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.

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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. Cellar, in the White House, told Truman that he and his rich Jewish freinds in New York would “ride [Truman[ ouf of town on a rail.” If Truman failed to recognise Israel immediately, before its borders were clarified. Not terribly polite.

  2. I agree, James, a harbinger of things to come. But at the time, who knew how the new Jewish state would turn out? I’m actually in sympathy with American Jews throwing their weight and their money about in 1948. But that was then, this is now. That is the difference.

    I despise the cynical way right wing Israeli politicians make use today of the slaughter of European Jews in the 1940’s, turning that enormous tragedy into political gain for Israel and keeping the US in thrall to their every wish.

  3. James, the writer I mentioned, Israel Shahak was an important Israeli dissident, a college professor of chemistry (I think), and a tireless worker for Palestinian human rights. And. He was also a survivor of the Nazi terror in Europe. He and his mother were in a concentration camp in Poland. He arrived in Israel right after the war. He never accepted the Likud line, he was an old school leftist Jew. There are plenty of them in Israel, we don’t hear much about them. I’ve read of other wartime survivors who don’t subscribe to the prevailing propaganda. It helps you keep your faith in human nature, don’t it :>)

  4. I agree Israel could use more “old-school” non-Likud leftists. And more attention to those who do exist would be welcome.

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