A Favor from Truman: The True Tale of How Israel Received US Recognition

Ernest Bevin was the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs after World War Two, and as such he was in charge of overseeing British Palestine. 

“Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe: Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me.  Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellow men—help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings—even as Thou understandest mine!”  —President Harry S. Truman, on the content of his personal prayer, from Truman’s presidential diary, dated August 15, 1950


“I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt?  What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel?  Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll?  It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts.  It is right and wrong and leadership—men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world.”  —President Harry S. Truman, on the subject of doing what is right, rather than doing what is popular, from Truman’s post-presidential diary, circa 1954


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Ernest Bevin

Ernest Bevin was the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs after World War Two, and as such he was in charge of overseeing British Palestine.  President Harry S. Truman was putting pressure on Bevin with respect to the matter of allowing 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust into Palestine.  The anti-Zionist Bevin resisted the pressure coming from the White House, accusing Truman derisively of just not wanting more Jews to come to America.  “He doesn’t want too many of them in New York,” quipped Bevin, in an anti-Semitic comment that earned him much ire among Jews.  Clement Attlee had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July of 1945, and, as Attlee entered the picture, the pro-Zionist, philo-Semitic Churchill administration exited.

It is almost unbelievable that a British foreign secretary, during a time of great dependence on America’s industrial capacity and foreign aid, could be so stubborn as to refuse 100,000 entrance visas to displaced persons many of whom had been so incredibly abused in the concentration camps of the National Socialist Third Reich.  But Bevin’s zeal against Zionism and Jews was that strong, and it just could not be overcome.  However, in the face of mounting pressure from President Truman, Bevin ultimately decided it might be wiser not to continue directly opposing the United States; so, given the no-win situation in which he at length found himself, Bevin decided upon an artful dodge: “England is going to leave on May 15, 1948; we give the problem to the United Nations,” he declared.  Some historians have read Bevin’s intent as being the ultimate Arabization of Palestine, since, even if the UN were to allow its more judeophilic impulses to win out, and a place for the Jews in their historic homeland was re-established, the Arabs’ oversized population of armed Palestinian jihadists could easily overwhelm the Jews, especially if they invited the English back to help them.

The UN’s solution to the Jewish problem was a partition plan: there would be an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem possessed by neither but existing as an international city.  The Jewish state would be comprised of a patchwork of unconnected territories that would prove to be economically unviable and militarily indefensible.  For this reason, many Zionists opposed the partition plan.  It was David Ben-Gurion who, envisioning a real opportunity, decided to step forward and accept it.


David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion’s devotion to Zionism led him to become perhaps the seminal creative mind behind the founding of the modern Jewish State of Israel.  Ben-Gurion was the acting President of the World Zionist Organization from 1946 to 1956 and the de facto head of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time of its partition by the UN.  He would later become known as Israel’s Founding Father.  Ben-Gurion, in order to win US recognition, once a Jewish state was declared, depended on help from the efforts of many individuals, one of them being the indomitable Chaim Weizmann.


Chaim Weizmann

Weizmann was an important biochemist, who worked feverishly for the English cause during World War One.  It was he who developed the acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation process that produces acetone through bacterial fermentation.  His acetone production method was key to the success of British war efforts.  It was also Weizmann who suggested to David Lloyd George the strategy used in a military campaign against the Ottomans that resulted in Allenby’s victorious march to Jerusalem.  Because of his contributions to Britain’s war effort, the UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour asked how Dr. Weizmann might be repaid.  Weizmann stated that he wished neither title nor remuneration, saying, “There is only one thing I want: a national home for my people.”  Lord Balfour saw the selflessness of the request and was impressed by it, eventually issuing, as a result, what became known as the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed the British to the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in what was, at that time, Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

It was the Balfour Declaration that eventually resulted in the creation of Mandatory Palestine, which was administered by the British from September 29, 1923, until May 15, 1948.  The British Mandate for Palestine was created by the League of Nations upon the Ottoman concession of Palestine under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.  The end-game of the League of Nations Mandate System was to break up the Middle East, which had been controlled by the Ottomans since the sixteenth century, into administrative units, many of which would be overseen by the French and British until such time as they might eventually stand alone.  Upon Ernest Bevin’s turning over of the British Mandate in Palestine to the UN, the possibility of the reestablishment of Israel became a political reality.  And the brilliant Dr. Chaim Weizmann (indeed, he was the inventor of 110 patents) was available to help bring this potential happening to fruition.  Prior to the UN’s passage of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, on November 29, 1947, Weizmann had undertaken the task, in October of that year, to head a delegation of the Jewish Agency to make its case to the UN Special Committee on Palestine in favor of that plan.

Weizmann saw the importance of gaining an audience with President Harry S. Truman, prior to any formal declaration of a Jewish state.  With a promise from President Truman of eventual recognition of the new Jewish state that David Ben-Gurion was hoping to declare, in May of 1948, Weizmann believed that the chances of the new country’s survival would increase dramatically.  But Weizmann’s chance to see Truman had been compromised by several factors: the first was General George Marshall’s threat that he would resign as Secretary of State, if Truman needlessly riled the oil-producing Arab countries by recognizing a Jewish state in their midst; another was the aggressive Zionist onslaught of political campaigning directed at President Truman that made him feel disinclined to help the Zionists.  (It probably had not helped matters that, in a heated meeting with Abba Hillel Silver, the Jewish leader had banged his fist on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, prompting Truman to stubbornly order his appointments secretary not to schedule any more meetings with Zionists.)  With the end of the British Mandate approaching, Weizmann did not have much time to find a way to get Truman to give him an audience.  Enter Eddie Jacobson.


Eddie Jacobson

It was Frank Goldman, president of B’nai Brith, who recalled that Truman had a Jewish business partner and trusted friend back in his home state of Missouri.  So, he decided that a telephone call to Truman’s longtime friend was in order.  It was in the middle of the night when Eddie Jacobson’s phone rang.  Fate was calling Jacobson—in the person of Frank Goldman.

Eddie Jacobson had become friends with Truman during World War One, when Private Jacobson had clerked for Lieutenant Truman.  After the war, the two men went into business together in Kansas City, Missouri.  They were partners in a haberdashery.  Although the shop eventually failed, the two drinking buddies remained friends, which was uncommon for business partners of a failed enterprise.  However, friends they remained and friends they still were when Eddie Jacobson was prevailed upon by Frank Goldman to pay a special visit to his pal in the Oval Office.

It was due to the urgency of the moment for the Jews that Jacobson found himself wiring the White House: “I have asked very little from you in the way of favors during all our years of friendship, but I am begging you to see Dr. Weizmann as soon as possible.”  Overtired of Zionist badgering, a stubborn President Truman wired back to his friend Eddie that he believed the Palestine dilemma was “not solvable.”  Truman’s mind was, to all indications, closed on the matter.  And, if Truman’s mind could be reopened, there was only one person who could accomplish the task.  That person was Eddie Jacobson, and he knew it.  This led Jacobson to book an airplane flight, with the goal of seeing his old friend.  Upon his arrival, Jacobson arranged for a private presidential meeting on March 13th.

When Appointments Secretary Matthew Connelly let Eddie Jacobson into the Oval Office, he warned Jacobson not to mention the subject of Palestine.  But, after exchanging pleasantries about family and business matters, the Palestine affair came up.  By some accounts, it was Jacobson who brought the matter up directly, including a famous account given by Eddie Jacobson himself; on the other hand, it is possible that Truman helped a nervous Jacobson to broach the topic by bringing it up himself.  (After all, it cannot have been unexpected on Truman’s part that his friend might try again to bring up the subject.)   Thus, it is entirely possible that, in line with another popular narrative, Truman said to his friend, “Eddie, I know what you are here for, and the answer is no.”  It was never Jacobson’s wont to ask for favors, so soliciting on behalf of the Zionist cause made him feel uncomfortable, yet it was not a responsibility that Jacobson could shirk.  So, Eddie Jacobson looked deep into the eyes of the unblinking Harry Truman and found the nerve to do what he knew was the right thing.

Jacobson was surprised to find himself saying what he knew he must, softly and politely asking Truman to reconsider his position with regard to Palestine.  Truman exploded!  He roared that Jewish leaders had given him nothing but grief about the matter, saying he did not want to talk about “Palestine or the Jews or the Arabs or the British.”  At this point he just wanted to let the United Nations handle the matter.  Jacobson was shocked by the outburst and visibly began to cry.

It was at this point that Jacobson rested his eyes upon the statue of Andrew Jackson on the Resolute Desk.  It was a replica of the courthouse statue in Jackson County, Missouri, that Truman had worked fervently to raise the money for.  In what he knew would be his last chance, Eddie Jacobson breathed in and took one final shot at pitching a meeting with Dr. Chaim Weizmann.  And what he said went something like this: “Harry,” said Eddie, “all your life, you have had a hero.  You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. . . .  Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived.  I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.  He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands and thousands of miles just to see you.  And now you refuse to see him, just because you are insulted by some of our American Jewish leaders, even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with these insults.  This isn’t like you, Harry.  I thought you could take this stuff they’ve been handing out.”

Upon hearing Jacobson’s exhortations, Truman became very quiet; he looked at the statue of Old Hickory and swiveled his chair around to look out over the South Lawn of the White House.  An eternity went by for Eddie Jacobson before Truman spun back around.  “You win, you bald-headed son-of-a-b****!” said the president.  “I will see him.”  Jacobson sighed with relief and left the White House in a state of great excitement, eventually calming himself down by drinking two double-bourbons, something he had never done in his life, possibly due to the fact that he had never before felt so overexcited!


Chaim Weizmann Redux

Five days later, on Thursday, March 18, after sundown, Chaim Weizmann was sneaked into the Oval Office to see the president.  In the meeting with Weizmann, Truman pledged to “press forward with partition.”  He kept Weizmann’s visit to himself, choosing not to inform Secretary of State Marshall.

On the following day, UN Ambassador Warren Austin announced to the Security Council—contrary to Truman’s promise of solidarity with Weizmann—that the US position vis-à-vis partition was that the UN, as trustee, should rule Palestine, since a peaceful partition seemed impossible.  Hearing this news, Eddie Jacobson could not believe it.  He felt so betrayed that he took ill for two days.  When Truman found out that he had been reversed by George Marshall at the State Department, he was, understandably, quite angry, and he stated as much in his diary: “The first I know about it is what I see in the papers!  Isn’t that hell?  I’m now in the position of a liar and a double-crosser.  I’ve never felt so in my life.”  The president called in White House Counsel Clark Clifford, asking him, “How could this have happened?  I assured Chaim Weizmann I would stick to it.  He must think I am a s***-ass.  My God, how can I ever face Weizmann again?”

Back in Kansas City, Eddie Jacobson’s phone rang.  It was Chaim Weizmann, reassuring Jacobson that Truman had not forsaken the Zionist cause.  Privately, Truman had sent assurances to Weizmann that Ambassador Austin’s speech at the UN did not occur with presidential approval and that the commitment from the Oval Office to stand with partition would not be broken.  Weizmann told Eddie he was now “the most important single man in the world.  You have a job to do, so keep the White House doors open.”


Eddie Jacobson Again

On April 11, 1948, Jacobson escaped the watchful eyes of the Washington press corps by entering the White House through the East Gate, something he had never done before.  Bearing a message from Weizmann, Jacobson told Truman that a Jewish state was going to be declared upon the exit from Palestine of the British forces there.  He told Truman that it was “vital” that the US recognize the nascent state as soon as the declaration was made.  Truman agreed; he also asked Jacobson not to mention their powwow to anyone.


Harry Truman

President Truman—incensed that George Marshall’s State Department had refused to toe the line on foreign policy with regard to Palestine—had become more convinced than ever that the “striped-pants boys” over at State were trying to “put it over on me about Palestine.”  He wrote to his brother that he would, however, “do what I think is right and let them all go to hell.”

In the days leading up to the declaration of the Jewish state, Truman held meetings in the Oval Office, allowing pro and con arguments to be posed with respect to the upcoming partition, per the UN vote back on November 29th.  To have taken any other approach would have seemed suspicious.  And so it was that on May 12, 1948, President Truman heard from Secretary of State George Marshall, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett, Counsel to the President Clark Clifford, and others.  Clifford argued in favor of recognizing the new Jewish state, per the UN resolution, while Marshall opposed the idea, famously stating that he would vote against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, if he chose to recognize the Jewish state.  Chaim Weizmann wrote President Truman a letter, on May 13th, urging the president to recognize the Jewish state upon its birth.

On May 14, 1948, it was late morning in Washington (late afternoon in Palestine) when David Ben-Gurion read a “Declaration of Independence” proclaiming the existence of a Jewish state called Israel that would come into existence at 12:00 midnight, on May 15, 1948 (6:00 PM, on May 14th, Washington time).  When the time came, and the British Mandate expired, the State of Israel was reborn in the traditional homeland of the Jewish people.  Eleven minutes later, the United States recognized Israel, with the White House issuing the following official statement: “This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof.  The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”

And the rest is history.  But how might that history have been different, if there had been no Missouri haberdasher by the name of Eddie Jacobson to intervene?


Resources for Further Study

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum: https://trumanlibrary.org/israel/palestin.htm

Eddie Jacobson in the White House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7tAnF93uDo

Ellen Elinor, Daughter of Eddie Jacobson, Narrates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7f5p42rorg

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