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In the moments leading up to Israel’s independence, America’s diplomats did everything they could to stop the process, and the president, cold.

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Within the leadership of the United States, there was a fierce debate over policy towards the prospect of Jewish statehood in 1948. Fortunately for the Zionists, they had in Washington one powerful ally in their fight against the ploy to defer, if not to abort, the creation of a Jewish state: namely, President Harry Truman. Indeed, at precisely the same time as their own deliberations over independence in Tel Aviv, Truman was laboring to convince George Marshall, his formidable secretary of state, that the U.S. should extend recognition to the soon-to-be-declared Jewish state.

And therein lies a tale.

Ever since the November 1917 Balfour Declaration—the first international recognition of the Jewish right to national self-determination—the idea of “turning the Holy Land over to the absolute control of the race credited with the death of Christ,” as Secretary of State Robert Lansing put it at the time to President Woodrow Wilson, had been anathema to the State Department. And while, following Wilson himself, all subsequent U.S. presidents endorsed both the Declaration and the attendant League of Nations mandate for the “establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine”—as did the U.S. Congress in a July 1922 joint resolution—the State Department worked indefatigably to subvert the Jewish national movement.

Matters came to a head in November 1947 when the UN General Assembly was about to approve the partitioning of Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Having failed to persuade the world organization to desist from this move, and faced with the president’s own support for partition, the State Department colluded with the British foreign ministry to slash the territory of the prospective Jewish state by depriving it of the Negev desert—nearly half of Palestine’s total size. It was only Truman’s last-minute intervention, after a dramatic secret meeting with Chaim Weizmann (who 30 years earlier had been the driving force behind the Balfour Declaration) that nipped the plot in the bud.

Undaunted, State proceeded to exploit the violence in Palestine, spiralling upward with the passage of the UN’s partition resolution, as grounds for sidelining the idea of Jewish statehood for the foreseeable future. Thus, on March 19, 1948, Warren Austin, the U.S. representative to the UN, proposed to replace the partition plan with a temporary trusteeship under UN auspices in order “to maintain the peace and to afford the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, who must live together, further opportunity to reach an agreement regarding the future government of that country.”

The news took Truman by surprise. As he angrily recorded in his diary, “This morning I find that the State Dept. has reversed my Palestine policy”:

The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Isn’t that hell? I’m now in a position of a liar and a double-crosser. I never felt so in my life. There are people on the 3rd and 4th level of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat. They are succeeding in doing it.

Yet, for all his exasperation with the “striped-pants boys” (as he dismissively called State’s bureaucrats), and despite the warning by the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that “both Arabs and Jews regard trusteeship scheme undesirable and most observers feel bloodshed will now increase tremendously,” Truman refrained from disavowing the State Department’s proposal. Marshall, the most illustrious member of his cabinet, had positioned himself solidly behind the move, and the president was wary of antagonizing him.

Instead, in an attempt to square the circle, Truman stressed that trusteeship wasn’t a substitute for partition but a temporary measure “to fill [the] vacuum soon to be created by termination of [the British] mandate on May 15.” Asked whether this meant continued American support for partition, he dodged the question by saying that he remained in favor of it “at some future date.”

The Zionists,for their part, declined to sit idly by. On April 1, Moshe Shertok, in effect the foreign minister of the state-to-be, told the UN Security Council that the Jews would not accept a postponement of their independence. The same message was relayed to Truman a week later in a personal letter from Weizmann, and on April 12 the Zionist General Council in Tel Aviv announced its firm intention to proclaim statehood upon the May 15 termination of the mandate, simultaneously appealing to Palestinian Arabs and to the neighboring Arab states for a mutual commitment to “brotherhood, cooperation, and peace.”

Behind the Zionist diplomatic initiative lay a recent string of military successes that had effectively broken the Palestinian Arab war effort and led to the flight of over 100,000 Arabs from their homes. But now the State Department, sensing an opportunity to reap some domestic political benefit, leapt into the fray. “We should abandon our present defensive attitude and take the offensive in a confident and courageous manner,” Loy Henderson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and African Affairs, wrote to Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett on April 22:

We must persuade the more moderate Jews in this country to break the hold which a minority of extreme American Zionists now has on American Jewry so that Jewish leaders in this country, instead of continuing to push Palestine Jews into an extremely nationalistic position, will endeavor to impress upon them the importance of assuming a reasonable and moderate attitude with the Arabs.

One such “reasonable and moderate” person was Judah Magnes, the pacifist, American-born president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whom Henderson lost no time in transporting to Washington. There he met Marshall on May 4, dutifully assuring the secretary that the administration had needlessly been “too apologetic” in pushing its trusteeship proposals. Instead, Magnes urged, U.S. sanctions were called for: these would stop “the Jewish war machine in Palestine” dead in its tracks and disabuse the country’s “artificial” Jewish community of its dreams of statehood. Impressed by “the most straightforward account on Palestine” he had yet heard, the secretary arranged for his guest to be seen by President Truman.

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Judah Magnes

Truman, however, was unimpressed, and for good reason: Magnes’s esoteric views were fully as unacceptable to the Palestinian Arabs, who insisted on a unitary Arab state where Jews would be reduced to a small subject minority, as they were to most Jews. So the State Department was forced to up the ante. Austin now proposed a second UN resolution prospectively condemning any proclamation of a Jewish state as a violation of the Security Council’s call for a truce, while Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State for UN affairs, pushed forward an old-new British proposal handing most of Palestine to the neighboring Arab states and “leaving the Jews a coastal state running from Tel Aviv to Haifa”—a tiny fraction of the territory assigned to them by the partition resolution.

More important, having gained a false impression of Shertok as wavering, State’s operatives sought to exacerbate his (presumed) worries. This culminated in a personal meeting with Marshall on May 8 at which—as Martin Kramer relates—Shertok, as the Jewish foreign-minister-in-waiting, was unceremoniously warned off any proclamation of statehood and informed that if, nevertheless, a Jewish state were to be declared, it could expect no American help in the likely event that the military tide were to turn against it.

Shertok would duly report this message to David Ben-Gurion and the other members of the People’s Administration. That it failed to produce the department’s desired effect was vividly illustrated by a May 11 New York Times story titled “Jews to Proclaim State despite U.S.” And so, in a last-ditch effort on May 12—the same day as the marathon meeting of the People’s Administration in Tel Aviv— Marshall and Lovett met with Truman and his young special counsel Clark Clifford.

The encounter turned out to be exceptionally nasty. Treated by Clifford to an impassioned plea for prompt U.S. recognition of the Jewish state upon termination of the British mandate, Lovett launched a frontal, no-holds barred assault that decried any such proposed move as a transparent political ploy designed to procure Jewish votes in the looming November presidential elections. More substantively, he argued that recognizing a Jewish state prematurely would not only be injurious to the UN but would also be “buying a pig in a poke.” “How [do] we know what kind of Jewish state would be set up?” he asked, producing a pile of intelligence reports alleging that many Jewish immigrants to Palestine were in fact Communist agents working for the Soviet Union.

Marshall then took over from his deputy. “The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford was based on domestic considerations,” the department’s transcript of the meeting would record him as saying, “while the problem which confronted us was international.” If Truman were to follow Clifford’s advice, “the great dignity of the office of president would be seriously diminished”—with the consequence, warned the enraged Marshall, playing the ultimate card, that “if in the [November] elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.”

Unlike at the Tel Aviv meeting, no concrete decision was taken in Washington that day. Truman’s personal integrity had been blatantly impugned, but still he would not force Marshall’s hand. Yet there was little doubt where his heart lay. Two days later, the Jewish state was proclaimed in Tel Aviv, and Clifford informed Lovett that, should it make a formal request for recognition, the president was inclined to recognize it immediately—not least on the grounds that, after 6:00 p.m. eastern time, there would be no other government or authority of any kind in Palestine.

While conceding that there was no legal bar to recognition, Lovett nevertheless requested that it be withheld for another day or more to allow the department time to study the text of the proclamation and inform both its UN delegation and the British, French, and Belgian governments with which it had been collaborating in a bid for a new truce resolution. Declining this request, Clifford phoned Eliahu Epstein, the Jewish Agency’s Washington representative, to say that recognition would be forthcoming that same day and suggesting that the official request be submitted to the White House without delay—which it was.

Even at this late stage, Lovett did not lose hope. At 5:30, a half-hour before Britain’s Palestine mandate expired, he called Clifford to ask again for an extension, at least until the General Assembly finished its deliberations around 10:00 p.m. After a quick consultation with Truman, Clifford declined this request as well, authorizing Lovett to inform Ambassador Austin that official action was imminent. This was done by Rusk at 5:45, whereupon the infuriated ambassador abruptly left UN headquarters and went home without saying a word to his staff or colleagues.

And thus when, at 6:11 p.m., White House spokesman Charlie Ross announced the president’s de-facto recognition of the state of Israel, the U.S. delegation to the UN was dumbfounded. “When I use the word pandemonium, I think I am not exaggerating,” Rusk would recall:

I was later told that one of our U.S. mission staff men literally sat on the lap of the Cuban delegate to keep him from going to the podium to withdraw Cuba from the United Nations. In any event, about 6:15 I got a call from Secretary Marshall who said, “Rusk, get up to New York and prevent the U.S. delegation from resigning en masse.” Whether it was necessary or not, I scurried to New York and found that tempers had cooled sufficiently so that my mission was unnecessary.

As for Lovett, persuaded as ever that Truman and Clifford were motivated by crass electoral considerations (read: Jewish votes), he would sum up the episode in these cutting and embittered words:

My protests against the precipitate action and warnings as to consequences with the Arab world appear to have been outweighed by considerations unknown to me, but I can only conclude that the president’s political advisers, having failed last Wednesday [May 12] to make the president a father of the new state, have determined at least to make him the midwife.

Efraim Karsh is the Principal Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum and editor of the Middle East Quarterly