Palestine time, President Harry S. Truman became the first head of state to recognize the State of Israel as the de facto Jewish government in Palestine.
In the months and years following American recognition, Truman worked to ensure that Israel enjoyed American backing. U.S. support and the UN vote to create Israel did not, however, translate to a peaceful creation of a Jewish homeland. In late June, even as the Israeli War of Independence waged, Truman appointed a pro-Zionist, James MacDonald, to serve as the American special representative to Israel. Through MacDonald he was kept abreast of the territorial gains made by Israeli forces, especially in Galilee and in the Negev Desert. In January 1949 when Israel and its Arab opponents finally agreed to a cease-fire, Truman and the State Department granted Israel de jure recognition. His act made clear that the U.S. had tied its fortunes to Israel. He continued to have a close relationship with Israeli officials. In late 1948 he wrote the first Israeli president that he was proud of what the Jews had accomplished despite the obstacles in their path. In 1951 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave him a menorah for his courageous recognition of Israel. Even after he left office in 1952 he still received letters thanking him for what he had done for the Jewish people. The man who was the first to recognize Israel died in Independence, Missouri on December 26, 1972 at age eighty-eight.
Neither the ancient nor modern nation of Israel has had an easy road. God’s promise of a homeland did not mean the absence of a struggle. A vote in the United Nations may have created modern Israel, but it took the courage and vision of the Israelis and an American president to see it through to fruition. President Truman had to battle for the successful vote in the UN, and he had to battle members of his own government to secure American acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. They were battles he believed worth fighting though. Over the last sixty-six years, Israel has been one of America’s staunchest allies and supporters. Israel and America live by many of the same values, ideals and principles. Israel continues to confront challenges to its very existence. America should continue to stand beside Israel in the face of opposition. Harry Truman would urge us on — Harry Truman would be proud.