President Truman’s Decision to Recognize Israel

No. 563    May 2008

  • President Truman regarded his Secretary of State, General of the Army George C. Marshall, as “the greatest living American.” Yet the two men were on a collision course over Mideast policy. Marshall firmly opposed American recognition of the new Jewish state.
  • Officials in the State Department had done every­thing in their power to prevent, thwart, or delay the President’s Palestine policy in 1947 and 1948. Watching them find various ways to avoid carrying out White House instructions, I sometimes felt they preferred to follow the views of the British Foreign Office rather than those of their President.
  • At a meeting in the Oval Office on May 12, 1948, I argued: “In an area as unstable as the Middle East, where there is not now and never has been any tradition of democratic govern­ment, it is important for the long-range security of our country, and indeed the world, that a nation committed to the democratic system be established there, one on which we can rely. The new Jewish state can be such a place. We should strengthen it in its infancy by prompt recognition.”
  • Since at the time a significant number of Jewish Americans opposed Zionism, neither the President nor I believed that Palestine was the key to the Jewish vote. As I had written in 1947, the key to the Jewish vote in 1948 would not be the Palestine issue, but a continued commitment to liberal political and economic policies.
  • The charge that domestic politics determined our policy on Palestine angered President Truman for the rest of his life. In fact, the President’s policy rested on the realities of the situation in the region, on America’s moral, ethical, and humanitarian values, on the costs and risks inherent in any other course, and on America’s national interests.

To commemorate Israel’s 60th anniversary, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is publishing excerpts from “Showdown in the Oval Office,” the first chapter of Counsel to the President, the memoirs of Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, published in 1991, that describes in detail the drama in Washington surrounding the Truman administration’s then-controversial decision to recognize Israel. This text is being reproduced with the permission of Ambassador Holbrooke.

“The Wise Men” Oppose U.S. Recognition of Israel

Of all the meetings I ever had with Presidents, this one remains the most vivid. Not only did it pit me against a legendary war hero whom President Truman revered, but it did so over an issue of fundamental and enduring national security importance – Israel and the Mideast, an issue as relevant and contentious today as it was then.

The President regarded his Secretary of State, General of the Army George C. Marshall, as “the greatest living American.” Yet the two men were on a collision course over Mideast policy, which, if not resolved, threatened to split and wreck the Administration. British control of Palestine would run out in two days, and when it did, the Jewish Agency intended to announce the creation of a new state, still unnamed, in part of Palestine.

Marshall firmly opposed American recognition of the new Jewish state; I did not. Marshall’s opposition was shared by almost every member of the brilliant and now-legendary group of men, later referred to as “the Wise Men,” who were then in the process of creating a postwar foreign policy that would endure for more than forty years. The opposition in­cluded the respected Undersecretary of State, Robert Lovett; his prede­cessor, Dean Acheson; the number-three man in the State Department, Charles Bohlen; the brilliant chief of the Policy Planning Staff, George F. Kennan; the dynamic and driven Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal; and a man with whom I would disagree again twenty years later when we served together in the Cabinet, Dean Rusk, then the Director of the Office of United Nations Affairs.

Some months earlier, during one of our weekly breakfasts at his ele­gant Georgetown home, Forrestal had spoken emotionally and frankly to me concerning his opposition to helping the Zionists, as advocates of the creation of a Jewish state were called. “You fellows over at the White House are just not facing up to the realities in the Middle East. There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about six hundred thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities? Just look at the numbers!”

“Jim, the President knows just as well as you do what the numbers are,” I replied, “but he doesn’t consider this to be a question of numbers. He has always supported the right of the Jews to have their own homeland, from the moment he became President. He considers this to be a question about the moral and ethical considerations that are present in that part of the world. For that reason, he supports the foundation of a Jewish state. He is sympathetic to their needs and their desires, and I assure you he is going to continue to lend our country’s support to the creation of a Jewish state.”

Forrestal answered bluntly: “Well, if he does that, then he’s absolutely dead wrong.” His attitude was typical of the foreign policy establishment, especially the pro-Arab professionals at the State Department, who, deeply influenced by the huge oil reserves in the Mideast, supported the side they thought would be the likely winner in the struggle between the Arabs and the Jews. Officials in the State Department had done every­thing in their power to prevent, thwart, or delay the President’s Palestine policy in 1947 and 1948, while I fought for assistance to the Jewish Agency. Watching them find various ways to avoid carrying out White House instructions, I sometimes felt, almost bitterly, that they preferred to follow the views of the British Foreign Office rather than those of their President.

At midnight on May 14, 1948 – 6 p.m. in Washington – the British would relinquish control of Palestine, which they had been administering since World War I under mandate from the League of Nations. One minute later, the Jewish Agency, under the leadership of David Ben­-Gurion, would proclaim the new state. (The name “Israel” was as yet unknown, and most of us assumed the new nation would be called “Ju­daea.”) The neighboring Arabs made it clear that the fighting, which had already begun, would erupt into a full-scale war against the new state the moment the British left. In order to avoid this, the British and the State Department wanted to turn Palestine over to the trusteeship of the United Nations – a position I strongly opposed as dangerous to the sur­vival of the beleaguered Jews in Palestine. I already had had several serious disagreements over State’s position with General Marshall’s protégé, Dean Rusk, and with Loy Henderson, the Director of Near Eastern and African Affairs. Henderson, a mustachioed, balding, tightly controlled and somewhat pompous career diplomat, was strongly pro-Arab and heav­ily influenced by the British. I had no firsthand evidence of it, but I knew Henderson was among a group of Mideast experts in the State Depart­ment who were widely regarded as anti-Semitic. He had no use for White House interference in what he regarded as his personal domain – Ameri­can policy in the Mideast.

On May 7, a week before the end of the British Mandate, I met with President Truman for our customary private day-end chat in the Oval Office. In these informal sessions, which were never listed on his official schedule, he was often very blunt. No one else knew what passed between us in those sessions unless he wanted them to. In this case he didn’t.

I handed him a draft of a public statement I had prepared, and pro­posed that at his next press conference – scheduled for May 13, the day before the British Mandate would end – he announce his intention to recognize the Jewish state. The President was sympathetic to the pro­posal; keenly aware of Secretary Marshall’s strong feelings, though, he picked up the telephone to get his views. As I sat listening to the Presi­dent’s end of the conversation, I could tell that Marshall objected strongly to the proposed statement. The President listened politely, then told Marshall he wanted to have a meeting on the subject.

I was sitting, as usual, in a straight-backed chair to the left of the President’s desk. As he ended the conversation with Marshall, he swiveled his chair back toward me. “Clark, I am impressed with General Marshall’s argument that we should not recognize the new state so fast,” he said. “He does not want to recognize it at all, at least not now. I’ve asked him and Lovett to come in next week to discuss this business. I think Marshall is going to continue to take a very strong position. When he does, I would like you to make the case in favor of recognition of the new state.” He paused, then looked at me intently for a moment. “You know how I feel. I want you to present it just as though you were making an argument before the Supreme Court of the United States. Consider it carefully, Clark, organize it logically. I want you to be as persuasive as you possibly can be.”

The Case for a Jewish State

From our many talks over the past year, I knew that five factors dominated Truman’s thinking. From his youth, he had detested intolerance and discrimination. He had been deeply moved by the plight of the millions of homeless of World War II, and felt that alone among the homeless, the Jews had no homeland of their own to which they could return. He was, of course, horrified by the Holocaust and he denounced it vehemently, as, in the aftermath of the war, its full dimen­sions became clear. Also, he believed that the Balfour Declaration, issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917, committed Great Britain and, by implication, the United States, which now shared a certain global responsibility with the British, to the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine. And finally, he was a student and believer in the Bible since his youth. From his reading of the Old Testament he felt the Jews derived a legitimate historical right to Palestine, and he sometimes cited such biblical lines as Deuteronomy 1:8: “Behold, I have given up the land before you; go in and take possession of the land which the Lord hath sworn unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

From the beginning, I had also supported the creation of the Jewish state, even though this put me in opposition to an entire generation of senior foreign policy makers whom I admired and numbered among my friends, because I considered such action a historical and strategic neces­sity. I recognized then, of course, that oil, historic antagonisms, and numerical imbalances might create many of the problems Israel’s oppo­nents in Washington predicted. Many of their fears, in fact, came true; the Mideast remains today the single most volatile place on earth, a legacy, in part, of the events of 1948. And Israel, having survived four wars and awed the world with its courage and energy, has also veered toward policies that sometimes fall short of the dreams of its founders and their American supporters.

The Zionist position in 1948 was simple: Partition Palestine into two parts, one Jewish, one Arab. On its surface, the joint British-State Depart­ment position favoring trusteeship might have seemed a reasonable way to avoid conflict, but the President feared that if Palestine was turned over to the UN, the Arabs would combine military action and diplomatic footdragging in an effort to throttle the Jewish state at its birth. I fully agreed. I knew Marshall and Lovett would argue that we should continue to support trusteeship, and delay in recognizing the new state – but by “delay” I was convinced that State in fact meant “deny.”

My fears about the State Department had crystallized after a bitter incident in March, when, without informing the President, it had permit­ted the American delegation to the UN to reverse its support for partition and switch to trusteeship for Palestine – a contradiction of a personal commitment the President had given the previous day to Chaim Weiz­mann, the Zionist leader who would later become the first President of Israel. Furious and depressed when he learned what had happened, Presi­dent Truman wrote on his calendar for March 19, 1948: “The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today….The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Isn’t that hell? I am now in the position of a liar and a double-crosser. I’ve never felt so low in my life. There are people on the third and fourth level of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat. They’ve succeeded in doing it.”

That afternoon, the President had angrily instructed me to “read the riot act” to those “third- and fourth-level” people at State. A few hours later, I held a contentious meeting with Rusk, Henderson, and State Department Counselor Charles Bohlen, which left us barely on speaking terms. Despite his annoyance, though, the President did not order the State Department to reendorse partition, lest he create a crisis with Marshall. Thus, with the May 14 deadline fast approaching, the U.S. was in the awkward position of having its UN delegation still rounding up votes for trusteeship while the President favored partition and prompt recognition of the soon to be proclaimed Jewish state.

Showdown in the Oval Office: May 12, 1948

At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 12, a cloudless, sweltering day, we assembled in the Oval Office. President Truman sat at his desk, his back to the bay window overlooking the lawn, his famous THE BUCK STOPS HERE plaque in front of him on his desk. In the seat to the President’s left sat Marshall, austere and grim, and next to Marshall sat his deputy, Robert Lovett. Behind Lovett were two State Department officials, Robert McClintock and Fraser Wilkins. I wondered why Rusk and Henderson, who had been centrally involved in every phase of the policy debate for months, were not present. Only forty years later did I learn from Wilkins that just before the meeting Lovett had decided the presence of Rusk and Henderson in the same room with me would be too inflammatory, and he had substituted their deputies.

David Niles, White House Appointments Secretary Matthew Con­nelly, and I sat together in chairs to the right of the President. As the meeting began, exactly fifty hours remained before the new nation, still without a name, would be born.

The meeting began in a deceptively calm manner. President Truman did not raise the issue of recognition; he wanted me to raise it, but only after Marshall and Lovett had spoken, so he would be able to ascertain the degree of Marshall’s opposition before showing his own hand. Lovett began by criticizing what he termed signs of growing “assertiveness” by the Jewish Agency. “On the basis of some recent military successes and the prospect of a ‘behind the barn’ deal with King Abdullah,” Lovett said, “the Jews seem confident that they can establish their sovereign state without any necessity for a truce with the Arabs of Palestine.”

Marshall interrupted Lovett: he was strongly opposed, he said, to the behavior of the Jewish Agency. He had met on May 8 with Moshe Shertok, its political representative, and had told him that it was “danger­ous to base long-range policy on temporary military success.” Moreover, if the Jews got into trouble and “came running to us for help,” Marshall said he had told them, “they were clearly on notice that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk they were running.” I was surprised to hear, from Marshall himself, how bluntly he had dealt with Shertok. He had laid down a tough opening position.

As Marshall spoke, he was interrupted by an urgent message from his special assistant. The United Press had reported that Shertok had re­turned to Tel Aviv carrying Marshall’s personal warning to David Ben-Gurion. Clearly displeased, Marshall told us that not only had he not sent Ben-Gurion a message, but he had never even heard of Ben-Gurion – a surprising statement about the leader of the Jewish Agency, who was about to become the new nation’s Prime Minister.

Marshall directed the State Department to refuse to comment on the UP news story, and then concluded his presentation. The United States, he said, should continue supporting UN trusteeship resolutions and defer any decision on recognition.

It was now my turn. Even though I disagreed with many of Marshall’s and Lovett’s statements, I had waited without saying a word until the President called on me – in order to establish that I was speaking at his request, not on my own initiative.

I began by objecting strongly to the State Department’s position paper reaffirming American support of Security Council efforts to secure a truce in Palestine. “There has been no truce in Palestine and there almost certainly will not be one,” I said. I reminded everyone that in a meeting chaired by the President on March 24, “Dean Rusk stated that a truce could be negotiated within two weeks. But this goal is still not in sight.”

“Second,” I went on, “trusteeship, which State supports, presupposes a single Palestine. That is also unrealistic. Partition into Jewish and Arab sectors has already happened. Jews and Arabs are already fighting each other from territory each side presently controls.”

The time had now come to join the issue. “Third, Mr. President,” I said, “I strongly urge you to give prompt recognition to the Jewish state immediately after the termination of the British Mandate on May 14. This would have the distinct value of restoring the President’s firm posi­tion in support of the partition of Palestine. Such a move should be taken quickly, before the Soviet Union or any other nation recognizes the Jewish state.”

I knew my comment would displease Marshall and Lovett, since I was implying that State had embarrassed the President by reversing the Amer­ican position in the UN two months earlier. But I strongly believed this, and I saw no reason not to bring it up.

“My fourth point,” I continued, “is that the President should make a statement at his press conference tomorrow which announces his inten­tion to recognize the Jewish state, once it has complied with the provision for democratic government outlined in the UN resolution of November 29, [1947]. I understand this is in fact the case, and therefore presents no prob­lem.” I handed around the room a proposed press statement, and read aloud its conclusion: “I have asked the Secretary of State to have the Representatives of the United States in the United Nations take up this subject with a view toward obtaining early recognition of the Jewish state by the other members of the United Nations.” When everyone had examined it, I went on, “My fifth point relates to the Balfour Declaration. Jewish people the world over have been waiting for thirty years for the promise of a homeland to be fulfilled. There is no reason to wait one day longer. Trusteeship will postpone that promise indefinitely. Sixth, the United States has a great moral obligation to oppose discrimination such as that inflicted on the Jewish people. Alarmingly, it is reappearing in communist-controlled Eastern Europe. There must be a safe haven for these people. Here is an opportunity to try to bring these ancient injustices to an end. The Jews could have their own homeland. They could be lifted to the status of other peoples who have their own country. And perhaps these steps would help atone, in some small way, for the atrocities, so vast as to stupefy the human mind, that occurred during the Holocaust.”

“Finally,” I concluded, “I fully understand and agree that vital national interests are involved. In an area as unstable as the Middle East, where there is not now and never has been any tradition of democratic govern­ment, it is important for the long-range security of our country, and indeed the world, that a nation committed to the democratic system be established there, one on which we can rely. The new Jewish state can be such a place. We should strengthen it in its infancy by prompt recognition.”

Secretary of State Marshall Threatens President Truman

I had noticed Marshall’s face reddening with suppressed anger as I talked. When I finished, he exploded: “Mr. President, I thought this meeting was called to consider an important and complicated problem in foreign policy. I don’t even know why Clifford is here. He is a domestic adviser, and this is a foreign policy matter.”

I would never forget President Truman’s characteristically simple reply: “Well, General, he’s here because I asked him to be here.”

Marshall, scarcely concealing his ire, shot back, “These considerations have nothing to do with the issue. I fear that the only reason Clifford is here is that he is pressing a political consideration with regard to this issue. I don’t think politics should play any part in this.”

Lovett joined the attack: “It would be highly injurious to the United Nations to announce the recognition of the Jewish state even before it had come into existence and while the General Assembly is still considering the question. Furthermore, such a move would be injurious to the prestige of the President. It is obviously designed to win the Jewish vote, but in my opinion, it would lose more votes than it would gain.” Lovett had finally brought to the surface the root cause of Marshall’s fury – his view that the position I presented was dictated by domestic political considera­tions, specifically a quest for Jewish votes.

“Mr. President, to recognize the Jewish state prematurely would be buying a pig in a poke,” Lovett continued. “How do we know what kind of Jewish state will be set up? We have many reports from British and American intelligence agents that Soviets are sending Jews and commu­nist agents into Palestine from the Black Sea area.” Lovett read some of these intelligence reports to the group. I found them ridiculous, and no evidence ever turned up to support them; in fact, Jews were fleeing communism throughout Eastern Europe at that very moment.

When Lovett concluded, Marshall spoke again. He was still furious. Speaking with barely contained rage and more than a hint of self-righ­teousness, he made the most remarkable threat I ever heard anyone make directly to a President: “If you follow Clifford’s advice and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.” (Emphasis added.)

Everyone in the room was stunned. Here was the indispensable symbol of continuity whom President Truman revered and needed, making a threat that, if it became public, could virtually seal the dissolution of the Truman Administration and send the Western Alliance, then in the process of creation, into disarray before it had been fully structured. Marshall’s statement fell short of an explicit threat to resign, but it came very close.

Lovett and I tried to step into the ensuing silence with words of conciliation. We both knew how important it was to get this dreadful meeting over with quickly, before Marshall said something even more irretrievable. My suggested Presidential press statement was clearly out of the question, and I withdrew it. Lovett said that State’s Legal Adviser, Ernest Gross, had prepared a paper on the legal aspects of recognition, and he would send it to us immediately.

President Truman also knew he had to end the meeting. He said he was fully aware of the dangers in the situation, to say nothing of the political factors involved on both sides of the problem; these were his responsibility, and he would deal with them himself. Seeing Marshall was still very agitated, he rose and turned to him and said, “I understand your position, General, and I’m inclined to side with you in this matter.”

We rose with the President and gathered our papers. Marshall did not even glance at me as he and Lovett left. In fact, not only did he never speak to me again after that meeting, but, according to his official biogra­pher, he never again mentioned my name. Then, at the end of that day, still steaming, he did something quite unusual, although the President and I were unaware of it at the time. Certain that history would prove him right, he wanted his personal comments included in the official State Department record of the meeting. It is normal for the records of such meetings kept by the State Department to water down or leave out personal comments; Marshall did exactly the opposite. His record, exactly as he wanted historians to find it when it was declassified almost three decades later, reads as follows:

I remarked to the President that, speaking objectively, I could not help but think that suggestions made by Mr. Clifford were wrong. I thought that to adopt these suggestions would have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by Mr. Clifford. The transparent dodge to win a few votes would not in fact achieve this purpose. The great dignity of the office of the President would be seriously dimin­ished. The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford was based on domestic political considerations, while the problem which confronted us was international. I said bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.

General Marshall’s position was grossly unfair: he had no proof to sustain the charge, nor did he offer any – nor had I given him any, for I had not mentioned politics in my presentation. My growing involvement in foreign policy was at the President’s direction. I believed then, as I do now, that the President’s position was based on the national interest.

Marshall and Lovett’s view was based on the assumption that the Palestine issue would decide how Jewish Americans voted. In my opinion, their assumption was incorrect. In fact, a significant number of Jewish Americans opposed Zionism: some feared that the effort to create a Jewish state was so controversial that the plan would fail. In 1942 a number of prominent dissident Reform rabbis had founded the American Council for Judaism to oppose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. It grew into an organization of over fourteen thousand members, which collaborated closely with State Department officials, including Dean Acheson and Loy Henderson. Its leaders believed that the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state was “undemocratic and a retreat from the universal vision of Judaism,” and would lead to “ghettoizing Jews by segregating them from their compatriots and turning them into aliens.” Other individuals, including Arthur H. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times (who supported the American Council for Judaism), and Eugene Meyer, the publisher of The Washington Post, opposed Zionism. Sulzberger’s wife, the redoubtable Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, who dis­agreed strongly with her husband, later recalled that “Zionism was a heavily debated issue among American Jews.” Many Jews opposed American backing for any Jewish state in Palestine.

As for domestic politics, neither the President nor I believed that Palestine was the key to the Jewish vote. As I had written the President in 1947, in a lengthy memorandum proposing a strategy for the 1948 election campaign, the key to the Jewish vote in 1948 would not be the Palestine issue, but a continued commitment to liberal political and economic policies. Noting the sharp divisions over Zionism within the Jewish community, I concluded, “In the long run, there is likely to be greater gain if the Palestine problem is approached on the basis of reaching a decision founded upon intrinsic merit.”

Marshall had deeply disappointed me. I thought his implied threat had crossed the bounds of what was permissible and proper in a meeting with the President. I thought I had lost. In the course of the meeting in the Oval Office, I had left the proposed press statement and some other papers on the front of the President’s desk. I lingered a moment to pick them up.

Seeing my face, President Truman thought I needed to be cheered up. “Well, that was rough as a cob,” he said, using one of his favorite Missouri farm phrases. “That was about as tough as it gets. But you did your best.”

“Boss,” I replied, “this isn’t the first case I’ve lost. I never expected to win them all.” Then, to see if he wanted to try again, I said, “Maybe it’s not over yet. I’d like approval to test the waters one more time.”

The President’s reply was ambiguous: “You may be right, I don’t know. I never saw the General so furious. Suppose we let the dust settle a little – then you can get into it again and see if we can get this thing turned around. I still want to do it. But be careful. I can’t afford to lose General Marshall.”

May 14, 1948

This was the beginning of a historic day in Palestine, but the American government still had not decided what it would do when 6 p.m. came. The unseasonably hot and muggy weather in Washington finally showed signs of breaking; when I reached the office, earlier than usual, I called Lovett. He was looking for ways to calm things down, but he and Marshall were still opposed to recognition of the Jewish state.

I was also in close contact, directly and through David Niles, with Eliahu Epstein, the Jewish Agency representative in Washington. Through Epstein, I had been able to learn much about the situation in the Mideast, in particular the position of the Jewish Agency – information that went beyond what the State Department, with its pro-Arab bias, allowed to filter across the street to the White House through official channels.

In our conversations, Lovett searched for the minimum that would satisfy the President. Finally, I had an idea: “Look, Bob, the President understands General Marshall is not going to support him on this. Let’s forget Wednesday. We’re not seeking a formal retraction of what the General said. The President doesn’t care whether he supports this now or never. If you can get him simply to say that he will not oppose this, that’s all the President would need.” There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. “Let me see what I can do,” was all Lovett said in reply.

Israel Requests U.S. Recognition

Even without a clear signal from Lovett and Marshall, I felt we had to set in motion the machinery for recognition, in the event a favorable decision was made. At 10 a.m., I made a different call, one that I would look back on later with great pleasure. “Mr. Epstein,” I told the Jewish Agency representative, “we would like you to send an official letter to President Truman before twelve o’clock today formally requesting the United States to recognize the new Jewish state. I would also request that you send a copy of the letter directly to Secretary Marshall.”

Epstein was ecstatic. He did not realize that the President had still not decided how to respond to the request I had just solicited. It was particu­larly important, I said, that the new state claim nothing beyond the boundaries outlined in the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, be­cause those boundaries were the only ones which had been agreed to by everyone, including the Arabs, in any international forum.

A few minutes later, Epstein called back: “We’ve never done this before, and we’re not quite sure how to go about it. Could you give us some advice?” I told him that I would check with the experts and get back to him. With my knowledge and encouragement, he then turned for additional advice to two of the wisest lawyers in Washington, David Ginsburg and Benjamin Cohen, both great New Dealers and strong supporters of the Zionist cause. Working together with me during the rest of the morning, Epstein and his team drafted the recognition request.

It was short: “My dear Mr. President,” it began, “I have the honor to notify you that the state of …. ” Here Epstein and I had a problem – we did not know the name of the new state. After some discussion, Epstein simply typed in “the Jewish State” and finished the letter. I asked Epstein to be sure the letter explicitly referred to the November 29 UN resolu­tion. The document ended with a minor rhetorical flourish that we worked out over the telephone together:

With full knowledge of the deep bond of sympathy which has existed and has been strengthened over the past thirty years between the Government of the United States and the Jewish people of Palestine, I have been authorized by the provisional government of the new state to tender this message and to express the hope that your govern­ment will recognize and will welcome [the new state] into the com­munity of nations.

Epstein handed the letter to his press aide, Harry Zinder, and told him to take it to my office immediately. As I waited anxiously for it, Epstein got word on his shortwave radio that the new state would be called “Israel.” He immediately sent a second aide after Zinder to change the letter. Two blocks from the White House, Zinder, sitting in the car Epstein had provided, crossed out with a pen the words “Jewish State” and inserted the word “Israel.” Zinder then proceeded to my office. It was the first time I had heard the name of the new state.

When we received Epstein’s letter, Niles and I began drafting the reply, checking with State on technical details. Niles also checked with, of all people, Ben Cohen, who thus found himself on both sides of the first official exchange between the U.S. and Israel. However, there was still no word from Lovett or Marshall. In the late morning, unable to contain my concern and tension, I called Lovett again and said we should move ­to resolve the matter; in response, he suggested we meet for lunch at a small, private club to which he belonged, the F Street Club, not far from the White House.

The luncheon with Lovett was a remarkable example of the way we were operating. With time literally slipping away, Lovett and I functioned in a sort of never-never land; while we calmly and professionally discussed technical aspects of the decision, we continued to disagree profoundly as to whether or not the decision should be made at all. Lovett’s ability to function effectively on such murky terrain was one reason I respected him so much.

I brought Epstein’s request for recognition, our proposed reply, and a draft of a Presidential statement with me. I wanted to increase the pressure on State. In a friendly but firm manner, Lovett continued to argue against recognition: delay, he said, was essential. Delay, I said, was the equivalent of nonrecognition in the explosive conditions that existed at that moment in the Mideast.

There were less than four hours remaining until the new nation would be proclaimed. I picked my way carefully through the conversation. “The President was impressed, as I was, by your argument, but at 6 p.m. tonight, without action by us, there will be no internationally recognized govern­ment or authority in Palestine,” I said. “A number of people have advised the President that this should not be permitted. The President wishes to take action on recognition.”

Lovett still had not given up: “Indecent haste in recognizing the new state would be unfortunate for the very reasons that I mentioned on Wednesday. Please get the President to delay for a day or so. It is hard for me to believe that one day could make so much difference. There will be a tremendous reaction in the Arab world. We might lose the effects of many years of hard work with the Arabs. We will lose our position with Arab leaders. It will put our diplomatic missions and consular representa­tives into personal jeopardy.”

“Speed is essential to preempt the Russians,” I replied, and reminded him that he and Marshall had been expressing great concern that the Soviet Union might take advantage of indecision on our part to gain a toehold in the area. “And a one-day delay will become two days, three days, and so on.”

Lovett could see that our position was absolutely firm. If the State Department did not change its attitude, the feared explosion between the President and the General could not be averted. He simply had to back down.

“It is impossible to time our messages to arrive in so many distant capitals when we still don’t know when the final decision will be made,” he said, somewhat weakly. He again suggested a one-day delay.

“We have the formal request from the Jewish Agency, and the Presi­dent will make the final decision this afternoon,” I replied. On this ambiguous note our luncheon – friendly in tone, contentious in content­ – ended, and I returned to the White House, still uncertain if Lovett could “deliver” Marshall.

The President viewed my luncheon as a sign Lovett was trying to lead Marshall and his colleagues out of their bunker a step at a time. If Lovett wanted me to play the heavy in this minuet, by allowing me to reject their arguments one by one, partly in the name of the President, I was more than willing. And if he was trying to get himself and State off the hook by saying the decision was dictated by domestic politics, I thought that was an acceptable price for us at the White House to pay to get the job done. The only important thing, with time running out, was to get it done quickly.

A Breakthrough at the State Department

Around 4 p.m., Lovett made the telephone call I had waited so long to receive: “Clark, I think we have something we can work with. I have talked to the General. He cannot support the President’s position, but he has agreed that he will not oppose it.”

“God, that’s good news.” I was truly thrilled. I thanked Lovett for his efforts, and asked if he could get Marshall to call the President directly with the news. Lovett said he would try. Marshall never did make the call himself – I assume it was too painful for him to do so – but Lovett con­firmed Marshall’s position directly with the President a few minutes later. As Lovett called the President, I called Epstein and told him, in strict confidence, the good news.

Only thirty minutes remained before the announcement would be made in Tel Aviv. The American segment of the drama was now coming to its climax in three places simultaneously – the mini-command center in my office; the State Department; and the floor of the UN General Assembly, then located at Flushing Meadow, New York.

I had thought the issue was finally behind us, but to my astonishment, Lovett called to suggest another delay. Would the President agree to defer any action until after the General Assembly adjourned around ten that night?

Saying I would check with the President, I waited about three minutes and called Lovett back to say that delay was out of the question. It was about 5:40 p.m., and the State Department had run out of time and ideas.

But one last, suitably bizarre scene was still to be played out. At 5:45 p.m. I called Dean Rusk to ask him to inform Ambassador Warren Austin, the head of our UN delegation, that the White House would announce recognition of Israel right after 6 p.m.. I realized as I talked to Rusk that Lovett had not yet told him that the decision had been made. He reacted as if he had been stung: “This cuts directly across what our delegation had been trying to accomplish in the General Assembly – and we have a large majority for it,” he responded testily.

“Nevertheless, Dean, this is what the President wishes you to do.”

Reluctantly, Rusk called Austin off the floor of the General Assembly and told him what was about to happen. Stunned at the news, Austin decided not to return to the floor in order to signal that he had not known in advance of the President’s decision. Instead, he got into his car and went home. Thinking that Austin had simply gone to the washroom, his colleagues in the American delegation continued to round up votes for trusteeship.

Just after 6 p.m., I walked hurriedly past the White House press corps, who were lounging, as usual, on the worn sofas in the lobby of the West Wing, to the office of Charlie Ross, the President’s press secretary. Impa­tient to be told there would be no more news that day, the reporters wondered what story they were waiting for so late in the day. Handing Ross a piece of paper, I asked him to gather the press as quickly as possible. At 6:11 p.m., Ross read aloud to them: “Statement by the President. This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine….The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto author­ity of the new State of Israel.”

Back at the UN, the situation unraveled. Unaware of the White House announcement, the delegates continued to debate trusteeship sta­tus for Palestine. Suddenly a rumor swept the floor: the U.S. had recognized the Jewish state! As The New York Times reported the next morn­ing, “the first reaction was that someone was making a terrible joke, and some diplomats broke into skeptical laughs.” In the ensuing chaos, Ameri­can delegates had to restrain physically the Cuban delegate, who tried to march to the podium to withdraw his nation from the world assembly!

The Aftermath

It had been a near-run thing, but the deed had been done. The U.S. had been the first to recognize Israel, as the President had hoped and wanted. (The Soviet Union followed suit three days later.) The struggle with Marshall, Lovett, Forrestal, and the entire foreign policy establishment had been contained – but only barely.

Lovett never told me exactly what had passed between him and Mar­shall in those last two days. From his general comments I concluded that Lovett had finally sat down alone with Marshall on Friday and said, in effect, that, having argued their position, they had an obligation to accept the President’s policy or resign.

Although Marshall never forgave me, these events did nothing to impair my relations with Lovett. In fact, the curious combination of disagreement over substance and collaboration to solve the crisis had forged stronger and closer bonds between us. At the beginning of 1949, just before he left the government and returned to New York, we ex­changed personal letters. In his, he wrote, “One of the happiest recollec­tions of my tour of duty down here is the basis on which we worked on our common problems, and I am grateful to you beyond words for the understanding and help you always gave me.” I certainly felt the same way.

Lovett remained adamant for the rest of his life, however, that the President and I had been wrong – as did most of his colleagues. Nothing could ever convince him, Marshall, Forrestal, Acheson or Rusk otherwise. Like Marshall, Lovett made sure that historians would find a personal record of his views – something that he rarely did in his long and distin­guished career. In a vivid closing paragraph of his memorandum, written three days after these events but classified top secret for almost thirty years, Lovett revealed his true feelings:

In this memorandum I have omitted, for the sake of brevity, the long arguments back and forth through the afternoon [of May 14]. My protests against the precipitate action and warnings as to conse­quences with the Arab world appear to have been outweighed by considerations unknown to me, but I can only conclude that the President’s political advisors, having failed last Wednesday afternoon to make the President a father of the new state, have determined at least to make him the midwife.

When I read this memorandum, I knew exactly whom Lovett meant when he referred to “the President’s political advisors.” In the same memorandum, he quoted me as saying, “The timing of this action is of the greatest possible importance to the President from a domestic point of view.” It is regrettable that Lovett must have misunderstood some comment I had made. At no time did I suggest, or intend to suggest, that President Truman’s major concern was domestic politics. During the luncheon we did discuss the election that would take place later that year, and three days later, when he dictated his record, it is possible that Lovett merged the two subjects. But his view that my desire to recognize Israel was motivated by political considerations was incorrect. Although domestic considerations are in fact a legitimate part of any important foreign policy decision, I never rested the case for recognition upon politics.

It is now more than forty years since those “timeless moments” in May. I can still see General Marshall exploding in anger; Bob Lovett fixing a drink while testing our determination; Loy Henderson looking for every possible way to stop the President; Eliahu Epstein joyfully asking how to request recognition for his new, still-unnamed nation; and Dean Rusk telling me that the President’s decision contradicted American policy.

But never once, in these forty-plus years, have I wavered in the convic­tion that what Harry Truman did was correct. Lovett had been right on one point – the U.S. was “midwife” to Israel’s creation. But he was wrong to ascribe this to the President’s “political advisors.” I believed in the advice we gave the President, but it was he who made the decision.

Under our system, political considerations are present in every important decision a President makes, but in this case it was in no way the central factor. The charge that domestic politics determined our policy on Palestine angered President Truman for the rest of his life. I shared his anger at the implication that the President and those Americans who supported the Zionists were somehow acting in opposition to our nation’s interests. In fact, though, the President’s policy rested on the realities of the situation in the region, on America’s moral, ethical, and humanitarian values, on the costs and risks inherent in any other course, and – of course – on America’s national interests.

What would have happened if President Truman had not acted as he did? History does not allow us to test alternatives, but, in my view, American recognition and the support that followed was vital in helping Israel survive. Had the U.S. continued to support trusteeship status for Palestine, Israel’s condition at birth would have been infinitely more precari­ous, and in the war that followed, the Israelis would have been at an additional disadvantage. Emboldened by less American support for Israel, the Arabs might have been more successful in their war against the Jews. If that had happened, the U.S. might have faced a far more difficult decision within a year: either offer the Israelis massive American military support, or risk watching the Arabs drive the Israelis into the sea.

Because President Truman was often annoyed by the tone and fierce­ness of the pressure exerted on him by American Zionists, he left some people with the impression he was ambivalent about the events of May 1948. This was not true: he never wavered in his belief that he had taken the right action. He felt particularly warmly toward Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first President, and David Ben-Gurion, its first Prime Minister. In 1961, years after he left the White House, former President Truman met with Ben-Gurion in New York. Ben-Gurion’s memory of that meeting is revealing:

At our last meeting, after a very interesting talk, just before [the President] left me – it was in a New York hotel suite – I told him that as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our new state so quickly and his steadfast support since then had given him an immor­tal place in Jewish history. As I said that, tears suddenly sprang to his eyes. And his eyes were still wet when he bade me goodbye. I had rarely seen anyone so moved. I tried to hold him for a few minutes until he had become more composed, for I recalled that the hotel corridors were full of waiting journalists and photographers. He left. A little while later, I too had to go out, and a correspondent came to me to ask, “Why was President Truman in tears when he left you?”

I believe that I know. These were the tears of a man who had been subjected to calumny and vilification, who had persisted against powerful forces within his own Administration determined to defeat him. These were the tears of a man who had fought ably and honorably for a humani­tarian goal to which he was deeply committed. These were tears of thanksgiving that his God had seen fit to bless his labors with success.

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Clark M. Clifford served as Special Counsel to President Truman from 1946 to 1950 and as Secretary of Defense in 1968-69 under President Johnson.

Richard C. Holbrooke served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1977-81), U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1993-94), Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (1994-96), and U.S. Ambassador to the UN (1999-2001). He was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war in Bosnia.

About Amb. Richard Holbrooke

Richard C. Holbrooke served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1977-81), U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1993-94), Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (1994-96), and U.S. Ambassador to the UN (1999-2001). He was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war in Bosnia.