How an Old Friend Persuaded Harry Truman to Recognize the State of Israel

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“It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts.  It is right and wrong and leadership – men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world.”  – President Truman, from his diary.

 

Good Fortune

April 14, 2024, marks the seventy-sixth anniversary of the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jews and its official recognition by Washington.  (Israelis, however, will be celebrating this event beginning at sundown on May 13, 2024, continuing until nightfall on May 14, in accord with its occurrence on the Jewish lunar calendar.)  This event is not to be taken for granted, given the notorious antisemitism of today’s Biden administration, which is urging “Israel to capitulate to the terrorist group Hamas.”

In 1948, unlike America’s current president, it was a philosemitic Harry Truman who was in the Oval Office.  But Truman had been so browbeaten and mistreated by Jewish political leaders, with respect to the issue of declaring a Jewish state in Palestine, that he had turned a deaf ear to their pleas.  Because of this reality, the modern reincarnation of State of Israel might never have happened – except for the intervention of a forgotten man named Eddie Jacobson.

But before Jacobson would be called upon to intervene with his old friend by his fellow Jews, there those who set the stage for what was about to occur, many of whom were helpful, although others definitely were not.  What follows is a synopsis of the events leading up to what would amount to good fortune for the Jews of the world who were determined to be free from antisemitic oppression.

 

Ernest Bevin

After World War Two, Ernest Bevin was the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; he was in charge of overseeing British Palestine.  And President Harry Truman was pressuring Bevin with respect to the matter of allowing 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust into British Palestine.  The anti-Zionist Bevin resisted, accusing Truman of simply not wanting more Jews to come to America.  “He doesn’t want too many of them in New York,” quipped Bevin, in a comment that earned him much ire among Jews.  Clement Attlee had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July of 1945, so the pro-Zionist, philosemitic Churchill administration was no longer in power.

It is almost unbelievable that, during a time of great dependence upon America’s industrial capacity and foreign aid, that a British foreign secretary could be so stubborn as to refuse 100,000 entrance visas to displaced persons, many of whom had been incredibly abused by Hitler’s Germany in concentration camps.  But Bevin’s anti-Semitism was strong, and it could not be overcome.  However, in the face of mounting pressure from Truman, Bevin ultimately decided it might be wiser not to directly oppose the United States, so, Bevin decided to use an artful dodge: “England is going to leave on May 15, 1948; we give the problem to the United Nations,” he declared.  Some historians have read Bevin’s intent as being the ultimate Arabization of Palestine, for, even if the UN were to allow its more philosemitic impulses to win out, and a place for the Jews in their historic homeland was reestablished, the Arabs’ oversized population of armed Palestinian Jihadists could easily overwhelm the Jews, especially if they invited the English back to help them.

The UN’s solution was a partition plan: there would be an Arab State, a Jewish State, and an international City of Jerusalem.  The Jewish State would be comprised of a patchwork of unconnected territories that would prove to be economically unviable and militarily indefensible.  For this reason, many Zionists opposed the partition plan.  It was David Ben-Gurion who, envisioning a real opportunity, decided to step forward and accept it.

 

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion’s devotion to Zionism led him to become perhaps the seminal creative mind behind the founding of the modern Jewish State of Israel.  Ben-Gurion was the acting President of the World Zionist Organization from 1946 to 1956 and the de facto head of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time of its partition by the UN.  He would later become known as Israel’s Founding Father.  Ben-Gurion, in order to win US recognition, once a Jewish state was declared, depended on help from the efforts of many individuals, one of them being the indomitable Chaim Weizmann.

 

Chaim Weizmann

Weizmann was an important biochemist, who worked feverishly for the English cause during World War One.  It was he who developed the acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation process that produces acetone through bacterial fermentation. His acetone production method was key to the success of British war efforts.  It was also Weizmann who suggested to David Lloyd George the strategy used in a military campaign against the Ottomans that resulted in Allenby’s victorious march to Jerusalem.  Because of his contributions to Britain’s war effort, the UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour asked how Dr. Weizmann might be repaid.

Weizmann stated that he wished neither title nor remuneration, saying, “There is only one thing I want: a national home for my people.”  Lord Balfour saw the selflessness of the request and was impressed by it, eventually issuing, as a result, what became known as the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed the British to the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in what was, at that time, Ottoman-ruled Palestine.  It was the Balfour Declaration that eventually resulted in the creation of Mandatory Palestine, which was administered by the British from September 29, 1923, until May 15, 1948.  The British Mandate for Palestine was created by the League of Nations upon the Ottoman concession of Palestine under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

The end-game of the League of Nations Mandate System was to break up the Middle East, which had been controlled by the Ottomans since the sixteenth century, into administrative units, many of which would be overseen by the French and British until such time as they might eventually stand alone.  Upon Ernest Bevin’s turning over of the British Mandate in Palestine to the UN, the possibility of the reestablishment of Israel became a political reality.  And the brilliant Dr. Chaim Weizmann (indeed, he was the inventor behind 110 patents) was available to help bring this potential happening to fruition.  Prior to the UN’s passage of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, on November 29, 1947, Weizmann had undertaken the task, in October of that year, to head a delegation of the Jewish Agency to make its case to the UN Special Committee on Palestine in favor of that plan.

Weizmann saw the importance of gaining an audience with President Harry S. Truman, prior to any formal declaration of a Jewish state.  With a promise from President Truman of eventual recognition of the new Jewish state that David Ben-Gurion was hoping to declare, in May of 1948, Weizmann believed that the chances of the new country’s survival would increase dramatically.  But Weizmann’s chance to see Truman had been compromised by several factors: the first was General George Marshall’s threat that he would resign as Secretary of State, if Truman needlessly upset the oil-producing Arab countries by recognizing a Jewish state in their midst; another was the aggressive Zionist onslaught of political campaigning directed at President Truman that made him feel disinclined to help the Zionists.  (It probably had not helped matters that, in a heated meeting with Abba Hillel Silver, the Jewish leader had banged his fist on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, prompting Truman to stubbornly order his appointments secretary not to schedule any more meetings with Zionists.)  With the end of the British Mandate approaching, Weizmann did not have much time to find a way to get Truman to give him an audience.  Enter Eddie Jacobson.

 

Eddie Jacobson

It was Frank Goldman, president of B’nai Brith, who recalled that Truman had a Jewish business partner and trusted friend back in his home state of Missouri.  So, he decided that a telephone call to Truman’s longtime friend was in order.  It was in the middle of the night when Eddie Jacobson’s phone rang.  Fate was calling Jacobson – in the person of Frank Goldman.

Eddie Jacobson had become friends with Truman during World War One, when Private Jacobson had clerked for Lieutenant Truman.  After the war, the two men went into business together in Kansas City, Missouri.  They were partners in a haberdashery.  Although the shop eventually failed, the two drinking buddies remained close friends, an uncommon state of affairs for business partners of a failed enterprise.  However, friends they remained and friends they still were when Eddie Jacobson was prevailed upon by Frank Goldman to pay a special visit to his pal in the Oval Office.

It was due to the urgency of the moment for the Jews that Jacobson found himself wiring the White House: “I have asked very little from you in the way of favors during all our years of friendship, but I am begging you to see Dr. Weizmann as soon as possible.”  Overtired of Zionist badgering, a stubborn president wired back to his friend that he believed the Palestine dilemma was “not solvable.”  Truman’s mind was, to all indications, closed on the matter.  And, if Truman’s mind could be reopened, there was only one person who could accomplish the task – Eddie Jacobson.  Jacobson knew this, so he booked an airplane flight, with the goal of seeing his old friend.  Upon his arrival, Jacobson arranged for a private presidential meeting on March 13th.

Upon admitting Jacobson to the Oval Office, Appointments Secretary Matthew Connelly strongly cautioned Jacobson against mentioning Palestine.  But, after exchanging pleasantries about family and business matters, the issue of Palestine was raised.  According to Jacobson, it was he who brought up the matter directly, although it has also been alleged that Truman helped a nervous Jacobson to broach the topic by saying “Eddie, I know what you are here for, and the answer is no.”

It was never Jacobson’s wont to ask for favors, so soliciting on behalf of the Zionist cause made him uncomfortable, yet it was not a responsibility Jacobson could shirk.  So, Eddie Jacobson looked deep into the eyes of the unblinking Harry Truman and found the nerve to do what he knew was right.  Jacobson said, in a quiet voice that he thought Truman should reconsider his position on Palestine.  In response, Truman roared that Jewish leaders had given him nothing but grief about the matter, saying he did not want to talk about “Palestine or the Jews or the Arabs or the British.”  At this point he just wanted to let the United Nations handle things.  Jacobson was shocked by his friend’s outburst and visibly began to weep.  It was at this point Jacobson rested his eyes upon a statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback.  It was a replica of the courthouse statue in Jackson County, Missouri, for which Truman had worked fervently to raise the funds.

In what he knew would be his last chance, Jacobson breathed in and took one final shot at pitching a meeting with Dr. Chaim Weizmann.   And what he said went something like this: “Harry, all your life, you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson.  Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived.  I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.  He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands and thousands of miles just to see you.  And now you refuse to see him, just because you are insulted by some of our American Jewish leaders, even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with these insults.  This isn’t like you, Harry. I thought you could take this stuff they’ve been handing out.”

After hearing Jacobson say his piece, Truman became very quiet; he looked at the statue of Old Hickory and swiveled his chair around to look out over the South Lawn of the White House.  An eternity went by for Eddie before his friend Harry spun back around.  “You win, you bald-headed son-of-a-b****!” said Truman.  “I will see him.”  Jacobson sighed with relief and left the White House in a state of great excitement, eventually calming down after imbibing two double-bourbons, something he had never done, likely because he had never felt so overexcited!

 

Chaim Weizmann Redux

Five days later, on Thursday, March 18, after sundown, Chaim Weizmann was sneaked into the Oval Office to see the president.  In the meeting with Weizmann, Truman pledged to “press forward with partition.”  He kept Weizmann’s visit to himself, choosing not to inform Secretary of State Marshall.

On the following day, UN Ambassador Warren Austin announced to the Security Council – contrary to Truman’s promise of solidarity with Weizmann – that the US position vis-à-vis partition was that the UN, as trustee, should rule Palestine, since a peaceful partition seemed impossible.  Hearing this news, Eddie Jacobson could not believe it.  He felt so betrayed that he took ill for two days.  When Truman found out that he had been reversed by George Marshall at the State Department, he was, understandably, quite angry, and he stated as much in his diary: “The first I know about it is what I see in the papers!  Isn’t that hell?  I’m now in the position of a liar and a double-crosser.  I’ve never felt so in my life.”  The president called in White House Counsel Clark Clifford, asking him, “How could this have happened?  I assured Chaim Weizmann I would stick to it.  He must think I am a s***-ass.  My God, how can I ever face Weizmann again?”

Back in Kansas City, Eddie Jacobson’s phone rang.  It was Chaim Weizmann, reassuring Jacobson that Truman had not forsaken the Zionist cause.  Privately, Truman had sent assurances to Weizmann that Ambassador Austin’s speech at the UN did not occur with presidential approval and that the commitment from the Oval Office to stand with partition would not be broken.  Weizmann told Eddie he was now “the most important single man in the world.  You have a job to do, so keep the White House doors open.”

 

Eddie Jacobson Again

On April 11, 1948, Jacobson evaded the Washington press corps by entering the White House through the East Gate, something he had never done before.  Bearing a message from Weizmann, Jacobson told Truman that a Jewish state was going to be declared upon the exit from Palestine of the British forces there.  He told Truman it was “vital” the US recognize the Jewish state as soon as the declaration was made.  Truman agreed, asking Jacobson not to mention this plan to anyone.

 

Harry Truman

President Truman – incensed that George Marshall’s State Department had refused to agree on foreign policy with regard to Palestine – had become more convinced than ever that the “striped-pants boys” over at State were trying to “put it over on me about Palestine.”  He wrote to his brother that he would, however, “do what I think is right and let them all go to hell.”

In the days leading up to the declaration of the Jewish state, Truman held meetings in the Oval Office, allowing pro and con arguments to be posed with respect to the upcoming partition, per the UN vote back on November 29th.  To have taken any other approach would have seemed suspicious and tipped his hand.  And so it was that on May 12, 1948, President Truman heard from Secretary of State George Marshall, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett, Counsel to the President Clark Clifford, and others.  Clifford argued in favor of recognizing the new Jewish state, per the UN resolution, while Marshall opposed the idea, famously stating that he would vote against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, if he chose to recognize the Jewish state.  Dr. Chaim Weizmann wrote President Truman a letter, on May 13, 1948, urging the president to recognize the Jewish state upon its birth.

It was late morning in Washington (late afternoon in Palestine), on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion read a “Declaration of Independence” proclaiming the existence of a Jewish state called Israel that would come into being at 12:00 AM, on May 15, 1948 (6:00 PM on May 14, Washington time).  When the time came, and the British Mandate expired, the State of Israel was reborn in the traditional homeland of the Jewish people.  Eleven minutes later, the United States recognized Israel, with the White House issuing the following official statement: “This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof.  The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”

And the rest is history.  But how might that history have been different, if there had been no Missouri haberdasher by the name of Eddie Jacobson to intervene, or no philosemitic president in office to consider his words?

 

Paul Dowling

Paul Dowling has written about the Constitution, as well as articles for Independent Sentinel, American Thinker, Godfather Politics, Eagle Rising, and Free Thought Matters.

 

For Further Study

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum: Resources:

Search | Harry S. Truman (trumanlibrary.gov)

Eddie Jacobson in the White House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7tAnF93uDo

The Daughter of Eddie Jacobson Tells of Her Father’s Meeting with Truman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7f5p42rorg

 

 


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