- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A SAFE HAVEN: HARRY S. TRUMAN AND THE FOUNDING OF ISRAEL

By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh

Harper, $27.99, 428 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

A year after the establishment of the state of Israel, its first ambassador to the United States brought its chief rabbi, Isaac Halevi Herzog, to meet with Harry S. Truman. He told the astonished president that when he “was still in his mother’s womb … the Lord had bestowed upon him the mission of helping his Chosen People at a time of despair and aiding in the fulfillment of His promise of Return to the Holy Land.” Truman’s eyes filled with tears, and he became quite emotional, the authors of this book tell us.

There is, indeed, a great deal of emotion of all kinds in “A Safe Haven,” but it is largely a story of realpolitik. Ideology and sentiment played their part, to be sure, but what the Radoshes’ book shows is how a skillful politician was able to overcome entrenched bureaucratic and other vested interests to use his rightful and legitimate presidential power to help bring about a Jewish state in Palestine.

Truman was a convinced supporter of Zionism long before he entered the Oval Office. In his first term as a senator, he denounced Britain’s 1939 White Paper severely limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine, and two years later, he joined the American Palestine Committee, a pro-Zionist group. During World War II, he had joined “sixty-eight other senators … in signing a statement that called for ‘every possible encouragement to the movement for the restoration of the Jews in Palestine’ and seconded a 1922 congressional resolution stating that it was the goal of the United States to create a national home for the world’s Jews in Palestine.”

With the war’s conclusion and the revelation of Adolf Hitler’s extermination camps, such sentiment swelled in Congress and the nation at large. There were large numbers of Jewish survivors in displaced persons camps in Europe who desperately wanted to seek a haven in Palestine.

This exhaustively researched, densely packed but nonetheless enthralling book makes it clear just how widespread the political support for Zionism was throughout the United States. More than two-thirds of the Senate voted for the 1941 resolution, many of them from states that had very few Jewish constituents. The left in those days had little time for the Arabs, seeing them as a patriarchal, regressive group, and generally supported Jewish aspirations in Palestine. It is particularly interesting to see that then - in contrast to now - the left-leaning Nation magazine was the most militant Zionist publication in the United States.

In view of the attention that has been given in recent years to the support for Israel from right-wing and Christian groups in this country, it is interesting to see that this is not a new phenomenon but was alive and well back then as well. Certainly, the Republican Party was as stalwart in its support for Zionist aspirations as the Democratic Party, and in Truman’s time, its leader, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, was a particularly outspoken champion.

The Radoshes examine the vexed question of the role politics played in Truman’s decision-making in this sphere and effectively dismiss the canard that his actions were motivated primarily by such considerations. They establish his sincerity - and the dedication with which he evaded entrenched opposition in his own administration, including from the State Department and its illustrious secretary, Gen. George C. Marshall - beyond any doubt. They also point out that it did not benefit him politically: His advocacy in 1946 did not prevent the Democrats from losing control of Congress that year, and although he won re-election in 1948 after recognizing Israel, he did so without the electoral votes of New York and Pennsylvania, both of which had large numbers of Jewish voters.

The opposition to Zionism within the Truman administration was centered largely in the State Department, which seemed to favor a similar policy on Palestine to that of the British, who were strongly pro-Arab. The Truman administration was closely allied with the British in those early years of the Cold War, and it was embarrassing for Truman to be at odds with his chief ally - as well as with his own foreign-policy experts - on this subject.

Furthermore, the Soviet bloc had come out firmly in support of Zionism, probably as an anti-British move, and this irony further complicated his position. He also was irritated - enraged at times, this book tells us - by the unrelenting and not always tactful pressure the understandably desperate Zionist establishment kept up on him.

With a lesser person, this might have backfired fatally. Both Truman’s detractors and his admirers liked to call him a little man, coming onstage as he did in the giant shadow cast by Franklin D. Roosevelt, but there was nothing small about him as a man or a president as he struggled on this issue to carry out the will of the American people against powerful entrenched bureaucratic opposition. Given what he achieved against the obstacles continually placed in his way, his achievement as chronicled in this book is positively Sisyphian.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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