Commentary: Was Truman’s Missouri the cradle of the State of Israel?

One of the recommendations of the Harrison Report to which Truman firmly clung was that for Jewish DPs “there was no liberation without emigration.”

President Harry Truman welcomes prime minister David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban to the White House on May 1, 1951 (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
President Harry Truman welcomes prime minister David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban to the White House on May 1, 1951
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)

THOUGH REGARDED as a “small-town politician” with a parochial background, President Harry Truman expressed genuine concern for the plight of Jewish displaced persons (DPs), the victims of Nazism who waited for an emigration visa in DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy still a few years after the end of World War II.

That’s one of the reasons why he sent the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Earl G. Harrison, on a mission to Europe in June 1945 to investigate the plight of those displaced persons called “non-repatriables.”
Truman had previously heard rumors of mistreatment of Jewish DPs by unprepared soldiers in charge of DP camps. Jewish organizations urged him to check their living conditions. Received as a bombshell in Washington, the Harrison Report (submitted in August 1945) expressed harsh criticism of the American and British treatment of the Jews.
As I was reading Dwight Eisenhower’s papers in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, I saw the general’s comments on the Harrison Report and felt his reluctance to create DP camps only for Jews, arguing that he wished to avoid reproducing the segregation implemented by Hitler.
Nevertheless, the Harrison Report became an instrument of persuasion in four domains. First, it incited the American military to establish DP camps that would be only for Jews. This step sought to avoid the constant harassment of Jewish DPs by former Nazi sympathizers who wore the mask of DPs.
Second, the report sensitized the American public opinion to the tragedy of Displaced Persons, Jew and non-Jews who could not be repatriated to the countries where their families had been murdered, or to the areas annexed by the Soviet Union or under its control.
Third, Earl Harrison strongly encouraged the members of Congress to liberalize immigration laws so as to admit postwar refugees. Finally, the report demanded that Great Britain keep its promise to open the doors of Palestine to stateless Jews, in conformity with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which formally endorsed the idea of a future Jewish home in the ancient kingdom of Israel.
One of the recommendations of the Harrison Report to which Truman firmly clung was that for Jewish DPs “there was no liberation without emigration.” It is then that Palestine appeared both in the eyes of Harrison and Truman as a place of rehabilitation for the survivors of Nazi persecution.
Then, too, the link emerged for them between the international question of Jewish Displaced Persons and that of Palestine.
Truman sincerely wished to find a “refuge” for the Jewish DPs, but not a state, as he was aware of the reluctance of the State Department and the Pentagon. It was strongly felt that partition would mean immediate war and would imply sending 100,000 American troops.
David Niles, Truman’s special assistant for minority affairs and key adviser on Palestine, whose attitude to Zionism was influenced by Rabbi Stephen Wise, felt in Truman a genuine sympathy for the fate of the Jews. This conviction was shared by Clark Clifford, a Missourian and a champion of the Jewish cause on the White House staff.
Two American Jews—Niles and Max Lowenthal, a young labor attorney from Harvard Law School—became the advisers who worked relentlessly on the Zionists’ behalf, while knowing how blunt Truman could be with the Jewish lobbyists.
The more I read Truman’s personal letters in the library that bears his name, the more I discovered that he wished to handle America’s problems “in the light of justice, not oil,” as he replied to James Forrestal, his secretary of defense. Forrestal kept reminding him of the need not to damage relations with the Arabs.
Truman received many letters replete with suggestions about places to relocate uprooted Jews who could not return to Europe.
However, for the president, Palestine was not just a place on the map. His knowledge of ancient history made him aware of the fact that since “the Jews have no place to go,” Palestine would be the Promised Land and not Alaska – on American soil – as suggested in a letter written to him by the Warner Brothers who had just shot a movie there.
Although Truman was reproached by then-British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin with courting the so-called “Jewish vote” for his re-election, his personal letters show that his stance toward Palestine did not boil down to mere calculations.
When in 1946, Truman called for the admission of 100,000 Jews to British mandate Palestine, Bevin also implied that Americans did not wish to see more Jews immigrate to the United States—an argument that retained some truth because in the war’s aftermath, Jewish refugees were equated with communists by some congressmen.
Another reason why Americans supported a plan to let Jews enter Palestine was, according to British officials, that Americans thought of Arabs as “red Indians” as a Labor MP, Richard Crossman, put it. Furthermore, the American myth of a Promised Land, where both the oppressed and the pioneers would be welcome, found an echo in the idea of a Jewish homeland.
On December 22, 1945, Truman attempted to allow refugees and displaced persons enter the United States by issuing an executive order to address the refugee question in Europe after World War II. It gave preference to orphans and “those who had suffered the most.” But its complex bureaucracy and the difficulty to determine who had a DP status were far from solving the Jewish refugee problem. In fact, the number of uprooted Jews doubled in Central Europe in 1946 because of postwar “minor” pogroms in eastern Europe, while violence culminated in Poland with the Kielce pogrom in early July 1946.
It is estimated that the Truman Directive let in about 22,950 refugees, among whom approximately 16,000 were Jewish. Truman’s battle was, therefore, both to let in more postwar refugees in the United States and to obtain more certificates from the British for Jewish survivors to enter Palestine.
The Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 authorized the admission of 200,000 DPs for permanent residence, but its agricultural preference was interpreted by Truman as discriminative against the Jews, few of whom were agricultural workers. By 1950, Congress amended the law, raising the number of DPs allowed to enter the country to approximately 400,000, with an estimated 80,000 Jewish DPs. But by then, about three quarters of the Jewish DPs had resettled in the Jewish homeland.
It is possible to discern the impact of the foreign policy factor in the formulation of the DP Act of 1948 since that piece of legislation gave priority not to Jews who had survived the Nazi persecution but to other DPs, like those from the former Baltic states, among whom there were many former Nazi collaborators.
Truman, who had reluctantly signed the DP Act, had first chosen a course of minimal involvement in the Palestine question.
He deviated from this line with the advent of the Cold War, which made it clear that American support would prevent the newborn Jewish state from leaning toward the Soviets, whom the Arabs might well turn to for help to keep peace.
While the unique conjunction of factors that led to the creation of the State of Israel cannot be developed here, it is possible to emphasize the emotional engagement of Truman. His profound respect for his “Jewish buddies” from Missouri, Eddie Jacobson and Abe Granoff, whom he considered passionate Jews and patriotic Americans, led him to pay attention to his friends’ points of view.
This is another reason to affirm that the cradle of the State of Israel was in Missouri.
As Truman’s daughter, Margaret, testified, her father was profoundly torn between the arguments of the State Department about “national interest” and the emotional and political influence of his aides in the White House, naming this cumbersome position “the worst dilemma” he ever had.
Reading numerous personal letters of the president in the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri enabled me to determine four main factors that influenced his thinking, apart from the conspicuous influence he received from his pro-Zionist advisers and friends.
Firstly, his compassion for homeless Jewish displaced persons who had survived the Nazi persecution was a major motive in his fight against officials in the State Department who did everything to thwart Truman’s policy in 1947 and 1948.
Secondly, his desire to see the Balfour Declaration implemented indicated his global perspective of the Palestine question.
Thirdly, as an assiduous reader of the Old Testament, he thought that history gave the Jews a legitimate right to the land of Palestine. Finally, the humanitarian factor played a large role in the debates about Jewish DPs, yet foreign policy considerations prevailed.
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is a senior research associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University