A Safe Haven: Har­ry Tru­man and the Found­ing of Israel

Allis Radosh; Ronald Radosh
  • Review
By – January 6, 2012

Had Har­ry S. Tru­man not become America’s acci­den­tal pres­i­dent, would the State of Israel have been cre­at­ed? This is the cen­tral ques­tion in the com­pelling, com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of Israel’s birth, A Safe Haven: Har­ry Tru­man and the Found­ing of Israel. Authors Allis and Ronald Radosh offer a con­vinc­ing defense of Tru­man, who was guid­ed by human­i­tar­i­an and moral con­sid­er­a­tions,” and as a politi­cian, deter­mined that rec­og­niz­ing Israel was in the nation­al inter­est of the Unit­ed States.” 

The mod­ern sto­ry of Israel begins with Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt. His effec­tive lead­er­ship in World War II com­pro­mised his health, and sud­den­ly, in 1945, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt was dead. By late 1944, one of the final years of the war, Roo­sevelt and the Allies faced a com­plex chal­lenge. Euro­pean Jew­ry, the dis­placed, sur­viv­ing vic­tims of the Nazis, invoked both sym­pa­thy and dis­com­fort, and Roo­sevelt attempt­ed to bal­ance human­i­tar­i­an con­cerns against an effort to pro­tect Amer­i­can inter­ests in the oil-rich Arab states. Despite hav­ing run for pres­i­dent on a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form promis­ing the estab­lish­ment of a Jew­ish com­mon­wealth in Pales­tine, Roo­sevelt offered ambigu­ous if not con­tra­dic­to­ry promis­es to Ibn Saud of Ara­bia and to Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers. His vac­il­la­tion led to unclear goals and con­fus­ing nation­al objec­tives. When Har­ry S. Tru­man sud­den­ly became pres­i­dent, a posi­tion he had nev­er intend­ed to assume, he dis­cov­ered he would find it impos­si­ble to live with FDR’s obfuscations.” 

Unclear about Roosevelt’s com­mit­ments regard­ing Pales­tine, Tru­man became pres­i­dent hav­ing been exclud­ed from many of his predecessor’s for­eign pol­i­cy deci­sions, includ­ing com­mit­ments regard­ing Pales­tine. Tru­man, a Bap­tist, main­tained that Jews were des­tined to return to Judea, and he was on record as ear­ly as May, 1939 as sup­port­ing the set­tle­ment of Jew­ish immi­grants in Pales­tine. Con­trast­ing Truman’s unam­bigu­ous advo­ca­cy for a Jew­ish home­land with Roosevelt’s pri­vate vac­il­la­tions, it became like­ly that Truman’s sym­pa­thies would lead to a con­sis­tent nation­al pol­i­cy sup­port­ive of a Jew­ish Com­mon­wealth in Pales­tine, although both Roo­sevelt and Tru­man shared the desire to avoid using America’s mil­i­tary force in Pales­tine at all costs. 

The authors recount the polit­i­cal strate­gies and intrigues which ensued dur­ing the post-war years, as Tru­man attempt­ed to exer­cise his per­son­al per­sua­sive pow­er on behalf of Amer­i­can pol­i­cy in a world that was rapid­ly chang­ing. He was opposed by the British, who, led by Ernest Bevin, under­mined attempts to arrive at a medi­at­ed set­tle­ment to the Pales­tine issue. They were moti­vat­ed per­haps by anti-Semi­tism, or Britain’s depen­dence on oil, but cer­tain­ly from reluc­tance to lose a final ves­tige of impe­ri­al­is­tic con­trol. Yet sur­pris­ing­ly, Tru­man was also under­mined by the U.S. State Depart­ment, which suc­cumbed to Arab demands in con­tra­ven­tion to the president’s stat­ed for­eign pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives. Truman’s courage and polit­i­cal skill at this time form an impor­tant part of the sto­ry of Israel’s birth, and a mere ten min­utes after Israel declared its inde­pen­dence, Pres­i­dent Tru­man him­self announced the Unit­ed States’ recog­ni­tion of the new nation. 

The authors’ admi­ra­tion for Tru­man is evi­dent, but there are many less­er-known heroes in this his­to­ry, notably Eddie Jacob­son, Truman’s for­mer hab­er­dash­ery part­ner and White House con­fi­dant. The rich­ly tex­tured por­traits of these diverse con­trib­u­tors add to the delight of read­ing this book. The Radosh­es con­clude that if Tru­man had not become pres­i­dent when he did, Israel might not have been cre­at­ed, but even if their spec­u­la­tion is wrong, it is clear that it was Truman’s res­olute lead­er­ship, and his good heart, and his abil­i­ty to inspire like-mind­ed strate­gists that over­came resis­tance to a Jew­ish homeland. 

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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