Harry S Truman: If Only We Had Him Now

by Rabbi Leonard Oberstein

A Case For Courage by Michael Beschloss is a new book on brave leaders who changed America. In the May 14 edition of Newsweek Magazine, there is a lengthy excerpt full of information that I have never seen in previous accounts dealing with Harry Truman’s recognition of the new State of Israel a mere eleven minutes after independence was declared in Tel Aviv. In this story one sees the Hand of G-d.

Let me encapsulate. Harry Truman was an accidental President if there ever was one. He would never have been nominated in his own right, and yet he is today considered one of this nation’s better Presidents. Roosevelt was influenced to pick him, according to my father, to get him out of the Senate where he was investigating wartime profiteering. He was a machine politician from Missouri, loyal to boss Pendergast. A mere three months after Roosevelt was sworn in for his forth term, he died, and suddenly this “nobody” became President.

In his article, Beschloss shows how much antisemitism still lurked in the heart of a President I always thought of as a philo-semite, an ohev yisrael. How did it come about that Truman defied everyone and “made one of the most significant foreign policy decisions in U.S. History.”? (all quotes from Newsweek article).

In a little known fact, Beschloss records that for two years a Jewish family, the Viners lived next door to the Trumans and young Harry not only played with Abe Viner but was their “shabbos goy”.
What is well known is that during World war I, Private Eddie Jacobson clerked for Lieutenant Harry Truman . As Harry wrote to his future wife Bess, he had “a Jew clerk” running his canteen and he was a “crackerjack.” After the war, the two men pooled their vast winnings in poker and opened a clothing store in Independence, Missouri. The store went bankrupt but Harry and Eddie remained life long friends. Eddie was the one person who could walk into Truman’s office whenever he wanted, usually to share a drink and talk about the old days.

In the years after the Holocaust, many American Jews realized that they should have done more to save the Jews of Europe. They determined not to make the same mistake again and agitated for admission of the survivors to the Land of Israel, then called Palestine. In July, 1946 Reform Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver “pounded on Truman’s desk and bellowed at him.” That same month, two senators from New York and a pro-zionist diplomat James McDonald warned the President not to abandon the Jews. All of this pressure had the opposite effect. Truman erupted, “You cannot satisfy the Jews anyway….They are not interested in the United States.”

Tactlessly, McDonald noted that FDR would have understood. Truman completely lost his temper and cried out. “I am not Roosevelt, I am not from New York…I must do what I think is right.” Truman would not be bulldozed by anyone and had a chip on his shoulder against the arrogant and the powerful. He banned Zionist leaders from his office.

Jewish leaders searched for some way to reach Truman. Our Sages teach us that “every man has his hour”. Eddie Jacobson played a vital role in the history of the Jewish People. He wasn’t an observant or learned Jew, not a particularly active one in Jewish organizations, just a plain simple man. In the summer of 1947 the National President of Bnai Brith,Frank Goldman, called on Eddie to get them back in to Truman.

Beschloss points out that Jacobson and his wife Bluma were never once invited into Harry and Bess Truman’s home in Independence. Bess felt it was beneath her station in the community to let a Jew into her parlor. The friendship was between the two men and never involved serious business, only card playing, alcohol drinking and joke telling. The reason Eddie could go into Truman’s office if he wanted to was because he never took advantage of their friendship for personal gain.

Now, Goldman and Eddie’s attorney who made the introduction, A.J.Granoff, sat down in a hotel in Kansas City. Eddie told them that he would never ask Truman for a personal favor but would always be glad to discuss with him “my suffering people across the seas.” This is one of the points when I could not help but cry. This was truly the situation of Am Yisrael in 1947, a few hundred thousand survivors of the Holocaust stuck in Europe and the Jewish People on the brink of despair and one simple Jew asked to make a difference.

I always thought that Eddie only had to see Truman once; it wasn’t so simple. First he wrote Harry a letter which said, “Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.” Loy Henderson, Assistant Secretary of State warned that if the U.S. had anything to do with the founding of Israel, it would jeopardize oil supplies and “the whole Arab world would become the enemy of the United States.” Harry decided to favor partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Henderson did not give up, now he tried to make the Jewish state as small as possible. He argued that Jaffa was essentially Arab and that Arab herdsmen required the Negev desert for “seasonal grazing.” At that time, Truman agreed to see Chaim Weizman who took out maps and showed him that without the Negev, Israel would have no access to the Red Sea and convinced Truman to side with the Zionists at that moment. However, it was touch and go.

The State department fought the Zionists with all their might. In January, 1948 Henderson and the State Department thought that they had convinced Truman that a Jewish State could never survive an Arab onslaught and Palestine should be a trusteeship, not a two-state solution.

Horrified that Truman seemed to be wavering Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Movement, tried in vain to see the President. Truman told his aides he had seen enough Zionists. Frank Goldman of Bnai Brith called Eddie Jacobson and told him that the President was “washing his hands” of Palestine. Eddie sent a wire to Truman in which he wrote “I am begging you to see Dr. Weizmann.” The answer was no.

Eddie Jacobson took a plane to Washington. He entered the office and Truman said, “I know what you are here for and the answer is no.” Truman bellowed that the “Eastern Jews” had slandered and libeled him since the moment he became President, he didn’t want to discuss Palestine or the Jews.

Jacobson was crushed. He felt “shocked” and “crushed” that his “dear friend” was “as close to being an anti-semite as a man could possibly be.”

Now, what would you have done at that moment if you were Eddie Jacobson? I believe that G-d came to his rescue at that moment. Harry Truman had a statue of Andrew Jackson on his desk, he was his hero. This is what he said, “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. Well, I have a hero too, the greatest Jew who ever lived, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. He is a very sick man… but he has traveled thousands of miles just to see you… Now you refuse to see him because you have been insulted by some Jewish leaders.”

I cannot record Truman’s exact words as they are curse words, but he gave in. On Thursday, May 18, Weizmann was slipped into the Oval Office. Truman couldn’t pronounce his name,he called him “Cham”. Whatever Weizmann told him, I do not know, but Truman promised to support partition but he asked that it be kept a secret, especially from his own State Department.

Clark Clifford was Truman’s aide and adviser and he pressed for recognition of the Jewish State. The Secretary of State, General Marshall threatened not only to publicly oppose the President but to vote against him in the upcoming election if he recognized the new state. Truman was at that time very unpopular and nobody thought he had a chance to win the election in 1948. Every poll said he could not beat Dewey. Did he support Israel to get the Jewish vote, or did he do it because it was the right thing to do? I don’t know, but he lost New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan anyway. The Jews split their vote and many voted for the leftist splinter party of Henry Wallace. Strom Thurmond pulled away some of the southern states, but Truman won anyway. (G-d was on his side, even if the ultra-liberal New York Jews voted for Wallace, such ingrates!)

Eleven minutes after its proclamation, Truman spoke from the White House and recognized Israel. At that very moment at the United Nations, the US Ambassador was proposing trusteeship and opposing statehood — when he got a note that Truman had gone over the heads of the entire government and recognized the Jewish State.

A short while later, Stalin recognized Israel also, but that is a different story.

Chosen as the first President of Israel, Weizmann invited Jacobson to New York. When his airport limousine approached the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where Weizmann was staying, Jacobson noticed a huge crowd staring up at the flag of Israel flying next to that of the United States. The Waldorf always flies the flag of a head of state who is staying at the hotel. Jacobson later wrote “I stood on the sidewalk like a fool, and cried and cried and cried.”

President Weizmann presented President Truman with a Sefer Torah in the Rose Garden of the White House. “Thanks, said Truman, I’ve always wanted one of these.”

It is interesting to point out that Chaim Weizmann led the Zionist Organization for many years. He was the one who secured the Balfour Declaration from the British that led to the Palestine Mandate and he was the one who convinced Harry Truman to go against everyone and recognize the new Jewish State as soon as it was declared. Yet, his long time rival David Ben-Gurion refused to let him sign the Declaration of Independence of Israel with the phony excuse that he was not in the State at the time it was declared. Itchie Meyer Levin, brother of the Gerrer Rebbe, got to sign it as representative of the Agudah even though he was in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv at the time of the declaration of the State, but Weizmann was excluded. To me this shows a character flaw in Ben Gurion and in all those around him who did not respect Weizmann’s invaluable role in the founding of Israel.

Like all of his contemporaries, Weizmann had gone to cheder in Motel, Ukraine as a young boy but had gone off to college and married a woman, Vera, who was very secular. He wasn’t frum his whole adult life. What is interesting is that when I visited his museum , it showed that when he died, he was looking into a machzor that was open to “Unesaneh tokef”. Maybe he had a “hirhur teshuva” in his last moments. He and Eddie Jacobson were G-d’s messangers to bring our people some solace to rebuild after the great destruction. Without them, who knows what might have been?

Harry Truman was a real leader, something sorely lacking today. Ben-Gurion and Weizmann were honest, though they did have other faults. In his almost 8 years as President, Truman was not appreciated, but, today, when we look at how our Presidential system has devolved, we say “Give them hell Harry”.

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14 comments to Harry S Truman: If Only We Had Him Now

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    A few comments:

    1. My wife is from Kansas City. My father-in-law knew Eddie Jacobson through B’nai B’rith. In a town as Jewishly small as KC, everyone knew everyone else.

    2. One part of this piece of history that does not get enough attention is the role of Abba Hillel Silver, the head of the ZOA. Silver used his position to promote the presidential ambitions of his good friend Ohio Senator Robert Taft. His attacks on Truman were frequent and sharp, and Truman despised him for it. This explains a good bit of Truman’s antipathy to the Zionists in 1947-48.

    3. After independence, Truman put an arms embargo on the mideast. This didn’t hurt the Arabs, who were getting arms from the British and French, but it did hurt the Israelis, who couldn’t get arms before indepenence because they weren’t a state, and had trouble afterwards. What saved the state in those days was Stalin’s support. The Skoda arms works of Czechoslovakia provided arms galore for Israel. Czechoslovakia was a Soviet puppet; the arms couldn’t have been shipped without Stalin’s say so. Stalin was a rosha, but we must acknowledge that between 1945 and 1948, he was the strongest supporter of a Jewish state in Palestine. He had his reasons, but even so, it is doubtful Israel would have come into being without him. Yemach shmo vezichro, even so.

  • Tzioni

    I have been told Yom Yeruslayim commemorates a nes but Yom Haatzmaut does not. And that therefore we say Hallel with a brochah on Yom Yerushalayim but without on Yom Haatzmaut. The nes of Yom Haatzmaut seems plain from this narrative.

  • szn

    this shows that when Hashem [ or the Sitra Achra, depending on your view of a Secular Zionist state in Palestine]wants to bring the Geula [ or the anit-Geula in the case of the satan] , nothing will stand in the way…..

  • SM

    Thank you for the post. I am grateful that the US supported the emergent state, BUT when the State Dept said that it would lead to every Arab state becoming the enemy of the US they were right on the money…

  • HILLEL

    I find this post somewhat puzzling.

    Weitzman was a RoSha, who refused to let the Zionist agencies participate in the rescue of the Jews from the Holocaust in World War II. He is quoted as saying that the Jews in Europe are “dust of history, but this will be a blessing for (the state) of Israel.”

    Ben Gurion was a murderous megalomaniac, who ordered his Haganah commander to fire on Menachem Begin’s ship Altalena, when it arrived in Israel bearing crucially-needed weapons and soldiers during the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion was afraid that Begin would eclipse him in popularity if the weapons proved decisive in winning the war.

    Ben-Gurion’s attempt to draft religious girls into the Israeli Army caused the premature death of the Chazon Ish.

    Truman, like Stalin was a national leader, whose actions are controlled by HaShem. Such people cannot completely exercise free will.

    The only true hero in this narrative is Eddie Jacobson. Although he was a religously-ignorant Jew, he went out of his way to help his people, because he had a true Jewish heart.

  • Chaim

    Much of the information in Beschloss’s article appeared in a Jewish Press article back in December, which I’ve pasted below. With all due respect, how anyone could still have a simple view of Truman — even before reading the Newsweek excerpt — as some huge ohev yisroel is beyond me. His anti-Semitic outbursts have neen known and written about for years.

    See “Harry Truman Without Fanfare” by Jason Maoz.

  • Reb Yid

    I’ve been a Truman buff for much of my life (including once having made a pilgrimage to Independence, MO) so a few comments:

    There is no doubt that he displayed a tremendous amount of courage when standing up to the State Department and in particular George Marshall (whom he idolized) by recognizing Israel.

    His personal thoughts about some Jews notwithstanding (even during World War II), humanitarian concerns were essential to how he viewed the world. The fate of Holocaust survivors played an important role in this process for him as well.

    The amazing thing about Truman is that even though he didn’t go to college he was probably one of our most well-read Presidents, with the possible exceptions of Wilson and Clinton.

    And just think of the renowned and widely praised “Truman committee” (i.e., mentioned as investigatory committee during WWII). Just think–here was a Senator who was both supportive of the war AND who was making sure that there was accountability, saving a tremendous amount of lives and dollars in the process.

    Nowadays, if anyone asks about accountability about anything, the motives are automatically questioned. How far we have fallen.

  • Loberstein

    “How far we have fallen.”
    My sentiments exactly. The process of picking an elected official today requires so much fund raising that how can anyone pretend that candidates and elected officials are not beholden to the ones who give them the money. The scrutiny of the 24 hour news cycle destroys people who may be good public servants but once hired a nanny and didn’t pay her social security tax. The hypocrisy of it all! The professonals make a living from the never ending election cycle and candidates are programmed like robots to do whatever the polls tells them.

  • Charles B. Hall

    Stalin must be turning over in his grave to know that the Jewish state that survived only because of the arms sent by his client, Klement Gottwald, the Communist leader of Czechoslovakia, is now supporting more Torah than any regime in history. HaShem can use even the worst rashas for good.

  • Bob Miller

    One of Truman’s good qualities was his respect for the office of President. Thrust into power by FDR’s death, he wanted to make himself worthy of the office, not to turn the office into a vehicle for power lust or plain old lust.

  • Loberstein

    I have just read “Harry Truman Without Fanfare” which appeared in the Jewish Press. Our religion teaches us that the ” heart of kings is in the hands of Hashem”. Harry S Truman was certainly Hashem’s messenger and his recognition of Israel gave ligitimacy at a crucial moment.
    We, who live in 200, don’t really appreciate the extent of anti-semitic sentiment iln the 1940’s. On the one hand I was taught in yeshiva that Roosevelt was evil, he could have saved many Jews and didn’t try. This is factual. However, others would say that he could only lead the country where it was willing to be lead and immigration of Jews into the US was unpopular. He couldn’t fight Hitler until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He may have not only been a genteel anti-semite but he worked withing an anti-semitic milieu. Truman was more brave and for that he goes down in history as a benefactor of the Jews.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Loberstein, what are you complaining about? We have the best democracy that money can buy ;-)

    On a more serious note, young talented Americans don’t go into politics. They go into business or technology. As a result we have a very inefficient government, but a good economy and a high standard of living. I’m not sure that these are bad priorities.

  • Charles B. Hall, PhD

    Regarding Loberstein’s comments about Roosevelt, the historical record is very clear that FDR was desparate to get the US into the war in Europe. The isolationists in Congress might well have had impeachment grounds had they known the extent of his support for Great Britain before Pearl Harbor. He also had a clandestine correspondence with Churchill that bypassed both Chamberlain (still British PM) and Kennedy (still US Ambassador) because he knew that the first was an appeaser and suspected that the second might actually be sympathetic to the wrong side. And only three days before Pearl Harbor, the Chicago Tribune had published a leaked copy of secret US/British war plans whose existence the Roosevelt administration had previously denied. It is not clear that even after Pearl Harbor that the Congress would have passed a declaration of war against the Nazis; Hitler and Mussolini made that question moot by declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941.

  • Lawrence M. Reisman

    Dr. Hall mentions FDR’s activities on behalf of Britain before we officially entered the war. Most of it wasn’t clandestine; his executive order giving GB our old destroyers was a matter of public information. Lend-lease was an act of Congress. The leaked US-GB war plans make an interesting story. The leaker, Hap Arnold, eventually became a five star general (one of only five), leading some to believe that the plans were a concoction and intentionally leaked to provoke Hitler into declaring war. If so, they certainly worked.

    Another fact: Roosevelt violated every international rule of neutrality by selling war materiel to the allies only. When he stopped selling oil and scrap metal to Japan, he forced Japan into going after these commodities elsewhere, which meant going to war with the allies, and attacking Pearl Harbor to keep us from helping them.

    In the 1970s, during Watergate, there was a joke: What was the difference between Washington, FDR, and Nixon? Washington never told a lie, FDR never told the truth, and Nixon never knew the difference. FDR was devious and dishonest, and got us into WWII without the consent of most of the country. It was the right choice, made for the right reasons, using abominable methods.