(April 19, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) President Harry S. Truman will forever be remembered for his fateful decision to recognize the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. That decision came at the most critical of times, when the newly established country was fighting off genocidal attacks from its enemies in its War of Independence.
Although America’s support for Israel is often taken for granted today, Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was made in the teeth of tremendous opposition from some of his closest advisors, as well as prominent sectors of the U.S. government. The opposition of his Secretary of State, George Marshall, was so intense that he told Truman that he would not vote for him that November if he recognized Israel.
Despite his profound admiration for Marshall, Truman did not waver. As he later recalled: “George Marshall . . . was afraid the Arabs wouldn’t like [our recognizing Israel]. This was one of the few errors of judgement made by that great and wonderful man, but I felt that Israel deserved to be recognized and didn’t give a damn whether the Arabs liked it or not.”
Raised Protestant in Missouri, Truman had Jewish friends and even a Jewish business partner in the haberdashery industry. Later, as a senator, Truman spoke on behalf of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. This belief was founded in his affection for the Jewish people and in his keen knowledge of the Bible, which inspired a rational sympathy for the refounding of a Jewish homeland.
As the British Mandate neared its end in May 1948, Truman’s cabinet was divided on the issue of whether to recognize the new nation. Nearly all of Truman’s foreign policy “wise men” were against the idea, including Defense Secretary James Forrestal, George Kennan and Dean Rusk. They believed that it would present an issue with respect to American access to Arab oil.
But Truman decided to recognize the Jewish state, making his announcement just 11 minutes following Israel’s declaration. Reflecting on his support in its fledgling moments, Truman famously compared himself to Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler who in ancient times allowed the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple.
It was not “electoral considerations”—as is sometimes alleged—that motivated Truman to recognize the new state. It was his religiously inspired and politically informed sense that the Jewish state would be a great boon to America and the world.
To the State of Israel and its international friends, Truman will indeed forever be remembered as a second Cyrus.