Truman’s Controversial Decision to Recognize Israel

This week (May 14) in 1948, at the direction of President Harry Truman, the United States recognized the existence of the newly formed state of Israel, which had declared independence earlier that day.  It was, Truman later stated, among the most important decisions of his presidency.

It was certainly among the most controversial, having not only diplomatic and economic implications, but political ones as well.  In 1948, an election year, Truman faced an uphill climb to re-election, and many thought that his decision to recognize Israel’s independence was a naked grab for Jewish votes.  Actually, Truman’s support of an independent Israel was primarily based on humanitarian considerations.  Truman had long sided with Europe’s Jews in their single-minded search for a homeland that might finally give them security from the centuries of pogroms they had suffered in Europe, the most recent being the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by Adolf Hitler, in which 6 million Jews perished.

The real question, however, was not Truman’s support of an independent home for the Jews, but whether Truman would support a homeland in “Israel proper” — in Palestine — which, on the one hand, was the ancient land of the Israelites but, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly populated by Arabs, who vehemently opposed a Jewish state in Palestine.

It was that Arab opposition that convinced the most revered man in America — World War II’s “architect of victory” and the current secretary of state, George Marshall — that American recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine was a bad idea.   It would poison U.S.–Arab relations at a time when the United States was becoming increasingly dependent on Arab oil from the Middle East.

Thus in a Cabinet meeting two days before Israel was to declare independence, Marshall argued against recognition, and if there was one man with whom Truman hated to be at cross purposes, it was Marshall.  Truman also revered Marshall, and he knew that if Marshall resigned as secretary of state in protest over the Israeli issue, Truman’s credibility as president (and his chances for re-election) would drop to near zero.  Thus it didn’t help matters when Marshall said in that cabinet meeting that if Truman recognized Israel, he, Marshall, would vote against him in the upcoming presidential election.

In the end, Truman decided to recognize Israel anyway because “It was the right thing to do.”  And in the end, Marshall went along with Truman’s decision because, as much as Truman revered Marshall, Marshal respected Truman.  “I want to say here and now,” Marshall once said of Truman, “that there has never been a decision made under this man’s administration, affecting politics beyond our shores, that has not been made in the best interests of this country.”