Did Truman’s Poor Reading Skills Give Us Israel?

Before living through eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush, the average American might have had a hard time grasping the idea that the chosen leader of the republic just might not be very smart.  It is a well-known fact that President Harry S. Truman did not go to college.  In his defense, though, unlike the younger Bush, or his own illustrious predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman was known as a serious reader, especially of history.   One has to wonder sometimes, though, if he had ever had to take one of those college-entrance standardized tests he would have scored very well in the “reading comprehension” category.

The following passage is from Volume I of Memoirs of Harry S. Truman: Year of Decisions. The date is April 20, 1945.  Truman had been president for only eight days:

Shortly before noon, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council, came in to talk to me about the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and the serious problem of the resettlement of the refugees, which led naturally to a discussion of a proposed Jewish state and homeland in Palestine.

I had before me President Roosevelt’s records and statements regarding Palestine.  And the Secretary of State had sent me a special communication two days before, expressing the attitude and the thinking of the State Department on Palestine.

“It is very likely,” this communication read, “that efforts will be made by some of the Zionist leaders to obtain from you at an early date some commitments in favor of the Zionist program which is pressing for unlimited Jewish immigration into Palestine and the establishment there of a Jewish state.  As you are aware, the Government and people of the United States have every sympathy for the persecuted Jews of Europe and are doing all in their power to relieve their suffering.  The question of Palestine is, however, a highly complex one and involves questions which go far beyond the plight of the Jews in Europe.

“There is continual tenseness in the situation in the Near East,” the communication concluded, “largely as a result of the Palestine question, and as we have interests in that area which are vital to the United States, we feel that this whole subject is one that should be handled with the greatest care and with a view to the long-range interests of the country.”

Since I was in agreement with the expressed policy of the Roosevelt administration on Palestine, I told Rabbi Wise that I would do everything possible to carry out that policy.  I had carefully read the Balfour Declaration, in which Great Britain was committed to a homeland in Palestine for the Jews.  I had familiarized myself with the history of the question of a Jewish homeland and the position of the British and the Arabs.  I was skeptical, as I read over the whole record up to date, about some of the views and attitudes assumed by the “striped-pants boys” in the State Department.  It seemed to me that they didn’t care enough about what happened to the thousands of displaced persons who were involved.  It was my feeling that it would be possible for us to watch out for the long-range interests of our country while at the same time helping these unfortunate victims of persecution to find a home.  And before Rabbi Wise left, I believe I made this clear to him.  (pp. 68-69, emphasis added)

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he hadn’t said that he had “carefully read” the famous statement that is all of three sentences and 117 words in length.  Actually, the declaration took the form of a letter from the UK’s foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Rothschild (Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild), a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  Here it is in its entirety.

Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917.

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious' rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country".

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed) Arthur James Balfour


A careful reader who is also a competent reader will notice that there is no commitment on the part of the British government to a homeland for Jews in Palestine.  Rather, the implied commitment is to a “home,” which is to say, simply to a place to live.  To make sure that no one might misconstrue the letter as a promise of a homeland, or Jewish state, the establishment of which is Rabbi Wise’s (born Weisz) clearly-understood goal, the phrase has been added assuring no infringement upon the rights of the resident non-Jews in Palestine.  It hardly took a clairvoyant to see it at the time, but as things have played out, violent trespass upon the rights and political status, nay, the very lives of the resident non-Jews of Palestine is the very essence of the neo-colonial movement known as Zionism. 


Truman has hardly been alone in choosing to interpret “home” as “homeland.”  It has been almost the standard thing to do from the beginning, particularly for those of a Zionist persuasion.  Examples are not hard to find.  Here we see it treated that way by a British play and its reviewer on the Jewish Theatre web site.  Here it is so misrepresented by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.  Here we see it on History.com, commemorating the November 2 date of its issuance.  Here it is on Answers.com.  It is even used here for the claim that Israel has a legal right to all the land in Palestine west of the Jordan River.  Talk about giving somebody an inch…!  But “homeland” implies a state, and the British officials were very careful not to promise their support for a Jewish state in Palestine. 


Seeing such widespread misreading of such a short, simple statement it is hard to escape the conclusion that it is not exactly an innocent mistake.  Truman, in the passage cited, is obviously attempting to rationalize a decision that, according to the best counsel he received from his foreign policy experts, went counter to the fundamental interests of the country that he had newly found himself in charge of governing.  Informed readers will also notice that he has also ignored the rather sordid context of the Balfour Declaration, which Zionist defector, Benjamin H. Freedman, reveals so clearly.  It was the final product of a long period of negotiation between the Zionist leaders and the British government as World War I raged.  As promised, the Zionists had used their influence on the U.S. president to bring the United States into the war on the British side (speaking of actions contrary to U.S. national interests), and the Balfour Declaration was the quid pro quo, such as it was.  Palestine, as yet, was not even theirs to promise.  As it had been for centuries, it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottomans, however, were allies of the Germans, and should the Germans lose the war, the British—and the Zionists—saw control of Palestine as one of their fruits of victory, which it turned out to be.


Also, by the time he was publishing his memoirs, in 1955, Truman must have known how phony was the identification of a Jewish state on other people’s land with concern for displaced persons and “unfortunate victims of persecution.”  The following passage is from Alfred M. Lilienthal’s 1953 book, What Price Israel?


On December 22, 1945, President Truman directed the Secretaries of State and War, and certain other federal authorities, to speed in every possible way the granting of visas and “facilitate full immigration to the United States under existing quota laws.”  Congress, which had often shown its vulnerability to Jewish pressure groups, did not implement the President’s request regarding the application of unused quotas to uprooted Europeans.  Finally, Congressman William G. Stratton in the so-called “Do-Nothing” 80th Republican Congress introduced a bill in 1947, to admit Displaced Persons “in a number equivalent to a part of the total quota numbers unused during the war years.”  Under the Stratton Bill, up to 400,000 Displaced Persons of all faiths would have been permitted admission into the United States.  The Committee hearings on this legislation (HR 2910) lasted eleven days and covered 693 pages of testimony.  But there were exactly 11 pages of testimony given by Jewish organizations.  They seemed, in fact, profoundly uninterested.  But in 1944, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee was considering the Wright-Compton resolution that called for the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth, there had been scarcely a Zionist organization that had not testified, sent telegraphed messages, or had some Congressman testify in their behalf.  In support of the Wright-Compton resolution, 500 pages of testimony were produced in four days, the vast bulk by Zionists and their allies. (pp. 27-28)


On page 29, Lilienthal quotes the Jewish Forward of December 11, 1943: “The Jewish Conference is alive only when there is something in the air which has to do with a Commonwealth in Palestine, and it is asleep when it concerns rescue work for the Jews in the Diaspora.”


It’s really quite remarkable that Truman, in one short statement, was able to encapsulate so much of the deceit and deception that is the very life’s blood of the Zionist movement.  One is tempted to conclude that there is more at work here than poor reading ability on Truman’s part.  Coercion and bribery have also been essential Zionist tools, and Truman’s failure to mention in his memoirs the attempt on his life later reported by his daughter Margaret is noteworthy.  That the latter technique also played some role in Truman’s ultimate decision for Israel has also been reported upon rather good authority, the absence of which from the Truman memoirs would hardly be surprising.


But before we dismiss the poor-Truman-reading-skills explanation entirely, we must mention the episode that led to the dismissal of his once and future political rival, Henry Wallace, from his cabinet.  Wallace, his Secretary of Commerce whom he had inherited from Franklin Roosevelt, gave a speech on foreign policy in Madison Square Garden on September 12, 1946.  In the speech Wallace audaciously conceded virtually half the world to the Soviet Union as their rightful sphere of influence.  At this point we take up the story as told by Dwight MacDonald in his 1947 book, Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth:


Wallace’s speech was a direct criticism of [Secretary of State James] Byrnes’s Stuttgart address, a criticism, that is, by a leading member of the Administration of the Administration’s foreign policy.  Yet when Wallace brought Truman an advance copy of the speech to read, the President found nothing to object to in it and told him to go ahead.  He even said, as Wallace took care to insert into the text, that the speech “represented the policy of his Administration.”  When newspapermen asked him about this a few hours before the speech was to be delivered, Truman confirmed the statement.  “Did it not represent a departure from Secretary Byrnes’s policy?”  another reporter asked.  “No,” said Mr. Truman, “it was right in line.”  The next day’s dispatches from Paris made it clear, however, that Byrnes did not share the President’s cheerful opinion of the speech but was, indeed, very much “bewildered” and “disturbed” about it.  By the following day, September 14, even Harry Truman began to sense that life had suddenly become rather complicated.  Chipper and jaunty as ever, he called in the press and told what, coming from a man in a less exalted position, would be called a lie; he had been misunderstood by the press; he had not intended to say that he approved the content of the speech but merely Wallace’s right to give it….  On September 19, Byrnes delivered to Truman, by transatlantic teletype, an ultimatum: either Wallace or he would have to leave the cabinet.  The following morning, Truman called for Wallace’s resignation.  (pp. 110-111)


The moral of the story, perhaps, is that when it comes to the indefensible words or deeds of government officials in general, and certainly of Harry Truman in particular, one should never rule out the pure incompetence factor.


David Martin

January 10, 2013





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