Recognition of Israel: Rediscovering History

By Dan Lieberman

The 60th anniversary of the state of Israel prompted reviews of the post World War II declarations that resulted in the formation of a nation that had no name until David Ben Gurion proclaimed on May 14, 1948, the birth of the new state of Israel.

Books, articles, documents, memoirs and letters from past generations have detailed how a miniscule group of insiders prevailed over recommendations from the experienced and famous U.S. State Department of "wise men." An embattled clique, surrounded by powerful detractors, struggled against all odds and succeeded in its endeavors. It is the story of the Zionist mission. It is the story of Israel.

Exploring the Past

The history is available, but the impact, legacy and relevance of the 1945-1948 events to today’s occurrences have not been sufficiently explored. Under the surfaced stories are the hidden messages and obscure drives that shaped the past and extend into the future. A more complete analysis of the legacy from Truman’s rapid recognition of the state of Israel explains the past and clarifies the present.

We have the initiation of a trend whereby the supporters of those who derailed State Department Near East policy were able to morph it into Middle East policy and subsequently shape global policies. We have turmoil from previous events provoking a continuous turmoil in the Middle East. We have the George W. Bush administration functioning much differently than the Harry S. Truman administration, and, despite the contrary operations, we have both administrations framing Middle East polices that favor a Zionist cause.

The Truman State Department consisted of the most leading luminaries of any U.S. State Department. George C. Marshall, United States military chief of staff during World War II, first military leader to become Secretary of State and later a Nobel Prize recipient, had Loy Henderson, Robert A. Lovett, Dean Rusk, Warren Austin and other known figures in his department. They capably analyzed situations, separated U.S. interests from personal interests and formulated erudite presentations to enable foreign policy decisions. Although many of them were not entirely supportive of the UN partition plan, the State Department followed Truman’s directives until sensing the partition plan could be counterproductive and cause more violence than it intended to resolve. The record indicates the State Department used obscure language and a covert approach to interpret Truman’s words and then attempted to modify Truman policy that favored partition to seeking UN guidance for a temporary trusteeship.

President Truman postured himself as being motivated by a single conviction; the displaced Jews who had survived the World War II Holocaust needed and deserved an immediate home. Nevertheless, the president vacillated in his arguments and contradicted his statements. Although he railed vehemently against the steady stream of advocates for a Jewish state, he retained several presidential advisors who pursed one purpose; promoting a new Jewish state. A suspicion remains that his motives had a political content; the Democratic Party craved the financial and voting support of Zionist organizations and their allies.

Clark Clifford, Truman’s chief consul and a promoter for a Jewish state, quickly became one of the president’s closest assistants. Although he was not Truman’s principal assistant, a post held by John Roy Steelman, Clifford behaved as if he were titular chief of staff by acting unilaterally and somewhat dubious in actions that proved decisive. The evidence points to Clifford favoring election expediencies in developing policies that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

But, that’s the end of the story. The shortened story begins at the end of World War II and with the refugees in the displaced persons camps.

Accepted numbers have about 8 million displaced persons (DP) wandering Europe at the end of World War II. This number quickly diminished to 1.2 million, of which 100,000 were Jews. In succeeding years Polish Jews who returned from their displacement in the Soviet Union and other Jews who left communist controlled areas, swelled the Jewish DP population to 250,000. By 1948, the displaced persons remaining in western European camps were estimated at 800,000, of whom 140,000 were Jews. About 400,000 of the DP were Catholics from Poland, Ukraine and other Eastern Europe nations, who had worked in German labor camps and factories and did not consider a return to their original homes.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reports that eventually 170,000 of the 250,000 Jewish DP migrated to the then British Mandate, 65,000 to the U.S. and the remainder to other nations. Of the 170,000 Jews who migrated to the Mandate, many were not concentration camp survivors, others went there by default, and some left Israel in the succeeding years. Comparing the number of actual survivors of the Holocaust who eventually made Israel their home to the more than one million Jewish inhabitants of Israel in 1950 indicates that care for the survivors was not a major factor in the creation of the state that became known as Israel.

Until 1948, the plight of the displaced persons could not be easily resolved. The United States was already involved in returning millions of its armed forces to their homes, in the repatriation of captured enemy soldiers, and in preventing mass starvation in Europe. A possibility of a post-war depression and mass unemployment guided America’s political thinkers. In addition, the U.S. had no laws that permitted the immediate admittance of the displaced persons, nor could it show favoritism. Unable to legally bring them to America, Truman became most concerned with the Jewish displaced persons and petitioned Great Britain to allow them to immigrate to Palestine. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee cited the 1939 White Paper, which specified a definite number of applicants, as a limiting factor. He also suspected new immigrants would burden Britain’s over-stressed mandate and cause added troubles to the existing emergency.

Truman could not prevail over Attlee, What to do? After presentations by an Anglo-American inquiry commission and a joint cabinet committee (Morrison-Grady) failed to achieve welcoming peace proposals, on April 26, 1947, a tired and irked British government requested the UN General Assembly to consider the Palestine problem. On May 15, the UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). The committee outlined a partition plan with the city of Jerusalem under a UN trusteeship. Truman instructed his state department to support the partition plan. UN Ambassador Warren Austin and the state department’s Near East Division, led by Loy Henderson, doubted that partition could resolve the situation. Austin favored a single state and the Near East Division favored not disturbing the Arabs.

During the months of UNSCOP’s efforts, Truman complained of pressure by pro-Zionist groups. In Volume II of his Memoirs, p.158, the former president relates:

"The facts were that not only were there pressure movements around the United Nations unlike anything that had been there before but that the White house too, was subjected to a constant barrage. I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders-actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats –disturbed and annoyed. Some were even suggesting that we pressure sovereign nations into favorable votes in the General Assembly."

This harsh rhetoric was mild compared to other Truman’s statements concerning the Zionists and its American leaders, especially Cleveland’s Rabbi Silver. In a memorandum to advisor David K. Niles, the president wrote:

"We could have settled this whole Palestine thing if U.S. politics had been kept out of it. Terror and Silver are the contributing cause of some, if not all of our troubles."

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly gave its approval to the UNSCOP Partition plan. Approval only meant agreement in principle. No effective means for transferring the principle into an operational result had been determined. The lack of enforcement provoked more conflict in Palestine. Each side strived to gain territory and advantage. The uncontrolled mayhem steered the U.S. State Department to adopt the concept of a temporary trusteeship for the area. Believing it had President Truman’s approval, the State Department instructed the U.S. delegation to the United States to petition for a special session of the General Assembly and reconsider the Palestinian issue. In his presentation, UN Ambassador Warren Austin proposed the establishment of a temporary trusteeship for Palestine.

Truman denied giving a green light for the presentation and wrote in his diary, which has been quoted in "The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, P.127: "This morning I find that the State dept. has reversed my Palestine policy. The first I knew about it is what I see in the papers. Isn’t that hell!" His infuriation arose from embarrassment of having assured Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, whom he highly regarded, that the U.S. would not depart from the Partition Plan and would not entertain a temporary trusteeship. Although correspondence wording is vague and subject to interpretation, from which the State Department took advantage, evidence of Truman’s awareness and permission for the speech is given by White House staff member George McKee Elsey. In his memoir, An Unplanned Life, p.161, Elsey writes:

"In fact, as I quickly learned in delving into the record and querying White House and State Staff, Truman had personally read and approved some days earlier the Austin speech, which outlined a plan for U.N. trusteeship of Palestine when the British Mandate ended in May in lieu of partitioning the area into separate Jewish and Arab territories."

As the May 15 date for the British exit neared, and the Zionists prepared to declare their state and present their credentials for recognition, contradictions in U.S. Near East policy led to a policy that became completely confused.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly, March 25, 1948, President Truman clarified his nation’s temporary endorsement of a UN Trusteeship for Palestine that did not prejudice partition. The pleased State Department instructed Ambassador Austin to proceed with deliberations of the Trusteeship proposal. As if not cognizant of the UN trusteeship discussion, Truman prepared to recognize the soon to be formed state. On May 12, two days before an expected announcement by the Jewish Agency in Palestine, an angered George C. Marshall and his assistant Robert Lovett confronted Truman and demanded reasons for the haste in wanting to grant recognition. The president selected his counsel Clark Clifford, who was not involved in foreign policy, to clarify the reasons for the intended recognition.

Clifford’s principal reasons for instant recognition: The UN Security Council could not obtain a truce in hostilities; partition would happen in fact; the U.S. would eventually have to recognize a new state, and it was preferable : to get the jump on the Soviet Union."

Clifford’s arguments are easily rebutted.

(1) More significant than whether or not the Security Council could obtain a truce was that the UN council was engaged in discussions hoping to achieve a truce. Recognition would close the discussions and prevent the truce.

(2) If the Trusteeship was approved and implemented, an entity unilaterally invoking a partition scheme would violate the UN dictates.

(3) Clifford’s simple explanation that the U.S. must recognize the new state quickly because the U.S. must recognize the new state was a statement and not a clarification.

(4) As for the Soviet Union, Clifford echoed the alarm of Phillip C. Jessup, a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN, who, according to Robert J. Donovan in his book Conflict and Crisis, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, p.380, cabled UN affairs officer Dean Rusk that the Soviet Union wanted recognition to use Article 51 of the UN charter to protect the new state and thus gain a foothold in the Middle East. This view is obviously specious because Article 51 only pertains to defense of member states and the new nation did not become a UN member until one year later. Besides, wasn’t it advantageous for the U.S. to have the Soviet Union recognize the new state before it did? The State Department could then claim it had no choice and would lose less favor with the Arab states.

Marshall questioned why a domestic affairs advisor was determining foreign policy. Truman replied that he had invited Clifford to make a presentation. Obviously, Truman did not want history to record his words and asked his campaign manager to speak for him. Sensing that politics and the forthcoming presidential election had become overriding factors in a significant foreign policy decision, the dedicated George C. Marshall uttered the most insulting words probably ever directed by a cabinet official to a president:: "If you follow Clifford’s advice, and if I were to vote in the next election, I would vote against you." Clark Clifford’s Memoir, Council to the President, P.13, mentions that the Secretary also insisted that these personal remarks be included in the official state department record of the meeting. Whew!

Fearing that the transfer of advice on Near East affairs from the state and defense departments to dubious advisors and non-professional lobbyists would continue, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Lovett determined to change Truman’s intentions. For some unknown reason, rather than calling the president directly, he channeled his inquiries through Counselor Clark Clifford. The president’s counselor didn’t speak to the president about most of Lovett’s urgencies, but assumed a new role whereby he spoke for the president. In response to Lovett’s request to ask Truman to delay recognition, Clifford confesses in his memoir, P.22, “saying (to Lovett) 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 and the State Department has run out of time and ideas.”

A Bizarre Sequence

Within a few minutes, one of the most bizarre sequence of events that had ever occurred in U.S. diplomacy unfolded.

Clifford states he called Dean Rusk and asked the UN affairs officer to inform Warren Austin, chief of the U.S. delegation to the UN, that the president intended to recognize the new Near East state within fifteen minutes. His called bypassed protocol; usually the assistant secretary of state should be informed and that person has the obligation to inform other staff members of decisions. He then quotes a surprised Rusk as retaliating with the remark: "This cuts directly across what our delegation had been trying to accomplish in the General Assembly – and we have a large majority for it." Rusk supposedly called Warren Austin who went home without bothering to inform the U.S. delegation of the news.

Truman’s rapid signing (within 11 minutes) of the document that recognized the ‘new state of Israel’ (after learning the new state would be called Israel, the words ‘Jewish state’ were crossed out and the words ‘state of Israel’ were inserted) angered members at a United Nations meeting on the Trusteeship. The entire U.S. delegation threatened to resign because they had not been properly informed of the announcement and felt ridiculed. Cuban Ambassador Belt, who had three hours earlier engineered the steering of the Trusteeship proposal through a UN committee, also threatened to leave the United Nations, due to what he perceived as U.S. duplicity.

May 14 was an enviable day for the new state of Israel, but an unpleasant day for the 160 year old American republic. The diplomatic solution to the Near East crisis had been settled, but the conflict had not been resolved.

What Does History Show?

U.S. State department officials erred in their concerns that, in the immediate years, the Jews in Palestine awaited an undesirable fate. History supports their conviction that the Partition Plan would not resolve the hostilities. Their concern for a rapid recognition of a new state without knowledge of the constitution or composition of the new state was diplomatically correct and prescient. A quick recognition of a state for the Jewish population prevented the UN from finishing a discussion of providing mechanisms to prevent more bloodshed and providing proper protection for the state’s large Palestinian population. Right or wrong, George Marshall’s State Department acted honestly, with knowledge, and in what they believed were the interests of the United States

President Harry S. Truman correctly perceived the tenacity of the Zionists. He erred in his judgment that the Partition Plan would resolve the conflict. The unusual rapid response for recognition of the new state, without awareness of its composition, signified a pardon of the excesses committed by Irgun and Haganah against civilian populations, and certified the exclusion of any Palestinian voice in the new government. Truman never asked what would happen to the 400,000 Palestinians, who had no representation in the new state. He didn’t want to know that instant recognition acted as a stimulus for instant displacement of Palestinians. He did not consider that the placing of 100,000 displaced Jews to Palestine would also the mean the placing of weapons in the hands of many of these persons and the eventual displacement of 900,000 Palestinians. Whereas, the European DP camps could provide temporary shelter for those who would undoubtedly within a few years find permanent homes and citizenship, several million Palestinian displaced persons still languish with stateless identification in refugee camps.

Truman could claim that his support for partition won him the election and prevented Governor Dewey, who also supported partition, gain the White House. Nevertheless, the post-election provided him with an opportunity to show he was not captive to the Zionist enterprise. What did he do? He only half-heartedly pressured Israel in 1949 to resettle displaced Palestinians. This token maneuver is verified by George McGhee, the U.S. coordinator on Palestine Refugee Matters. Joshua Landis, Early U.S. Policy toward Palestinian Refugees: the Syria Option in an article published in: The Palestinian Refugees: Old Problems – New Solutions, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, 2001, pp. 77-87, states:

"…McGee threatened the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. that if Israel did not accept 200,000 refugees, the US would withhold $49 million worth of Export-Import Bank loans to Israel. The Israeli Ambassador was unimpressed with McGhee’s threat and responded that McGhee ‘wouldn’t get by with this move.’ The Israeli Ambassador boasted that ‘he would stop it….’"

True to his word, the Ambassador was able to nip McGhee’s threat in the bud. That same afternoon, the White house phoned McGhee to say that the President would have nothing to do with withholding loans to Israel. Never again would a State Department official under President Truman attempt to intimidate Israel on the issue of refugees.

Landis claims the U.S. President then tried to resolve the Palestinian DP problem by offering the Syrian government $400,000,000 dollars in exchange for settling up to 500,000 Palestinians in the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A president of a nation was willing to burden his own nation in order to relieve Israel of its obligation to the Palestinian refugees. In retrospect, he behaved circumspect and his compassion for victims depended on their value to the Democratic Party.

It was not perceived that the intensive lobbying that guided Truman’s 1948 decisions and subdued the power and recommendations of government agencies would be a precursor to control of future U.S. government Middle East policies. A humanitarian suggestion brightened the parade of lobbyists for partition and this suggestion managed to convince many of the validity of their cause. However, despite a perspective darkened by Israel’s frightful oppression of the Palestinians, similar forces continue to maintain a U.S. foreign policy that favors their direction. Truman’s electoral victory, that defied all predictions, remains carved in the psyches of prospective candidates for national office. It continues to make them sense that winning elections depends upon support from those who also support Israel.

Another Unforeseen Consequence

The boldness of the few to use America’s capitol to determine moments of history has encouraged the use America’s capital to extend interests. One example is the recent celebration of 60 years of the Israel nation on the Washington Mall.

Almost all African nations, several European and Asian nations, and some of immense size such as India, were created or recreated in the aftermath of World War II. Their celebrations are mute compared to the continuous celebrations of Israel. Nations and its peoples have a right to celebrate, but why on America’s most hallowed ground, where on July 4, the nation’s Mall hosts the celebration of the American Republic? Is it considerate to incorporate a vast celebration of a foreign nation on the Washington Mall and thus diminish the uniqueness of the Washington Mall as America’s expression of its heritage and destiny? Is it sensible to allow a psychological link of America’s cultural, social and political identities to that of a foreign nation and entwine the destinies? But, this is how Israel came to be, continues today and likely will continue into the future.

The legacy of the 1945-1948 events is well described. Control of discussion pushed a previous U.S. administration to provide a legal frame for creation of the state of Israel. Control of discussions continue and impel present administrations to provide the support for that frame. Without that support, Israel’s authentic moral, political, economic and military character would be exposed and its structure weakened. The structure could even fall down.

-Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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