So Harry Truman Wasn’t So Big on Israel, After All

by Jim Lobe

John Judis, whom I consider a truly outstanding journalist, has written a very important book which he previewed in an article posted Wednesday on The New Republic. The article, “Seeds of Doubt: Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestine were prescient — and forgotten,” argues that a mythology about “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” and his attachment to Israel and the Jewish people has grown steadily over the years for which there is really very little historical basis:

Truman’s reputed devotion to Israel has become the standard by which subsequent president’s commitment is measured. In 1982, Richard Nixon described Ronald Reagan as the “most pro-Israel president since Truman.” A Boston Globe editorial in 1998 described Bill Clinton as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” In 2009, Charles Krauthammer described George W. Bush as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” And Vice President Joseph Biden declared in 2012 that “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.”

While it is true, according to Judis, that Truman was content to cast himself as a consistent advocate of Israel after he left office, he expressed considerable skepticism about the wisdom of Israel’s creation and particularly about the actual impacts and implications of its realization while serving in the White House. Indeed “[t]he rosy portrayal of Truman’s unquestioning commitment to and constant sympathy with Israel, which is often linked to a picture of the younger Truman as a Christian Zionist, is dead wrong,” according to Judis. Moreover, Truman appears, in Judis’ telling, to have felt considerable resentment about the pressure exerted on him by Zionist Jews in the US. In any event, the picture set forth in Judis’s article is quite the contrary to the conventional view and deserves to be read in full.

truman-israel-recognitionBy coincidence, I happened to visit the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, last summer when my son was playing in a national soccer tournament nearby in Overland Park, Kansas. The Library is truly quite interesting, not only because of the material collected, but also because it doesn’t pull many punches about the controversies provoked by some of Truman’s more momentous decision, such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But one document, in particular, drew my attention in the short time I was able to visit the Library, particularly in light of Netanyahu’s current demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as “Jewish state,” a demand to which Secretary of State John Kerry has appeared to acquiesce, much to the great frustration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has insisted that he will never do so.

The document pictured here, which you can click on for a larger image, is the one that caught my attention. It constitutes the May 14, 1948, statement made by Truman granting US recognition of Israel. The interlineations are his writing, and you will see how ambiguously he dealt with the question of Israel as a “Jewish state.”

I don’t have the expertise to voice an informed opinion as to whether or not these interlineations were made for reasons of substance — an implicit questioning or even rejection of Israel as a “Jewish state” (the passive voice of the first sentence and the excision of “Jewish state in the second) — or for stylistic reasons (too much repetition of “Jewish state” within two sentences). But, given the background provided by Judis, I lean to the former rather than the latter. That the Obama administration would accept the characterization of Israel as a “Jewish state” 65 years later offers one more indication of how far US policy has traveled over that time.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. I for one believe that the creation of the state of Israel was right and that after centuries of displacement and persecution and the unspeakable atrocities during the Holocaust the Jews need a state of their own and I hope that Israel will long prosper, provided that they also recognize the rights and sufferings of the Palestinians and allow them to have a state of their own on a portion of their historic land. However, it is clear that even as early as seventy years ago the influence of the Zionist and Christian Zionist lobbies on US presidents was strong and pervasive.

    In a Nov. 10, 1945 meeting with American diplomats brought in from their posts in the Middle East to urge Truman not to heed Zionist urgings, Truman had bluntly explained his motivation: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” After clashes broke out in Palestine, Secretary of State George C. Marshall of the Marshall Plan fame urged Truman to reconsider and threatened to resign. The State Department urged Truman not to grant diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state, but instead to side with rapidly growing sentiment in the United Nations in favor of trusteeship. However, Truman recognized “the state of Israel” and the rest is history.

  2. Revisionism, or me too ism, seems to be the gist of this. Exactly what does it all mean? When one looks at how the state of Israel was created, the continual theft of the occupied lands, along with everything else it can do/get, the corruption of the U.S. Congress to back any aggressive plays that Israel engages in, and let’s not forget the Nuclear/Chemical WMD’s too. There will be no peace in any part of the M.E. until that matter alone-the WMD’s-are eliminated. If the Israeli Government can’t be trusted to be an honest broker in their dealings with others, then it’s only a matter of time before one or more of their leaders go off the sanity train and use said WMD’s, possibly on Iran. That the world has come to this crossroads, allowing one little country of 7 million to dictate the fate of 2-3 billion, is ridiculous to say the least. It’s one thing, to believe in ones religion, quite another when that religion brews hatred, which is what’s going on today in the M.E., whether it’s from the extreme Jihads or the Jewish settlers, toward others. That one is condemned while the other is given a free pass, is hypocritical to any sane thinking.

  3. Gore Vidal weighed in on this in his forward to the Israel Shahak book, “Jewish History, Jewish Religion” (this book is the precursor to Max Blumenthal’s ‘Goliath’)

    “Sometime in the late 1950’s, that world class gossip and occasional historian, John F. Kennedy, told me how, in 1948, Harry S. Truman had pretty much been abandoned by everyone when he came to run for president. Then an American Zionist brought him 2 million dollars in cash, in a suitcase, aboard his whistle-stop campaign train.

    “That’s why our recognition of Israel was rushed through so fast.” As neither Jack nor I was an antisemite (unlike his father and my grandfather) we took this to be just another funny story about Truman and the serene corruption of American politics.”

  4. Very interesting. One remembers the threat made to Truman by Emanuel Cellar of New York, to “ride him out of town on a rail”if he failed to recognise Israel immediately.

  5. It could have been Emanuel Cellars alone who prompted Truman to recognize Israel. He seems like quite a high-minded person.

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