By Martin Peretz
At 6:11 p.m. in Washington on May 14, 1948, President Harry Truman announced the U.S. government's recognition of the state of Israel, which was all of 11 minutes old. Turning to an aide, the president said: "The old doctor will believe me now," referring to Chaim Weizmann, the chemist and longtime champion of a Jewish homeland who would go on to be elected the nascent country's first president.
As Allis and Ronald Radosh note in "A Safe Haven," their revelatory account of Truman's vital contributions to Israel's founding, Weizmann would have had good reason to be skeptical of American support: Truman's announcement "stunned everyone," but the "most surprised" of all was the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. The State Department, after all, was fiercely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state, as were the Defense Department and America's British allies. The story of how President Truman resisted pressures both in and out of government to ignore or undermine the aborning state of Israel is told by the Radoshes with an elegance informed by thorough research.
In particular, "A Safe Haven" brings vividly to life the parlous status of Jews around the world in the aftermath of World War II. They had been slaughtered in their millions in the gas chambers and ravines of Europe, but hundreds of thousands of Jews had been freed from death camps and ghettoes or had alighted in other countries during wartime. Since no country wanted to provide a home for these stateless refugees, the Zionist movement for a permanent Jewish home in the Middle East took on an almost feverish urgency.
A Safe Haven
By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
(Harper, 428 pages, $27.99)
Of course, many Jews thought that they had won their own state three decades earlier, when the great powers, especially Britain and the U.S., committed themselves, both independently and cooperatively, to a promised land for the Jewish people in the Middle East. Jews had already begun to return there from ancient exile during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Zionist movement gained force. In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared his country's determination to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. To that end, the League of Nations in 1922 granted the British administrative rights for what was called the Mandate for Palestine, with the establishment of Zion as its stated aim.
But somehow the solemn pledge was vitiated. The British abandoned their commitment, most glaringly in 1939, when they capped the immigration of Jews to Palestine. Jews had been fleeing Europe and heading for the Middle East during Hitler's rise -- much to the alarm of the majority Arab population. But during the period 1940-45 a total of only 75,000 Jews would be allowed into the Mandate.
The Labour government that succeeded Churchill after World War II began to extricate Britain from the Mandate; the "problem of Palestine" would become largely the problem of the U.S. In 1945, President Roosevelt had tried to win the endorsement of the Saudi Arabian ruler, Ibn Saud, for the movement of Jewish refugees to Palestine, but His Highness the Sharif of Mecca and Medina rejected FDR's overture outright. (How is it that Saudi kings so easily diminish American presidents?) After the war, President Truman faced an immediate challenge: what to do with 100,000 Jews living in Displaced Persons camps in Europe and elsewhere. Truman campaigned to allow these last Holocaust-surviving souls to live in the land of which they dreamed and sang. This is not hyperbole: Dream and melody was about all they had left. Oh, yes, and some had faith.
The Radoshes recount with admirable precision the intricacies of the battle over these 100,000 displaced persons -- especially as it was waged within the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946. The committee ruled that the 100,000 should be allowed into Palestine. But at that point, Zionists wanted more than to provide a mere destination for the survivors rumbling among the ghosts of Europe. They longed more intensely than ever for a separate land -- a longing that was decidedly sharpened in 1947 when the still-young United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish sections.
There were 500,000 Jews already in Palestine, and they had created institutions and laws that amounted to a proto-Zionist nation. If implemented, the Partition Plan would start an inexorable move toward its establishment. The bulk of "A Safe Haven" concerns the politics that whirled around the plan -- in the American Jewish community, at the U.N., at Foggy Bottom. But the real point of fascination is the book's account of the battle for Harry Truman's soul. As the Radoshes make clear, the anti-Zionists never really had a chance. Clark Clifford, Truman's White House counsel, would later suggest that the president was for Israel because he believed that "God gave it to them."
I doubt that it was as simple as that. What's apparent is that Truman did not share the antipathy toward Jews felt by many in the government at mid-century. The diplomatic corps often did little to disguise its disdain for Jews and for Jewish "characteristics." This crowd, and it was a crowd, took its cues from British diplomats and mirrored their solicitousness toward the Arabs. American diplomats believed that they could maneuver the Arabs into a permanent alliance with the U.S. and the West if only the Jews could be sidetracked.
Truman would have none of it. He supported the U.N.'s Partition Plan in 1947, and when the State Department suddenly announced in March 1948 that American policy was to place Palestine in a trusteeship instead, Truman was incensed. "The first I know about it is what I see in the papers!" he wrote in his diary. "I am now in the position of a liar and double-crosser. I've never felt so in my life."
The Radoshes observe: "Truman felt embarrassed and humiliated by his own State Department. In May he would deliver his own surprise." It is evident from "A Safe Haven" that Truman's unilateral recognition of the state of Israel was inspired by his perception of these Jews as modernizers and democrats, people who would build their own society and, if need be, fight for it. In other words, Harry Truman saw Israelis as his kindred spirits -- and ours.
Mr. Peretz is editor in chief of The New Republic. Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A11