Zionist in the White House

Although Harry Truman left office widely disliked and dismissed more than half a century ago, the effort to resurrect his reputation is now a thriving industry, with politicians and pundits of all stripes trying to tie themselves to the tough, blunt old cold warrior. Contributing to this effort, the husband-and-wife team Allis and Ronald Radosh have written “A Safe Haven,” the story of Truman’s integral role in the birth of Israel.

While some of Truman’s foreign policy accomplishments — the creation of the Marshall Plan, the United Nations and NATO, and his defiance of the Soviets — have gotten the credit they deserve, the Radoshes say, his involvement in the creation of Israel remains overlooked. That may not be quite right. Most modern histories already acknowledge Truman’s early support of the Jewish state; it’s hard to overlook the fact that he recognized newborn Israel just 10 minutes after its delivery. That said, what these histories don’t recognize — and here’s where the Radoshes make their contribution — is just how hard Truman had to work to get there, battling enemies, allies and many in his own administration to make certain that Israel made it to independence with American backing.

It was, as the Radoshes make clear, a long, tough slog. Truman, who fell into the presidency unprepared after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, inherited a mess in the Middle East. The suave and urbane Roosevelt (one of the Radoshes’ villains) had pursued a policy of “obfuscation” on Palestine, assuring both Jews and Arabs that he was sensitive to their concerns. This meant that on taking office, Truman had to deal with a tangle of contradictory commitments. He also had to face down two implacable opponents of Jewish statehood: Great Britain, the colonial power in Palestine, and his own State Department, which bitterly opposed granting the Jews a homeland.

Yet Truman — a biblical literalist and a Christian Zionist — had long been a fierce believer in Jewish statehood for reasons both religious and moral. The Old Testament said that Jews belonged in Israel. And Truman was appalled by the Holocaust (which gave him nightmares), as well as by the scandalously poor treatment of postwar Jewish refugees in European displaced-persons camps. And so this “simple man” waged a long and often bitter diplomatic campaign to help ensure that the Jews got a country of their own.

Truman’s remarkable perseverance is recounted by the Radoshes in readable prose, with good anecdotal color, a general sense of fair-mindedness (except perhaps toward the Arabs) and impressive detail. How much of this will be interesting to the general reader is another question. At times the detail slips from impressive to oppressive. And the authors don’t help matters by failing to adequately signpost their narrative, stopping their recounting of events to explain why various moments were particularly important.

Nor do they do quite enough to substantiate their claims that without Truman’s help, Israel might never have come into being or have survived its first few years. After all, the real work of midwifing the nation wasn’t done in Washington conference rooms but on the rocky soil of Palestine itself, where a ragtag bunch of European immigrants fought to establish a new country. Nor do the Radoshes sufficiently account for the fact that early American support for Israel was actually quite limited — Israel initially got its arms, for example, from the Soviet bloc.

And then there’s Truman himself, who proves a slightly awkward hero. The problem is his philo-Semitism, which was of the creepy sort that relies heavily on Jewish stereotypes and could easily curdle into its opposite when the president was annoyed by the Zionists’ endless badgering, leading to anti-­Semitic tirades.

Still, the creation of Israel remains a remarkable, odds-defying story that bears retelling from different angles. And at a time when Washington and Jerusalem find themselves at odds and some are questioning the future of the alliance, it’s worth recalling how the relationship began, and the role of the straight-talking haberdasher from Missouri who worked so hard to make it happen.

Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel
By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
Illustrated. 428 pp. Harper/­HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99