Anniversary puts attention on Trumans bold move

LOS ANGELES — On May 12, 1948, two days before David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence, a tense meeting of momentous importance to the survival of the nascent Jewish state took place in the White House's Oval Office.

At stake was whether the United States would recognize the as-yet-unnamed State of Israel and thereby give it instant standing and credibility in the eyes of the world.

Arrayed against President Harry Truman and adamantly opposed to recognition were the president's closest advisers, led by Secretary of State George Marshall, the man most respected by Truman and the American people.

Truman listened to his circle of "wise men" argue that if Israel were to come into existence, the Soviets might intervene, the Arabs would cut off oil supplies and the Jews would be pushed into the sea.

But the president kept his own counsel, and on May 14, just 11 minutes after Ben-Gurion's announcement, the United States became the first country to recognize Israel.

In making his solitary decision, perhaps Truman remembered a letter he had received a few weeks earlier from Chaim Weizmann, in which the future president of Israel wrote:

"The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination. History and providence have placed this issue in your hands, and I am confident that you will yet decide it in the spirit of the moral law."

The 50th anniversary of Israel's independence has refocused scholarly and popular interest in the role the 33rd president of the United States played in the dramatic events of 1948, and what his motives were in defying the almost unanimous opposition of his foreign policy and military advisers.

Leading the re-examination is the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., which has mounted two exhibits on the period, one at the library itself, the other at the Skirball cultural center in Los Angeles.

The library has opened a Web site, featuring documents, photographs and historical background, which can be accessed at

At the same time, a feature-length documentary on Truman's life has been completed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim.

And a new book, "Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel," by Michael Benson, a political scientist at the University of Utah, has just been published.

At the recent opening of the Skirball exhibit, Benson and Larry Hackman, director of the Truman Library, discussed Truman's character traits and motives, and how they shaped his policy toward Israel and the Jewish people.

A common charge at the time was that Truman's actions rested on a shrewd political ploy to attract Jewish votes and money in the 1948 presidential election, which every pundit predicted would result in a humiliating defeat for the incumbent.

Such an assessment constitutes a "cynical misunderstanding" of Truman's character, said Benson in a formal talk. Indeed, that same year, Truman took much larger political risks, thereby splitting the Democratic Party, with his stand on civil rights and the integration of the armed forces.

Rather, Truman's actions were based on genuine sympathy for the Jewish people and their right to a homeland, anchored in his religious background, Hackman said in an interview.

"By the time he was 14, Harry Truman, a Southern Baptist, had read the Bible cover to cover five times," Hackman said.

Truman expressed his feelings as early as 1942, when he advocated the admission of Jewish refugees to the United States during World War II. Within months of assuming the presidency, he wrote a strong letter to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, urging better treatment for Jewish displaced persons in the American occupied zone.

There were some lighter moments in Truman's relationship to the Jewish people, particularly in his encounters with Weizmann.

When the Israeli president presented a Torah scroll to the American chief executive, Truman wasn't quite sure what he was getting, but nonetheless assured the startled Weizmann, "Thank you, I always wanted one of these."

Also, noted Benson, Truman persisted in pronouncing Chaim Weizmann's first name as "Sham " — even though he was corrected numerous times.

Though a modest man, Truman was well aware of the importance of his May 1948 actions. Once, after his retirement, he was introduced as "the man who helped create the State of Israel."

Without a moment's hesitation, Truman shot back, "What do you mean, helped create? I was Cyrus, I was Cyrus" — referring to the Persian monarch who enabled the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem after the first dispersion.

Truman never worried too much about whether his contemporaries approved of his decisions. He once said that a public man "must live in the present, do what he thinks is right, and history will take care of it."

The past 50 years, concluded Benson, "have proven that Harry S. Truman was right."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent