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The State Department told Truman not to recognize Israel. He did it anyway

The Arab world would turn against the U.S., diplomats warned the president, and might threaten its access to oil

Defying the advice of his own State Department, President Harry Truman recognized the new state of Israel 75 years ago this Sunday, becoming the first world leader to do so just 11 minutes after the nation’s creation. Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S., Michael Herzog, on Thursday paid tribute to Truman for the decision at his presidential library in Independence, Missouri. 

Truman made the call on May 14, 1948, following the declaration of the new state by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. It was an important symbolic move by the Truman administration, although the United States maintained its arms embargo against all participants in the Arab-Israeli War that immediately followed.

But Jews in the nascent nation were still ecstatic about the move.

“There was great cheering and drinking of toasts in this blacked-out city when word was received that the United States had recognized the provincial Government,” The New York Times reported in a story datelined from Tel Aviv. “The effect on the people, especially those drinking late in Tel Aviv’s coffee houses, was electric. They even ran into the blackness of the streets shouting, cheering and toasting the United States.”

The New York Times’ front page from May 15, 1948, declaring the creation of the modern Israel and Truman’s recognition of it. Courtesy of Beth Harpaz

Truman’s decision, the Times added, “came as a complete surprise to the people, who were tense and ready for the threatened invasion by Arab forces and appealed for help by the United Nations. In one of the most hopeful periods of their troubled history the Jewish people here gave a sigh of relief and took a new hold on life when they learned that the greatest national power had accepted them into the international fraternity.”

One motivation for acting quickly was to beat the Soviet Union to the punch in the early days of the Cold War, when the two superpowers were vying for influence in the Middle East. And in fact the Soviets followed just three days later, becoming one of the first countries to recognize Israel.

The diplomats object

President Harry Truman (left), receives a menorah from Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (center) and Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban (right) in the Oval Office on May 8, 1951. Courtesy of National Archives

Truman made the announcement in a brief two-sentence statement: “This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new state of Israel.”

In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the partition of Palestine, which had been governed by Great Britain, into Arab and Jewish states. Arab nations rejected the partition, and leading up to Israel’s declaration, key U.S. officials including Secretary of State George C. Marshall opposed the creation of a Jewish state. But key adviser Clark Clifford argued for recognizing Israel.

 An angry Marshall wrote in a May 12, 1948 memo after a contentious meeting on the issue with Truman, Clifford and other officials: “I said bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.”

The State Department’s director for Near Eastern and African Affairs, Loy Henderson, later recalled how American diplomats were taking into account the sensitivities of Arab nations at the time. In an oral history interview with the Harry S. Truman Library, Henderson said that when he was ambassador to Iraq in the mid-1940s, top Iraqi government officials told him “if the United States should decide to take a firm stand in establishing a Zionist state in Palestine, the whole Arab world would begin to feel that the United States had become an enemy of the Arabs,” and that the Middle East would become anti-American.

Henderson passed these concerns on to the State Department. “It seemed to me that our Government should be given to understand what might be expected in the Middle East if it should espouse the Zionist cause,” Henderson said.

As Jeffrey Frank writes in his 2022 book, The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953, Defense Secretary James Forrestal agreed with Henderson, telling a House committee that oil was “the life blood of a war machine” and that the Arab response to partition would make pipelines to the Persian Gulf less secure.

“While the concerns of the foreign-policy establishment were based on that sort of worry, they were not entirely separate from free-floating anti-Zionist sentiments that bubbled up in the State Department and other agencies,” Frank writes. “Forrestal had telephoned his old friend Bob Lovett, the under secretary of state, to inform him that he’d asked Truman ‘not to see any more of these Jews; also we should do nothing which would prejudice the other countries.’”

But Truman did see more Jews. At the urging of his friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, the president agreed to meet with Chaim Weizmann, the champion of the Zionist cause who would become the first president of Israel.

Truman and the Jews

 Politics might have been a factor in Truman’s decision to recognize Israel – the president was facing an uphill climb in that year’s reelection and needed the support of Jewish voters.

Still, Frank argues, “one should never underestimate the power of Truman’s emotions. He had neither Roosevelt’s charm nor his cold-bloodedness, and it was hard to turn away from the war’s visible aftermath: Jewish refugees who’d been liberated from the death camps in Poland and were drawn to the powerful idea of settling in Palestine, the site of ancient Israel. How could a prosperous, democratic nation turn away from that?”

And in fact, dating back to his time as a senator, Truman had called for a more forceful reaction to stop the atrocities of the Holocaust. In April 1943, the year before he was chosen as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate and two years before becoming president, Truman gave a speech at a Chicago Stadium rally in front of 25,000 people, demanding the “rescue of doomed Jews”:

“Today — not tomorrow — we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them. Their present oppressors must know that they will be held directly accountable for their bloody deeds. To do all of this, we must draw deeply on our tradition of aid to the oppressed, and to our great national generosity. This is not a Jewish problem. It is an American problem — and we must and we will face it squarely and honorably.”

 In his 2003 Truman biography, David McCullough noted that in private, Truman could still, “out of old habits of the mouth,” use words like kike. “But he spoke now from the heart, and with passing reference to Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms,’ made an implied criticism of the President for doing too little to help the Jews.”

 As president, those old habits sometimes returned. In a July 21, 1947 diary entry, after meeting with United Jewish Appeal Chairman Henry Morgenthau, the former Treasury secretary, to discuss postwar immigration to Palestine, Truman wrote: “The Jews have no sense of proportion, nor do they have any judgment on world affairs. … The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated” as displaced persons, ”as long as the Jews get special treatment.”

Those words are strikingly similar to what a fifth of Americans believe today. An Anti-Defamation League survey this year on antisemitic attitudes in the U.S. found that 21% of Americans agree with the statement that “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

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