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Harry and the Holy Land

A Great Miracle Happened Here: David Ben-Gurion, right, presents a Hanukkiah to President Harry Truman in 1951. Israeli ambassador to the United States Abba Eban enjoys the moment. Image by Getty Images

A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel
By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
HarperCollins, 448 pages, $27.99.

It is one of the great ironies of history that a little-known “Midwest Baptist” whose mother-in-law would not allow him to entertain Jews at home, and who scribbled antisemitic diatribes in his diary, was responsible for cementing the return of Jewish sovereignty to the Holy Land after 2,000 years of often painful exile.

Harry S. Truman was never supposed to be president. When he suddenly found himself in the Oval Office in April 1945, having been kept almost entirely out of the loop by Franklin Roosevelt, one of the many issues bearing down on him — and not even close to being one of the most pressing — was what to do about Palestine.

Yet, at 6:11 p.m. on May 14, 1948, Truman, in defiance of his secretary of state, George Marshall, whom he greatly admired, made the United States the first country to recognize the infant State of Israel. Why did he do it?

That is the question that Allis and Ronald Radosh set out to answer in their new book, “A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.” It is a subject that is ripe for re-examination not only because of the continued close relations between the United States and Israel, but also because of the sheer intensity of the period. The Truman presidency was so eventful — the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the Korean War, Truman’s astonishing 1948 election victory, to name just a few — that many accounts curtail the debate over Palestine.

Disappointingly, the Radoshes signally fail to answer their own question. They provide a solid, well-documented narrative that draws on numerous published and unpublished sources. Unfortunately, they ply largely familiar territory and offer barely any analysis. Most surprisingly, given the book’s stated mission, they fail to fully explore Truman’s motivations.

One of the most significant — and most overlooked — factors shaping Truman’s actions on Palestine was the mission of Earl G. Harrison in July 1945. A Quaker, Harrison had been commissioner of immigration under Roosevelt before he was sent to Europe by the State Department to examine the condition of postwar refugees, most notably Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Harrison found survivors living in stables, still wearing their striped prison pajamas. All so-called displaced persons were grouped by nationality by the American forces, putting many sick and undernourished Jews at the mercy of fellow countrymen who had been Nazi sympathizers. Harrison issued a blistering report, most famously concluding that the survivors were treated no differently by the Allies than they had been by the Nazis, except that that they were not being exterminated. He recommended that Washington ask London to allow the immediate entry of 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine.

Truman embraced Harrison’s report and, as the Radoshes acknowledge, the demand that 100,000 survivors be transferred to Palestine became the cornerstone of his policy for the next three years. Had the British agreed to Truman’s request, the case for a Jewish state would have lost its most compelling argument because the refugee problem probably would not have festered. But the British stubbornly refused to relax immigration restrictions, hoping to curry favor with the Arabs and thereby hold on to their possessions in the Middle East. As a result, Jews fleeing Eastern Europe swelled refugee camps in the American-occupied zones of Austria and Germany over the next two years, creating a humanitarian crisis that engendered tremendous sympathy for Zionism around the world.

So who was Earl G. Harrison? And why did the State Department, which was famously opposed to increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, choose him for the mission when another choice might have yielded quite a different result? Sadly, the Radoshes don’t tell us.

They also do not really explain why Truman reacted so viscerally to the plight of Holocaust survivors. The answer might seem obvious to us today, but plenty of people at the time, especially those in the Near East division of the State Department (and in London), were not nearly so moved by their predicament. Yet Truman maintained his concern for the refugees long after many other politicians would have thrown up their hands.

One important clue, which the Radoshes neglect to include, is that Truman strongly identified with the displaced persons. His own mother and grandmother became refugees when Yankee soldiers forced them off their farm during the Civil War. “I had some notion of what these people were going through who had to be moved from one place to another in order to have a home,” Truman said of the survivors in an interview in the early 1960s, “and I was very anxious that they would not and should not have to go through the same sort of difficulties that the families in the War Between the States had to go through.”

No account of Truman and the founding of Israel can avoid the dramatic clash between the State Department and the White House over Palestine policy, and the Radoshes offer a blow-by-blow account. But they ignore the fact that the department’s opposition was not monolithic. The Near East division, which had control of Palestine policy, was anti-Zionist. But other parts of the department, importantly, were not.

For example, John H. Hilldring, a major general who was assistant secretary of state for occupied areas, was extremely sympathetic to the Zionists. Hilldring was a close friend of George Marshall, who had brought him to the State Department, but he turned out to be on the opposite side of the Palestine issue. Hilldring and his staff engaged in a crucial and successful behind-the-scenes campaign to keep the borders of the American-occupied zones in Europe open to Jewish refugees when many in Washington wanted them sealed.

During the summer of 1946, nearly 100,000 Jews fled Poland through Czechoslovakia and Austria into Germany. By 1947, about 250,000 Jews were languishing in refugee camps. It was a dramatic series of events that, stunningly, the Radoshes totally ignore. Indeed, the survivors themselves — the epicenter of the struggle — are oddly absent from the book, their needs and desires depicted only in the reflection of outsiders.

Strangely too, Truman himself, easily one of the most colorful people ever to occupy the White House, is a muted presence in the book. We don’t see him railing against the “striped-pants boys” in the State Department, or the personal trauma of his disagreement with Marshall, whom he saw as a demigod. Despite their explosive potential, Truman’s recently unearthed antisemitic diary entries are inserted without commentary. Even one of the all-time great presidential zingers lands with a thud when related by the Radoshes. Venting his frustration with the Zionist lobby, Truman exclaimed: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?”

To their credit, the Radoshes conclude with some overdue analysis of Truman’s motivations. Was he acting out of pure humanitarian concern, as his champions claim, or simply making a calculated play for the Jewish vote in the face of an uphill reelection bid?

Truman, like all presidents, was the consummate political animal. But the Radoshes make a convincing case from documents and oral histories that it wasn’t all politics. Had they painted a more vivid portrait of this fascinating figure in the preceding pages, readers would have easily drawn their own conclusion.

Laurence Zuckerman is a former New York Times reporter working on a book about American Jewry during and immediately after the Holocaust.

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