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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh.  New York: HarperCollins, 2009.  428 pp.  $27.99.


              The challenge that faced President Harry S. Truman on May 12, 1948 was not a simple one. He invited to his office his Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, and some senior State Department members, as well as his political advisor, Clark Clifford, to discuss whether the United States should recognize the nascent State of Israel when it was established in a few days time. Clifford gave a rousing speech about the reasons for the U.S. to grant recognition. In response, Marshall, according to his own record of the meeting published in the Foreign Relations of the United States 1948 (Vol. V, part 1, p. 975), “said bluntly that if the President were to follow Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.” The end of the story is known: on May 14, 1948, a few minutes after David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the state of Israel, the United States formally recognized the new state.

              In their fascinating book, the Radoshes deal with this affair. What is unique in their story is, first, that the meticulous historical account is told with considerable literary talent, and second, that they take a very clear historiographical stand in regard to the motives of the people involved. In so doing they add to a growing historiographical body of work, while contributing their own perspective and comprehensive approach to this seminal event.

              Their historiographical contribution is multi-layered. First, they endorse the neo- traditional approach toward the sources of U.S. foreign policy. For years, the revisionist school of thought dominated the historiography of Truman’s foreign policy, and Arnold A. Offner’s Another Such Victory (2002) was a crowning moment in this process. Then came a change. Melvin Leffler, who contributed to some extent to the historiography of Truman’s realistic approach to foreign policy, was one of those who foretold the change in his For the Soul of Mankind (2007). Accordingly, the Radoshes believe that it was not political expediency that drove Truman’s pro-Zionist policy, but a genuine belief that the Jews deserved statehood because of the Bible, because it was promised to them by the League of Nations, which acknowledged their right to self-determination, and because of Jewish suffering in Europe during World War II.

              The authors’ second contribution is in how they tell the story of the Truman administration’s decision-making—as a complex process in which various elements were involved and woven together. A common thread in the work of historians of American foreign policy is their America-centric approach. They see the United States as the center, and the states whose fate is discussed in Washington as passive, on the receiving end. That trend was challenged by historians of the New Diplomatic History, who called for a more comprehensive— more international—approach to the study of U.S. foreign policy, and the Radoshes do this very well. Using multiple archival sources, not only American, but also British and Zionist/Israeli, and the documents of Jewish organizations that were involved explicitly or implicitly in the process, as well as U.S. diplomatic documents, they tell a story of a complicated event in which ideas and interests, along with domestic and foreign elements and powers, all played a part.

              Their story begins, as it should, with the heritage that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt left to Truman. Unlike past presidents, mainly Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt felt less attached or committed to the Zionist cause, and his encounters with Arab leaders, mainly King Ibn Saud, distanced him further from Zionist ambitions. Despite his administration’s general tendency to support the Zionists, FDR drifted gradually away. His deteriorating health might have had something to do with it, but to Ibn Saud he said that “he would never . . . help the Jews at the expense of the Arabs” (p. 28). The legacy he left to Truman was one of ambiguity: “At times he seemed sympathetic to the creation of a Jewish state; at others he seemed to suggest that it could not be built without using military forces, a commitment he did not want to make” (p. 35).

              Truman, publicly committed to his predecessor’s heritage, took his own path when he dealt with the Palestine problem. His biography was relevant: “Raised as a Baptist, he had read the Bible ‘at least a dozen times’ before he was fifteen. And in the Bible he read of the Jewish people’s longing to return to their ancient homeland and God’s desire for them to do so” (p. 47). Indeed, throughout his career, up till his arrival to the White House, Truman demonstrated his support of the Zionist case—support that did not, however, prevent him from making antisemitic remarks here and there.

              The Radoshes explain perceptively the power and weight of the various elements competing for Truman’s attention when he had to make decisions regarding Palestine. Domestic politics, the state department, the British government, the Zionists, the displaced people (DPs)— the Jews wandering in a Europe that had betrayed them—all culminating in a mixture of pro and con arguments that forced Truman to struggle while trying to make what he thought was the right decision. The book reveals how difficult and uncertain was his journey to support the Zionist case, but at the same time how, to great extent, it was the outcome of his deep belief. The story that opens this essay is a conspicuous example: Secretary of State Marshall, a war hero and one of the most respected men in the U.S., threatened the president that he would stand against him in his attempt to be re-elected. Truman, fully understanding what was at stake, told Marshall that “I’m inclined to side with you in this matter,” but shortly afterwards told his advisor: “Well, let’s don’t proceed on the assumption, Clark, that you’ve lost it. Let the dust settle. I still want to do it” (pp. 333–34). And in this struggle of wills, it was Marshall who blinked first. The secretary wouldn’t go public against the president, and Truman recognized the state of Israel eleven minutes after its official establishment.

              In the spirit of the book, this story illustrates the differences and arguments, the decisions and compromises, that Truman had to make along the road of helping the Jews to get their state. Interests and power struggles were important part of the process, but Truman’s own beliefs and world-view were just as significant. The Radoshes transmit that complex story in depth and compelling style.

David Tal

University of Calgary