Fifty years ago on May 14, President Harry S. Truman extended de facto recognition to the state of Israel, a mere 11 min
utes after David Ben-Gurion declared the new Jewish nation's independence. Truman's historic act, diametrically opposite the advice of his most trusted foreign policy advisers, astonished many, gratified some, but most importantly, in his own words, "righted an historic wrong."In the half century since, Truman has become widely recognized as the one American who did more to assist in the creation of Israel than any other individual. As Trygve Lie, first Secretary General of the United Nations, stated, "I think we can safely say that if there had been no Harry Truman, there would be no Israel today."
Critics of Truman's immediate act of recognition have accused the president of everything from crudely pandering to American Jews for money and votes to providing the classic case of the determination of American foreign policy by domestic political considerations. A careful examination of the historical record, however, reveals just the opposite.
Growing up in Independence, Mo., young Harry's poor eyesight kept him out of a good many games - as a result, reading history became his most preferred activity. One of his favorite books was the Bible. Truman's knowledge of the Bible and his conversance with the history of the Middle East played a significant part in the formulation of his own presidential policy toward Palestine.
To be sure, Truman was heavily influenced by a biblical upbringing laden with Judeo-Christian themes and by a Baptist training that stressed a Jewish return to Zion. Truman's favorite psalm, number 137, is illustrative of this background: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion."
Like Harry Truman, Americans in 1948 and now - schooled in the Bible and in their own history - readily see the birth of modern Israel as a new Exodus and a return to the Promised Land. As a natural result, they find it much easier to empathize with a people who appear to be repeating the experience of America's Pilgrim fathers and the pioneers.
Despite overwhelming public opinion in the mid-1940s in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, such a proposition posed substantial security risks to a U.S. State Department bent on "containing"' Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. All of Truman's foreign policy advisers were dead set in their opposition to the president's support of a Jewish state. The strongest opponent to Truman was, ironically, the man whom the president admired most and even called "the greatest living American" - Gen. George C. Marshall.
Two days before Israel's declaration of independence, Marshall made an ominous threat to publicly oppose the president on this issue. While such opposition would have been catastrophic for the Truman administration, the president nevertheless granted immediate recognition to Israel. He thus fulfilled a pledge made to the famed Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, just a few weeks earlier, "You can bank on us. I am for partition."
Truman's steadfast support of Zionist aims is all the more astonishing when one considers the tension-packed months of early 1948. Indeed, the Palestine predicament was hardly the only pressing International concern at the time. In March, Truman went before Congress and asked for a reinstatement of the draft as talk of a potential third global conflict dominated the news. The New York Times compared Russia's imperialistic mission to Hitler's quest for world domination in 1939. Even Sir Winston Churchill claimed he could see the "menace of war rolling toward the West."
Notwithstanding the pressures he faced from nearly every direction, Truman held his ground and maintained that the Palestine question was an exceptional problem of a peculiar people and a unique land. When James Forrestal, then secretary of the Navy, reminded Truman of the critical need for Arab oil and the possibility of losing access to Middle Eastern reserves if America backed the Jewish state, the president asserted that he would handle the situation based on justice - not oil.
The supreme virtue of Harry S. Truman was his readiness - time and again - to risk both his popular standing as well as his political career by making unpopular decisions that were in the long-range interests of the country. "One of the proudest moments of my life," is how President Truman described his courageous decision to recognize the State of Israel five decades ago.
Truman once remarked that it is impossible for a public man to constantly worry about what history and future generations will say about the decisions he has to make. Rather, "he must live in the present, do what he thinks is right at the time, and history will take care of it." Fifty years have certainly proven that Harry Truman was right.