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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Doomed to Succeed

The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama

Dennis Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Today, the relationship between the United States and Israel is extolled by American presidents. We take it for granted that presidents will stress their commitment to Israel and to the ties that bind us. But it was not always this way. Harry Truman faced enormous resistance within his administration to his decision to recognize the Jewish state. Similarly, selling or providing arms to Israel was taboo until President Kennedy decided to do so—again, a controversial decision within his national security apparatus. Later, during the first week of the 1973 war, Richard Nixon initially resisted Israeli near-desperate pleas to resupply weaponry, following the major losses of aircraft and tanks the Israelis had suffered. Although Nixon eventually provided a massive resupply of arms to Israel, his decision had more to do with cold war concerns that Soviet weapons could not be seen to defeat American weapons than with any special relationship that existed between our two countries.

From the perspective of history, the relationship has clearly evolved. And to understand where the relationship is today and where it is going, particularly during a period of transition in the Middle East, it is important to understand why the relationship changed. To do so, I will examine the policy and approach of every administration since Israel’s birth. I will offer a narrative of the policy and the key developments in each administration, starting with Harry Truman’s. I will outline each president’s basic instincts or mind-set toward Israel and toward our policy in the region, as well as the basic assumptions that seemed to guide the national security establishment and senior officials about Israel and the region—and whether there was unanimity or division.

What will emerge from the review is remarkable continuity—not of policy, necessarily, but of arguments. Over and over again, we will see recycled concerns that too close a relationship with Israel will harm our ties to the Arabs and damage our position in the region. Until the 1990s, the fear was that we would drive the Arabs into a Soviet embrace. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concern was that it would damage our relationship with the Arabs and make us targets of jihadist terrorism. The debates that center on these issues produced a pattern: when an administration is judged by its successors to be too close to Israel, we distance ourselves from the Jewish state. Eisenhower believed that Truman was too supportive of Israel, so he felt an imperative to demonstrate that we were not partial to Israel, that we were in fact willing to seek closer ties to our real friends in the region—the Arabs. President Nixon, likewise, felt that Lyndon Johnson was too pro-Israel. In his first two years, he, too, distanced us from Israel and showed sensitivity to Arab concerns. President George H. W. Bush believed his former boss, Ronald Reagan, suffered from the same impulse of being too close to Israel. He, too, saw virtue in fostering distance. And President Obama, at the outset of his administration, certainly saw George W. Bush as having cost us in the Arab and Muslim world at least in part because he was unwilling to allow any gap to emerge between the United States and Israel.

In none of these instances do we actually gain any benefit to our position in the region. Our influence does not increase; our ties with the conservative Arab monarchies do not materially improve. Neither is there any decline in those relationships during administrations that are putatively seen as being closer to Israel. Our ties with the more radical Arab regimes are not good, but then again—with the possible exceptions of the Kennedy administration’s concerted effort to reach out to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Reagan administration’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War—they were never good.1

Yet arguments that we must distance ourselves from Israel are not discredited when the predicted positive outcomes do not occur. Nor are these arguments discredited when the anticipated terrible consequences of drawing closer to Israel fail to materialize. With regard to the latter, when we recognized Israel in 1948, or later when we sold arms to Israel and the Soviets couldn’t replace us in the area, and when the flow of oil from the region was not lost, no one questioned why these devastating outcomes did not happen. No one asked what was wrong in our assumptions about the dynamics of the Middle East. Remarkably, there seem to be few lessons ever learned.

These assumptions are obviously about more than Israel’s place in the region and its neighbors’ reactions to it. They also involve the perceived forces of change and whether and how we should relate to them. Late in the Eisenhower administration, the president signed a policy directive that effectively called for us to “accommodate” radical Arab nationalism. The assumptions that guided that posture are similar to the arguments in parts of the Obama administration in 2011 and 2012 that argued that the Muslim Brotherhood represented the wave of the future in the region and that our more conservative Arab friends were on the wrong side of history—and our policy needed to reflect that. In the late 1950s and in John Kennedy’s first two years in office, the logic of that policy was pursued and failed to deliver. Yet no one asked how or even whether the radical Arab nationalists like President Nasser of Egypt could alter their aims without betraying their very identity. The same may be true today with Islamists. It makes sense to take a hard look at these kinds of assumptions and evaluate them in light of what drove the radical nationalists in the past and what factors may drive the Islamists today.

If there was ever a time to rethink assumptions and gain a better handle on the dynamics that are likely to shape the Middle East, this is surely it. Because the American approach to Israel over time was generally derivative of our broad approach to the region, one way to rethink assumptions is to see which ones took hold, why they endured, where they were off base, and how they need to be changed. That is why I examine every administration from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and how each approached both Israel and the region.

Harry S. Truman: The Struggle to Adopt a Policy

“Struggle” is the right word to describe the policy of the Truman administration toward Palestine and the emergence of the Jewish state of Israel. President Truman had to contend with the reality that none of his senior national security officials saw any strategic benefit in supporting Jewish aims in Palestine. On the contrary, they saw only costs. These attitudes carried over from the Second World War, when concern about alienating the Arabs was prevalent, given the fear that it might trigger a loss of bases in the Middle East and disrupt the resupply from the region to the European theater and Lend-Lease operations into the Soviet Union. With the advent of the cold war, the approach to the Middle East was defined by what was perceived to be necessary to “contain” the Soviet Union. This is the context in which Truman and his national security advisers shaped foreign policy. But that was not the only contextual factor affecting Truman and the approach to Palestine and the Jewish question. He had inherited a legacy as well.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt left President Truman a muddled legacy on Jewish aspirations in regard to Palestine. To Jewish leaders and groups, he promised his sympathy and support for a Jewish state and allowed them to issue statements in his name. However, with the Arabs, he privately assured them that nothing would be done that would be hostile to their interests. Indeed, after authorizing Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver to declare, in his name, on March 9, 1944, that the U.S. government had never approved of the White Paper of 1939* and expressing “his conviction that when future decisions are reached, full justice will be done to those who seek a Jewish national home,” he had the State Department send reassuring messages to Arab leaders that no decision would be made without “full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.”2 This was his pattern on the issue: he juggled the conflicting attitudes and pressures and basically equivocated, believing there would be time after the war to solve the problem.

But it was not only that he felt he had time. He also had great faith in his own ability to persuade or charm leaders. Roosevelt was certain that he could bring around the king of Saudi Arabia on the Palestine question. He arranged to see Ibn Saud on his return from the Yalta Conference on the navy cruiser USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. In advance of this meeting, he told his new secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., that he would “point out to Ibn Saud what an infinitesimal part of the whole area was occupied by Palestine and that he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs.”3

Unfortunately, his meeting with Ibn Saud did not go as he envisioned. The king was implacable in his opposition, telling the president the Germans and not the Arabs should pay for what had been done to the Jews in Europe. The Arabs would die “rather than yield their land to the Jews.”4

It was not the king of Saudi Arabia who was persuaded in the meeting but rather President Roosevelt, who underwent a seeming change of heart. So much so that he reassured the king that he would “do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs” and would “make no move hostile to the Arab people.”5 When he reported to the Congress on the Yalta summit, he added to his prepared text the unscripted comment that “of the problems of Arabia, I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in [the] exchange of two or three dozen letters.”*6 True to form, Roosevelt sought to reassure Jewish leaders of his intent after his comment to the Congress. Once again, he allowed Rabbis Wise and Silver to publicly reaffirm his strong support for the “Zionist position.”7

But in truth, his private views seemed to have evolved. After seeing Ibn Saud, he no longer believed he could convince the Arabs to accept a Jewish state. Unlike his wife, Eleanor, who was convinced of the Zionist strength and readiness to “risk a fight with the Arabs” over Palestine, he was concerned that the Arab numbers would “in the long run win out.”8 Just weeks before he died, in April 1945, he met privately with the leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein and Joseph Proskauer, who were not Zionists and did not favor the creation of a Jewish state. He told them that in the present conditions a Jewish state in Palestine was impossible to achieve.9 Perhaps he was only telling them what he thought they wanted to hear, but his words echoed what he had told his wife after the Ibn Saud meeting. Given the strategic concerns that had dominated his thinking about the region during the war, the views of his national security advisers, and his concerns about the survivability of a Jewish state, it should come as no surprise that his aide David Niles—who would also serve in a critical role with President Truman—later said that he had “serious doubts … that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived.”10

In short, Truman inherited from Franklin Roosevelt a legacy of contradictory promises to Jewish and Arab leaders, a national security team strongly opposed to Jewish aspirations or interests in Palestine, and a public political posture embodied in the 1944 plank of the Democratic Party platform that gave strong support to the Zionist goals in Palestine.

Truman also inherited something else: the horrific stories emerging about the concentration camps and the reality of the Holocaust. General Eisenhower toured the camps in mid-April 1945, shortly after Roosevelt’s death. Shocked by what he saw, he invited leading members of the U.S. media to come and report on the gruesome, barbaric reality so the American public could see what the Nazis had done. Their reports not only generated great sympathy for the Zionist cause but also were a reminder that we now had responsibility for taking care of the survivors in the camps. For President Truman, the roughly one and a half million “displaced persons” (DPs), a quarter of a million of whom were Jewish, were now an American responsibility, as we had control over the camps. Understandably, Truman saw both a practical and a deeply troubling humanitarian problem. For Roosevelt, the question of Palestine could be deferred. For Truman, the humanitarian challenge was immediate and real—and required action.

Overview of the Truman Policy and Key Developments

Reports of Jews dying in the camps after liberation by U.S. forces led American Jewish organizations to press for immediate steps to remedy this grim reality. On June 22, 1945, President Truman appointed Earl G. Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to go to Europe and investigate the conditions in the camps and recommend a course of action. The Harrison Report detailed the unsanitary conditions, shortages of food, and the fact that Holocaust survivors were still wearing the same prison garb. “As matters stand now,” he wrote, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” The survivors, he said, wanted nothing to do with a Europe that had persecuted them; they feared coming to America. They wanted only to go to Palestine. Anyone going to the camps, he added, would find it “nothing short of calamitous to contemplate that the gates of Palestine should be soon closed.” He called for the Jewish DPs to be treated differently from other refugees, and recommended that 100,000 of the Jewish DPs be allowed to go to Palestine immediately, with others permitted to follow—and concluded that “the civilized world owes it to this handful of survivors to provide them with a home where they can again settle down and begin to live as human beings.”11

Truman was shocked by the report. But the British remained the mandatory power in Palestine, and they determined whether Jewish survivors could come. Against the advice of the State Department, at Potsdam, Truman asked Winston Churchill to lift the 1939 White Paper’s restrictions on immigration without delay.12 But with the Conservative Party losing to the Labour Party in the elections immediately after Potsdam, Churchill was out and Clement Attlee was in.13 Truman shortly sent Attlee a copy of the Harrison Report under the cover of a personal letter, in which he asked the new prime minister to lift the quota limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine and to permit 100,000 refugees to enter as soon as possible.

Attlee, saying that any such action without prior consultation with the Arabs would “set aflame the whole Middle East,” was not willing to accept the Harrison Report’s call for Jews to be treated differently from other DPs or Truman’s request to permit 100,000 to move quickly to Palestine. Facing the reality that congressional and public pressures were growing on Truman to do something about the Harrison Report recommendations, Attlee initially suggested that the British turn the broader Palestine problem over to the United Nations. However, by mid-October 1945, Attlee had changed his position and proposed instead a joint Anglo-American Committee to study the problem of where Europe’s Jews might go. In proposing the committee, he hoped not just to buy time but also to have prominent American and British figures develop a common approach that would not plague our policy toward Palestine and the Middle East.14

Truman agreed to the formation of the committee provided the work would be done quickly. He asked that its findings be produced within 120 days, and that it address the plight of the Jews in Europe and the conditions in Palestine for absorbing them. Secretary of State James Byrnes made clear to the British that President Truman was not walking back on his request to have 100,000 Jewish DPs enter Palestine as soon as possible.15

Over the next several months, the members of the Anglo-American Committee spent time in the DP camps in Europe. They witnessed Jewish survivors pleading to go to Palestine, and they traveled to Palestine and met extensively with the Jewish and Arab leaders there. Notwithstanding their different attitudes initially, they produced a consensus report that was unveiled on May 1, 1946. Much to the chagrin of Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the committee recommended the immediate issuance of 100,000 certificates for Jewish DPs and recommended the lifting of the White Paper’s restrictions on land sale and immigration for Jews coming to Palestine. For the longer term, the committee came out against either an Arab or a Jewish state, calling instead for economic development, education, and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, with neither ascendant over the other.16

President Truman embraced the call for the immediate immigration of the 100,000 and the end to the restrictive provisions of the White Paper, but he essentially ignored the longer-term recommendations. Attlee and Bevin initially temporized, saying the recommendation on the 100,000 could be considered only after knowing what financial and military responsibilities the United States would assume in helping to implement the recommendations and how these recommendations might actually be integrated. In all, Bevin raised ten subjects that needed full consideration before anything could be done on the main recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee. By the end of the month, Bevin’s ten subjects had become forty-three, all of which had to be fully investigated. In his memoir, Dean Acheson observed that the British were obviously playing a delaying game and imposing demands that Acheson called nonstarters.17

In response, Truman wrote Attlee in early June, saying that we would deal with all the issues the British were raising, but he wanted work to begin immediately on addressing the need to move the 100,000. He promised that the United States would assume the responsibility for transporting them and paying for their temporary housing in Palestine. And he added that we would consider additional assistance as needed.

Attlee deflected again, saying that before there could be movement on the DPs, the political and military consequences of acting on the recommendations had to be fully considered and resolved. Truman appointed a cabinet-level committee to work with the British on how to implement the recommendations. Henry F. Grady headed the committee, and Truman instructed him and his American colleagues to work out the differences with the British but to get the 100,000 moved.

With the American team going to London in July 1946, these discussions led to a new proposal, ostensibly about implementing the Anglo-American recommendations but framed as what became known as the Morrison-Grady Plan (Herbert Morrison led the British half of the discussions). The plan finally resolved the issue of the DPs but only as part of a larger resolution of the Palestine question. The plan called for the creation of two autonomous provinces—one Arab and one Jewish—in a new federal arrangement for Palestine in which the British retained centralized control over critical territory, security, foreign affairs, taxation, and immigration. The Jewish province would total fifteen hundred square miles and would be located largely on the coastal plain. While Grady thought they had met their responsibility to fulfill the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee—and Truman was initially inclined in private to accept the plan—Judge Joseph Hutcheson, the American chair on the committee, declared the Morrison-Grady Plan a “sell out.” He said it nullified the committee’s recommendations and was inconsistent with the League of Nations Mandate because of its creation of cantons and restriction on Jewish immigration to Palestine.18

That the Arabs rejected it was no surprise. They had rejected every previous proposal that did not call for an Arab state in Palestine with an end to Jewish immigration and with the Jews accepting their status as a minority under Arab rule. But Jewish leaders in Palestine and the United States vehemently rejected it as well. While the Jews had reluctantly been willing to accept the Anglo-American Committee recommendations by focusing on its revocation of the White Paper’s restrictions, they saw no redeeming elements in the Morrison-Grady Plan. It left immigration in British hands; it created an autonomous Jewish province—not a state—and one with no connection to Jerusalem and on territory significantly smaller than what the British Peel Commission Report had proposed in 1937. The White Paper had supplanted the Peel Commission recommendations for Jewish statehood, as the British sought to curry favor with the Arabs with war looming in 1939—and the Jewish leaders in Palestine and America saw Morrison-Grady as an extension of the White Paper’s retreat.

They were not alone. Editorials in leading U.S. newspapers attacked it; congressional leaders denounced it; and Truman, notwithstanding his initial inclination to accept it, after holding a cabinet meeting on the plan, agreed to reject it.19 Jewish leaders were sufficiently exercised that they asked to see the president before his rejection of it, but he was not keen to see them or congressional delegations that wanted to inveigh against it. He finally relented and agreed to see James G. McDonald, who had been a U.S. member of the Anglo-American Committee. McDonald said that it was not an easy meeting. Truman was unhappy about all the pressure he was under, and McDonald told him that if he accepted the Morrison-Grady Plan just so he could get 100,000 survivors to Palestine, not only would Jewish leaders be outraged but he also would be sacrificing “Jewish interests in Palestine.” In response, Truman told McDonald, “Jews aren’t going to write the history of the United States, or my history.”20

But for now he had Acheson convey to the British that he could not accept the Morrison-Grady Plan. At roughly the same time, David Niles called Nahum Goldmann, the leader of the Jewish Agency, and told him the president was fed up with the British and the Zionists, and was close to washing his hands of the whole matter. If Goldmann hoped to prevent such an eventuality, Niles told him, the Jewish Agency needed to come up with a plan to replace Morrison-Grady. Goldmann got the board of the Jewish Agency to agree to a partition plan, calling for a Jewish state in a part of Palestine. According to Allis and Ronald Radosh, Goldmann then got key American Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Silver, to accept their scheme and subsequently presented this plan to Dean Acheson, who after three meetings was prepared to support it.21 Niles and Acheson presented it to Truman in early August, and Niles, “with tears in his eyes,” told Goldmann that Truman had accepted the plan and instructed Acheson to inform the British.22 Although the British would reject the plan, it appears that this is the first moment Truman became willing to support partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

Support, of course, is one thing; actual policy is another. But in October 1946, just before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith, Truman was to make a statement that moved him publicly in the direction of partition. With congressional midterm elections looming, with nothing having been accomplished on moving Jewish survivors to Palestine over the preceding year, and with Truman’s likely challenger in 1948, Governor Thomas Dewey, anticipated to adopt a public posture of support for Jewish statehood, Truman decided to issue what became known as the Yom Kippur statement. Acheson describes the statement as being driven at least in part by the British decision to postpone, until mid-December, talks they had planned with Arab and Jewish leaders on what to do in Palestine. For Truman, the delay meant that once again any possible movement on the Jewish refugee issue would be deferred.

Given that, the president chose to reaffirm his interest in the issue and urge that “steps be taken at the earliest possible moment to admit 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine.” Truman also said that it was his belief that the Jewish Agency’s proposal of “a viable Jewish state in control of its own immigration and economic policies in an adequate area of Palestine instead of” its entirety “would command the support of public opinion in the United States.” While the statement was focused more on what the U.S. public could support, it certainly signaled a readiness to accept partition as a solution. Toward the end of his Yom Kippur statement, Truman added that he could not “believe that the gap between the proposals [presumably the Jewish Agency’s and Morrison-Grady] which have been put forward is too great to be bridged by men of reason and good will. To such a solution our Government could give its support.”23 In other words, he was not wedded to a particular solution, but partition was an acceptable one.

Needless to say, the British were not pleased with this statement, which he had conveyed to them prior to issuing it. Still, it is not the reason their efforts to broker a solution between the Arab and Jewish leaders failed. There was simply no give in the Arab position. From the time of the Arab Revolt in Palestine of 1936–1939, the Arab position had been a maximalist one. They rejected the Peel Commission Report; they rejected the Anglo-American Committee recommendations; they rejected the Morrison-Grady Plan. They would accept only an independent Arab state, with an end to immigration and land sales to Jews. They left no room for a solution. Even the small number of leading Jewish figures in Palestine, such as Judah Magnes, who were open to a binational state found no responsiveness from the other side.24

For the British, there was only a dead end. They were facing continuing pressure from Truman on allowing Jewish DPs to go to Palestine and an increasingly costly conflict with the Jewish community and leadership there. As a result, on February 18, 1947, Prime Minister Attlee announced that the United Kingdom was turning the problem of Palestine over to the United Nations to find a solution.

On April 2, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly formally received the request from the British to put the question on its fall agenda. Prior to that discussion, the British also asked that a special session of the UNGA be convened to create a committee to investigate what to do about Palestine. In late April, the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was formed and subsequently mandated to study the issue and make a recommendation that would then be voted on by the UNGA during its fall session. Although the United Kingdom had asked the UN to take on this challenge, it announced that it would not enforce an outcome that was not accepted by both Jews and Arabs.

In effect, the British were putting the world on notice that they were unloading the problem—unless, of course, the world supported their approach to resolving it. To President Truman, having the UN assume responsibility was appropriate. In his eyes, it reflected what he believed the United Nations had been created to do. But turning the problem over to the UN also meant that he did not have to deal with it.

In early September, UNSCOP issued majority and minority reports. The majority supported partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, with a two-year transition period before each state would become independent and a ten-year economic union between the two. The UN would manage the transition period. The majority proposed that Jerusalem be an international city. A minority on the committee favored an ongoing trusteeship arrangement instead of partition. The majority report offered a map that outlined the makeup and boundaries of the two states. Secretary of State George Marshall, in a speech to the UN on September 15, offered a cautious endorsement of the majority report, saying that the United States would give great weight to its recommendations. Given the opposition of most of his senior experts, however, he privately agreed that we should work to modify the UNSCOP territorial recommendations to make them more palatable to the Arabs.

At the United Nations, U.S. officials quietly sought to shift the Negev out of the Jewish sector of the partition plan. For the Arabs, having the Negev in their putative state in Palestine would create territorial contiguity among Egypt, Arab Palestine, and Transjordan. However, the Negev was the majority of the territory assigned to the Jewish state, with access to the Red Sea and the ability to absorb massive numbers of Jewish immigrants. The United States was the only country discreetly trying to redefine the territorial part of UNSCOP’s plan. This possibility was aborted after a private meeting between President Truman and Chaim Weizmann, the venerable Zionist leader who would become Israel’s first president. Weizmann, a renowned chemist, showed Truman a map, explained all the agricultural advances that were being made by the Jews in Palestine, how they were reclaiming the desert, and outlined the significance of the Negev to the Jewish state’s prospects for development. After the meeting, Truman gave the U.S. delegation explicit instructions that UNSCOP’s plan should not be changed and the Negev should remain within the Jewish state.25

On November 29, 1947, the partition plan was adopted in the General Assembly by a vote of thirty-three to thirteen, with eleven abstentions. However, this did not mean the U.S. government was going to support it. We voted for the plan, but with the British immediately declaring they would not enforce partition and would withdraw their forces from Palestine on May 15, 1948, pressure quickly grew within the State Department and the other national security agencies to reverse our support for partition and in its place favor UN trusteeship. Only that, in the eyes of senior national security officials, could prevent a vacuum and contain the violence.

In December, the administration, ostensibly to limit the scope of violence, embargoed all U.S. arms going to Palestine. This effectively penalized only the Jews, as the British continued to provide weapons to Arab armies and these leaked to Arab forces in Palestine. The internal drumbeat to reverse our posture would influence Truman to the point that he was willing to change our position on partition, provided the UN Security Council decided it was unworkable and voted for an alternative. Although that never happened, Warren Austin, the head of our UN delegation, announced on March 19, 1948, that the United States now favored trusteeship because we did not believe partition could be implemented.

Truman was blindsided by this announcement—by his own appointee, no less. At the time he did not publicly contradict Austin, but he would exact a measure of revenge when, much to the surprise of our delegation at the UN, he recognized the State of Israel on May 15—at a time when our representatives were still making the case for trusteeship. Our de facto recognition had great value symbolically, particularly as it gave immediate credibility and international standing to the new Jewish state. But American support for Israel for the remainder of Truman’s term remained more symbolic than material.

We maintained the arms embargo even after Israel was invaded by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in May 1948, following the declaration of statehood. This stayed in force throughout Truman’s tenure. Amid the efforts to stop the fighting, there was again support within the administration for the new State of Israel to surrender the territory of the Negev. Truman opposed this, but he would not countenance any further expansion by Israel of its territory, even in response to aggression against it. Indeed, when Israel repulsed Egypt’s invasion and was holding part of the Sinai, Truman threatened that if Israel did not withdraw from the Egyptian territory, the United States would “undertake a substantial review of its attitude toward Israel.”26 Similarly, during the peace talks at the Lausanne Conference in 1949, Truman was frustrated by what he saw as Israel’s inflexibility on territorial adjustments and Palestinian refugees, saying at one point that unless the Israelis were “prepared to play the game properly and conform to the rules they were probably going to lose one of their best friends.”27

Truman was a good friend of Israel. But he faced constraints, and the actual support he provided was limited. To understand why, it is useful to take a closer look at his mind-set, the assumptions of leading officials in the national security apparatus, the context in which they operated, and the overall legacy Truman bequeathed to President Eisenhower.

Truman’s Mind-Set and Countervailing Forces

Truman’s approach to Palestine was necessarily influenced by the far broader context of the enormous national security challenges he faced. He had to rebuild Europe economically and ensure it would not fall prey to the Soviet Union. He had to manage a new role and place for the United States in the world and, in the process, construct from scratch a new security architecture. Saving Greece and Turkey from collapse with the Marshall Plan, forging the NATO alliance, countering the Berlin blockade with the airlift—all of this at the same time he was trying to deal with the humanitarian trauma of the DPs, which itself was related to the rehabilitation in Europe. A Jewish state in Palestine might be desirable for him, but at this stage it was a distraction from other priorities. In other words, getting Jewish survivors to Palestine is what mattered to him; statehood could wait, and in any case would require working with others.

His own words at the time reveal much about his instinct, mind-set, and priorities. At a press conference after his return from Potsdam in August 1945, when he was asked about the American position on Palestine, he said, “The American view of Palestine is, we want to let as many of the Jews into Palestine as is possible to let into that country. Then the matter will have to be worked out diplomatically with the British and the Arabs so that if a state can be set up there they may be able to set it up on a peaceful basis. I have no desire to send 500,000 American soldiers there to make peace in Palestine.”28

The humanitarian need was, as he put it, his “primary concern.” It was urgent, and the inability to address it frustrated him with the British and Zionists, who both seemed to be more focused on resolving the broader issue of Palestine while the Jewish survivors still languished in the camps.29 In his opinion, Prime Minister Attlee and Foreign Secretary Bevin’s positions lacked “all human and moral considerations.”30 But he also railed against Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver for insisting on the establishment of a Jewish state when it “is not in the cards now … and would cause a third World War.”31 He was not going to commit American forces to something that he considered neither a priority nor central to American interests. Indeed, he was to repeat on a number of occasions that he would not commit U.S. troops to Palestine. His openness to the Anglo-American Committee recommendations and even the Morrison-Grady Plan reflect his preoccupation with getting the 100,000 Jewish DPs into Palestine and his hope that there could be a peaceful settlement.

It is worth noting that his anger toward the British and Jewish leaders was not limited to what he saw as their misplaced priorities. He also blamed them for the lost opportunity to settle things peacefully. It was the Jewish opposition to the Morrison-Grady Plan that James McDonald first raised with the president—and that Vice President Henry Wallace echoed in the cabinet meeting called to discuss the plan—that triggered Truman’s outburst about the Jews: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?”32

In the end, Truman’s desire to avoid either taking responsibility for Palestine or having to commit U.S. forces to preserve the peace there explains, at least in part, why he supported partition and not trusteeship. He was not prepared to impose an outcome. Partition, he was repeatedly told, meant fighting on behalf of the Jews. However, once it became clear that the Jews had effectively created a state and were imposing it themselves, he was willing to accept that fact and respect it. Moreover, he was in no way prepared to fight the Jews to impose trusteeship.

And that, no doubt, was a function not just of practicality but also his basic sympathy for the Jewish state. In response to Chaim Weizmann’s congratulatory note to Truman on winning the 1948 election, the president wrote a highly personal letter dated November 29—the first anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the partition plan. Truman noted that the two of them were abandoned by so-called experts who spoke of their “supposedly forlorn lost causes.” He went on to observe that Israel’s opponents were regrouping their forces after being “shattered” and he recognized Weizmann’s “concern to prevent the undermining of [his] well-earned victories.” Later in the letter he told Weizmann, “how happy and impressed I have been at the remarkable progress made by the new State of Israel. What you have received at the hands of the world has been far less than was your due. But you have more than made the most of what you have received, and I admire you for it.”33 Clearly, there is a sense of vindication that is personal and also reflective of his attitudes toward the experts who failed to understand him or Israel or the will of the Jewish people to succeed in their state. Israel was now an accomplished fact, and Truman stressed his readiness to help Israel with loans for project assistance and his willingness to encourage the Arabs to negotiate directly.

The tone of the letter was warm, at times even emotional. It was certainly a missive of one friend to another. In many ways, it was in keeping with Truman’s personal attitudes, which lent themselves to support for Israel within bounds and within the context of our other interests and priorities. The limits of our support would be seen very shortly. In fact, only a month later, he allowed the State Department to pressure Israel to stop its offensive in the Sinai and withdraw its forces, even threatening to end support for Israel’s membership in the UN. Weizmann was so troubled by the U.S. posture that on January 3, 1949—only five weeks after receiving Truman’s warm personal letter—he wrote to the president pointing out that the Egyptian army had invaded Israel with the purpose of destroying the Jewish state, and now the United States was threatening to withhold support for Israel’s membership in the UN at the very time it was supporting Egypt’s membership in the Security Council.34

Truman’s support for Israel was real, but it was limited. Context mattered. Given his priorities in Europe and the Middle East, he could not risk a fundamental breach with the British, and the last thing he wanted was the British to be fighting the Israelis. Thus, if the British threatened to invoke their treaty with Egypt to stop Israeli forces in the Sinai, pressure needed to be put on the Israelis, not the British.

Moreover, his unhappiness over the Israeli approach to negotiations, particularly their reluctance to allow at least some Arab refugees to return after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, seemed to reflect not just the limits of his support for Israel but also his sense that Israel needed to respect the humanitarian concerns of others. In a note at the time, Truman wrote, “I am rather disgusted with the manner in which the Jews are approaching the refugee problem.”35

If nothing else, Truman’s attitude and approach suggested that politics was not his major concern. Clark Clifford, who served as White House counsel from 1946 to 1950, took great umbrage at the charge that domestic political pressures caused Truman to support partition and recognize Israel.36 He decried revisionist historiography and asserted that “the facts totally refute the assumptions of the revisionists.”37 Why did their argument take hold?

To begin with, there is no denying that the pressures were real, and at certain points they may have had an impact. For example, Truman’s ultimate decision on the Morrison-Grady Plan—which he initially supported—clearly resulted from intense domestic pressure. Dean Acheson explained to the British that political pressure made it impossible for Truman to accept Morrison-Grady, saying that “in view of the extreme intensity of feeling in centers of Jewish population in this country neither political party would support” it.38 Nonetheless, in his memoirs, Acheson sounds much like Clifford in asserting that what drove Truman was “a deep conviction.” Acheson writes that he did not share the president’s views on Palestine but that the British and others who saw him acting out of “domestic political opportunism” were simply wrong.39

No doubt George Marshall’s opposition to recognition and his emotional outburst in a meeting with Truman on May 12, 1948, helped to foster the perception that Truman was motivated by political considerations. Clifford describes the May 12 meeting in his memoirs, and Marshall’s own memorandum summarizing the meeting confirms the basic thrust of what happened. Truman opened the meeting by saying that a Jewish state would become a reality two days later, and he wanted to discuss what the United States should do. Truman asked Marshall to lay out the State Department’s position, and Marshall did so, concluding with the recommendation that the United States continue to support UN trusteeship and not make any decisions on recognition. Then the president asked for Clifford’s views. Clifford made the case that trusteeship was “unrealistic. Partition into Jewish and Arab sectors has already happened. Jews and Arabs are already fighting each other from territory each side presently controls.” Clifford went on to argue that early recognition was consistent with the president’s policy from the outset, a Jewish state already existed for all practical purposes, a trusteeship would postpone the promise of actual statehood indefinitely, let down and discriminate against the Jews, and encourage the “Arabs to enlarge the scale of violence.”40 According to Clifford, Marshall became increasingly agitated as he spoke and responded not to Clifford’s points but by asking why Clifford was present: “Mr. President, I thought this meeting was called to consider an important and complicated problem in foreign policy. I don’t even know why Clifford is here. He is a domestic adviser, and this is a foreign policy matter.” Marshall charged that Clifford was “pressing a political consideration with regard to this issue. I don’t think politics should play any part in this.”41

Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett interrupted at this point, leaping in to raise several arguments for opposing recognition: it was questionable under international law to offer recognition before there was a state; the president would harm his prestige by making a transparent attempt to win the Jewish vote; and given our intelligence reports about Soviet infiltration of Jewish Communist agents into Palestine, there was a danger that if the Jewish state came into being it would be a front for the Soviets.42 Clifford pointed out there was no evidence for the latter and the Jews going to Palestine were fleeing communism. Marshall, still in high dudgeon, blurted out: “If the President were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.”43

Silence followed Marshall’s outburst and Truman ended the meeting quickly, telling Marshall, “I understand your position, General, and I am inclined to side with you in this matter.” In fact, although he would not declare our recognition before Israel declared itself a state, he recognized it immediately afterward—and that reflected an understanding worked out between Clifford and Lovett, who had been disturbed by the meeting and felt the need to repair the damage done between the president and Marshall.44

But the enduring image of Truman “playing politics” was heavily shaped by Marshall’s position and the fact that the national security establishment aligned itself solidly against the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. Before enumerating their key arguments and broad mind-set, it is worth recalling that on partition, recognition, and support for Israel, Truman, for the most part, acted out of conviction, and not for political reasons. One example in particular stands out in substantiating this point: In the fall of 1948, there was pressure on Truman to go beyond de facto recognition and recognize Israel formally and legally. Chester Bowles, then a Democratic candidate for governor of Connecticut, pleaded with him to do so, saying that if Truman delayed granting full recognition, he risked losing Connecticut in the presidential election in November. Action along these lines, Bowles wrote, “is vital.” He went on to say, “I know how important it is in Connecticut; and if we are up against it here, it must be infinitely tougher in New York.”45 Truman certainly needed every bit of help he could get, being a decided underdog to Thomas Dewey, and yet he did not move on granting formal recognition. In the words of Allis and Ronald Radosh, “Truman knew that not granting de jure recognition could harm his presidential bid, [but] he refused to do it.”46

Still, he would not try to undo the reality that a Jewish state now existed—and he supported it. Imagine how difficult it was for him then to confront the unanimous opposition of his national security advisers, who saw any move to help the Jews or to support a Jewish national homeland as a threat to our vital interests. On the one hand, his instincts impelled him to help the Jewish survivors and get them out of the camps and into Palestine. On the other, his advisers conjured up terrible consequences for acting in any way that alienated the Arabs.

Even Dean Acheson, consistently loyal to Truman, shared that same basic assumption: the effort to transform Palestine into a Jewish state capable of absorbing a million or more immigrants would “imperil … all Western interests in the Near East.”47

What guided these assumptions? Why did all Truman’s major foreign policy advisers—Marshall, Lovett, James Forrestal, George F. Kennan, Chip Bohlen, and Acheson—share these assumptions? 48 In no small part, it tended to stem from what those who dealt with the Arabs heard about their unalterable opposition to Jewish immigration and Jewish statehood in Palestine. William Eddy, who was our ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Roosevelt administration—and served as the translator for FDR during his meeting with Ibn Saud—wrote in preparation for the president’s post-Yalta meeting in Potsdam that the king had warned that “if America should choose in favor of the Jews, who are accursed in the Koran as enemies of the Muslims until the end of the world, it will indicate to us that America has repudiated her friendship with us.”49 This fundamental hostility, the impossibility of getting the Arabs ever to accept the Jewish state (or even increased Jewish presence in Palestine), our stake in good relations with the Arabs, and the certainty that there would be dire consequences in alienating them on this issue became deeply ingrained and animated the views of Truman’s advisers. State Department officials constantly spoke of an “aroused Arab world”—aroused against us if we were seen as siding with the Jews. This theme became a mantra for them.50 If there was a core assumption that shaped their mind-set, this was it—and, as we will see, it has endured in the national security establishment even when actual behaviors belied predictions of the consequences of taking steps to aid or support Israel.51

Ironically, there is evidence that Ibn Saud’s stated views did not in fact reflect his actual position; his views evolved and became more practical. Khayr al-Din al-Zirkili, who worked for the Saudi king, revealed that contrary to what Ibn Saud told both Eddy and President Roosevelt about his immutable opposition to our support for the Jews in Palestine and the impact it would have on our relations, he actually tempered his views in order to guard against the Jews aligning with his archenemies, the Hashemites in Transjordan.52 But such facts—validated as well by Churchill’s meetings with Ibn Saud in which the king made clear that he was advising moderation to the Arabs of Palestine and he wouldn’t join the conflict—did not penetrate the worldview of the “Wise Men” and their subordinates in the Truman administration or afterward.53

During Truman’s presidency, the mind-set was reflected in a consistent set of arguments by officials such as Loy Henderson, who headed the Near East and African Affairs office in the State Department. He had a special role not only because of his responsibility for the Middle East during this period but also because he had previously worked on Soviet and Eastern European affairs and as such brought to bear expertise on the major preoccupation of Truman-era foreign policy. Henderson, who as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq heard Iraqi officials express sentiments much like Ibn Saud’s, was preoccupied with ensuring that the Soviets did not gain a foothold in the Middle East. He warned that a Jewish state, by damaging our relations with the Arab world, would guarantee that eventuality.54 Henderson brought an almost missionary zeal to his opposition, warning Secretary Marshall in one memo that “partitioning of Palestine and the setting up of a Jewish State [is opposed] by practically every member of the Foreign Service and the Department who has been engaged … with the Near and Middle East.”55

For Henderson and George Kennan, the head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department and the author of the containment strategy toward Russia, the dire consequences we would suffer were, of course, not limited to opening up the Middle East to the U.S.S.R.: we and our European allies would lose our access to Arab oil, and this would make the recovery of Europe impossible. We would have to fight the Arabs to impose partition because the Jews were weak and would be overwhelmed by the Arabs; we would lose our bases in the Middle East as a result. And, of course, as Lovett said in the May 12 meeting, intelligence showed that the Jews coming to Palestine included many Communist agents, and the Jewish state would be a Communist client.

The groupthink in the national security establishment was so deep—and the certainty of the terrible consequences so great—that the inherent inconsistencies in the arguments were somehow overlooked. How could the Jewish state be a Soviet client and not cost the Soviets with the Arabs?

But these convictions were deeply embedded in the collective mind-set of the national security bureaucracy. A CIA analysis issued on the eve of the UN partition vote asserted that “without substantial outside aid in terms of manpower and material, they [the Jews] will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” It went on to argue that “in the event partition is imposed on Palestine, the resulting conflict will seriously disturb the social, economic, and political stability of the Arab world, and U.S. commercial and strategic interests will be dangerously jeopardized.”56 In a similar vein, in response to Truman’s request for an estimate of how much military assistance the United States could provide Palestine, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) warned that military intervention would constitute such a “political shock” that it would be the equivalent of a Soviet military conquest of the region—and would limit our access to oil, lower our living standards, and reduce our military strength.57

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was profoundly opposed and, like Loy Henderson, seemed to be on a mission against the Jewish state. For him, Jewish weakness required the United States to rescue the Jews at the expense of our oil interests. As he told Clark Clifford, “You just don’t understand. There are four hundred thousand Jews and forty million Arabs. Forty million Arabs are going to push four hundred thousand Jews into the sea. And that’s all there is to it. Oil—that is the side we ought to be on.”*58 And if we lost access to that oil, in his eyes the certain consequence of being on the side of the Jews, “American motorcar companies [would] have to design a four-cylinder motorcar sometime within the next five years.”59 To Forrestal, that would have been a calamity.

In a joint memo, George Kennan and Loy Henderson cataloged the disastrous consequences for the United States if the partition resolution was implemented—and outlined a strategy for its reversal. They wrote that our support for the partition plan had already “brought about loss of U.S. prestige and disillusionment among the Arabs,” and that the UN decision served the “Soviet objectives of sowing dissension and discord in non-communist countries,” an argument presumably made to explain why the Soviets had supported it. Worse, the partition plan could succeed only if the United States sent troops to enforce it. The Arabs would see this as a “virtual declaration of war” against them. And to what end? After all, they judged that “it [was] improbable that the Jewish state could survive over any considerable period of time.” They concluded by recommending that we reverse the decision and support either a UN trusteeship or something akin to the Morrison-Grady Plan.60

No senior national security official dissented. Only Clark Clifford offered a set of systematic arguments against this prevailing view, and he was special counsel to the president—a position, as noted, that Secretary of State Marshall saw as an exclusively domestic, political one. And yet Clifford challenged the “Wise Men” on every one of their arguments not on political but on national security grounds. In a memo to Truman in March 1948, Clifford stated that the arguments against partition were “completely fallacious.” The Soviets would exploit our retreat from supporting partition because it would indicate that we were unprepared to stand by our commitments, and this was “as certain as the rising of tomorrow’s sun.” Similarly, we would not lose our access to oil because: “the Arab states must have oil royalties or go broke,” particularly as 90 percent of Saudi governmental revenue came from oil sold to the United States, and the Arab states had no other customer. He added that King Ibn Saud had “publicly and repeatedly refused even to threaten the United States with a cancellation of oil leases, despite his dislike for our partition position.” As he put it, the simple truth was that their “need of the United States is greater than our need for them.” Finally, unlike those who feared Arab opposition and its consequences for our national security, he concluded that we needed to stand up to the Arabs for the sake of our larger interests and stakes: “The United States appears in the ridiculous role of trembling before threats of a few nomadic desert tribes. This has done us irreparable damage. Why should Russia, or Yugoslavia, or any other nation treat us with anything but contempt in light of our shilly-shallying appeasement of the Arabs?”61

In a subsequent memo, in May, Clifford argued that the partition was a fact, and the Jews had effectively created a state. Therefore, the president had a choice: he could recognize a Jewish state or, if he favored a reversal, he would need to use force, sanctions, threats, or persuasion against the Jews—none of which had worked thus far. Recognition would allow the president to regain prestige lost internationally over the previous months and, ironically, help with the Arabs because they respected “reality rather than sentimentality.”62

Ultimately, the Wise Men’s greatest success was Warren Austin’s speech, which publicly reversed our position on partition. But this turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. Truman was stunned and embarrassed by it and determined to right what he considered to be a wrong. In his autobiography, he recounts his indignation and his resolve “to make it plain that the President of the United States, and not the second or third echelon in the State Department is responsible for making foreign policy, and, furthermore, that no one in any Department can sabotage the President’s policy … The civil servant, the general or admiral, the foreign service officer has no authority to make policy.”63

Still, it would have been remarkable if the unified opposition of his leading national security officials had not affected Truman and his policy. Indeed, consider the context and Truman’s priorities in responding to a new world, a cold war with the Soviets, the establishment of a policy of containment—with its main architects and those who were responsible for its implementation all adamantly opposed to the emergence of the Jewish state. That their assessments proved to be wrong did not seem to register with them. Support for partition did not drive the Arabs away from us and into the Soviet embrace. How could it, when the Soviets supported partition and actually criticized the United States when it appeared to back away from it after Austin’s speech?

Similarly, this same national security establishment predicted that, at enormous cost to our relations with the Arabs, the United States would have to come to the rescue of the Jews, because otherwise they would be defeated. Of course, the Jews were not defeated by either the Arabs of Palestine or their Arab neighbors in the Arab-Israeli War. Just the opposite—and not because we in any way came to Israel’s aid. On the contrary, we imposed an arms embargo both before and after the declaration of statehood, and once again the argument was that if we provided weapons, it would alienate the Arabs and push them to the Soviets. That prediction proved fallacious as well. When the Soviet proxy, Czechoslovakia, provided arms in April 1948—arms critical to the Yishuv’s* military gains in the spring and after statehood was declared—the Arabs were not alienated from the Soviets. What did it tell us about the Arabs that Kennan, Henderson, Lovett, Marshall, Forrestal, and the intelligence community missed? And why was Clifford’s argument that the Arabs needed to sell us their oil dismissed, even when he proved to be right and there was no loss of access for either America or the Europeans? Even when Ibn Saud, whose hostility toward the Jews and Israel was supposedly so fundamental, did not alter his policy toward the United States after we supported partition and then recognized Israel, no one seemed to take note. No senior members of the State Department, the Pentagon, or the CIA seemed to perceive that Ibn Saud’s need for U.S. support trumped his opposition to Israel. And none of the policy makers asked whether we should rethink some of our assumptions about the region and draw some lessons from seeing that Arab leaders could be opposed to Israel and yet seek to preserve American backing and ties because their own interests required it.

Senior officials maintained their hostile posture toward the Jewish state and continued to see only risks associated with U.S. support for it. Arms could not be provided. Assistance of any sort should be limited. Israel should be pressured to pull back from Sinai, to be open to concessions on territory and refugees, and to accept that we would keep our distance. We might try to organize the Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), but Israel could not be part of it because it would be the kiss of death with the Arabs.

It took courage for Truman to recognize Israel, even if it was, for Clifford, not only morally right but also practically necessary. Truman offered economic loans and some small grant assistance. In general, his posture toward Israel after he offered recognition was largely what his national security advisers wanted. Our support was limited in practice, even as Truman would later take great pride in his support for the emergence of the state.

David Ben-Gurion described his meeting with Truman in May 1961, early in the Kennedy administration, as tinged with emotion. He said he had told Truman he did not know how he would be recorded in American history, “but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our new state so quickly and his steadfast support since then had given him an immortal place in Jewish history.” Truman’s eyes, Ben-Gurion observed, filled with tears, and Israel’s first prime minister said he had rarely seen “anyone so moved.”64 Clifford later explained this, saying, “These were the tears of a man who had been subjected to calumny and vilification, who had persisted against powerful forces determined to defeat him, who had contended with opposition even from within his own administration. These were the tears of a man who had fought ably and honorably for a humanitarian goal to which he was deeply dedicated.”65

Clifford may well have been right. Truman was driven by humanitarian concerns and he resented resistance, but his policy was ultimately balanced, and in practice, his support for Israel was limited. Even recognition required accepting what was already a fact. But it was a fact that Marshall and the others were not keen to accept or fully understand. It was their opposition that colored the views of Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. They would prove far less balanced than Truman, and they would lack any of the emotion that he attached to the Jewish state.

Copyright © 2015 by Dennis Ross

Afterword copyright © 2016 by Dennis Ross