Jewish History Blog
Alben Barkley, vice president under Harry Truman, told a famous joke about his position: once there was a mother with two sons; one became a sea captain and the other the vice president of the United States, and neither was ever heard from ever again.
That might have been Harry Truman’s fate also, except destiny stepped in.
From 1940-1944, FDR’s vice president was Henry Wallace, a very liberal agrarian politician from Iowa. But in his bid for a fourth term, some of the Democratic party leaders persuaded FDR to run with someone “safer.” FDR chose Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, someone the general American public didn’t really know that much about. What did it matter? He was only going to be vice president.
As we know, things turned out differently. A few weeks into his fourth term, Roosevelt died, and Truman became president. For America generally, and certainly for the Jewish people, he was the right man at the right time.
In the aftermath of the war, Palestine was in an unworkable situation. The Jewish world wanted 100,000 Holocaust survivors to be allowed in, but the British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, refused. President Truman put pressure on England, but Bevin said dismissively, “He doesn’t want too many of them in New York.”
Aside from his bigotry, this shows you something about Bevin’s obstinacy. Post-war Britain was almost completely dependent on the United States, which was literally feeding Europe. Even under ordinary circumstances, if the president of the United States told you to issue 100,000 certificates of emigration, you would take him seriously. But Bevin was so doctrinaire against the Jews, it made no difference.
But the pressure was building up like a pressure cooker. Every day, the violence increased, and England saw it was in a no-win situation. So Bevin made a dramatic gesture. He declared, “England is going to leave on May 15, 1948. We give the problem to the United Nations.”
In hindsight, it is clear what Bevin intended. The Arabs outnumbered and outgunned the Jews. Bevin assumed that when the Arabs would attempt to destroy them, they would turn to England for help. Then the British would be welcomed back as heroes. So Bevin’s plan was to have his cake and eat it too. And it was not far-fetched. The Arabs were very well-armed.
The UN’s solution was a partition plan: an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem would be an international city. The Jewish state was made of unconnected sections of land – militarily indefensible and economically unviable. Many Zionists opposed it. But Ben Gurion was the strong man, and he accepted.
The Arabs, for their part, refused. So it was to be decided by a vote in the UN General Assembly. Before then, the Arabists in the State Department, of whom there are still very many, circumvented the president and began pressuring the U.S. delegate, Warren Austin. Austin backed down from the partition plan and proposed instead that the United States should agree to a trusteeship, which was like a mandate all over again. The state of Israel looked like it might be stillborn.
Enter one of the strange stories of history. President Truman had served as an artillery captain in World War I, and one of the members of his battalion was a Jewish man named of Eddie Jacobson. After the war, the two of them went into an unlikely partnership and opened a haberdashery store in Kansas City. The store went bankrupt after three years, but Truman and Jacobson remained loyal friends, which is unusual in itself. Partners who undergo bankruptcy don’t usually enjoy each other’s company afterward.
The Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who was by then old and half-blind, traveled to the U.S. to try and see Truman to get him to reinforce American support of the partition plan. Truman refused. The Jewish leadership put on whatever pressure it could, but to no avail. Truman would not see Weizmann.
Then the Jews sent in Eddie Jacobson. It’s been written in Truman’s memoirs and many, many other places. Jacobson said, “Mr. President, Harry, you’ve got to do me this one favor. See this tired, old man. He’s come halfway across the world to see you. Just give him a few minutes of your time.” And Truman reluctantly agreed.
Weizmann was a great diplomat. He told Truman, and “You have the opportunity of the ages. If you’ll stay strong now, you’ll go down in history for all eternity.” And Truman was impressed by it, and he called Warren Austin at the UN to inform him of American policy. For added drama, when the call came, Austin was in the middle of a speech about how America was backing out of the partition plan. But when he returned from the phone call, he said, “President Truman has instructed me that the United States supports in full the partition plan as adopted by the United Nations and will work to see it implemented.”
When that happened, the situation turned. The state was declared on May 15, 1948. And not two weeks later, Weizmann presented Truman with the traditional gift Jews give to heads of state: a Torah scroll. When Truman saw it, he said, “I always wanted one of those.”
Since the birth of the state, Israel has known constant war and terror. There have only been lulls between wars, but never any actual quiet, in spite of Israel’s successful peace treaties with two of its neighboring Arab states, Egypt and Jordan. The hard core of the Arab/Islamist world has never come to terms with the presence of the Jewish people on its ancient home. Yet in spite of this, Israel has prospered in an almost supernatural fashion. It has absorbed immigrants from almost eighty lands. Yet in spite of all of its accomplishments, much of the world sees it as a failure and perhaps even a mistake. But the doomsayers have been proven wrong many times over the centuries of Jewish life. They are again wrong in respect to Israel’s future. May Israel continue to show its pattern of accomplishment and strengthen the people living in our justifiably entitled Jewish homeland.
For more on the aftermath of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel, please see our documentary film Faith and Fate 6: The Miracle of Israel, 1945-1948.