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U.S. Middle East Policy

Truman Overrode Strong State Department Warning Against Partitioning of Palestine in 1947

Donald Neff has been a journalist for forty years. He spent 16 years in service for Time Magazine and is a regular contributor to Middle East International and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He has written five excellent books on the Middle East.

By Donald Neff
Washington Report September ⁄ October 1994
A slightly modified version was published in Fifty Years of Israel

On Sept. 22, 1947, Loy Henderson strongly warned Secretary of State George C. Marshall that partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states was not workable and would lead to untold troubles in the future. Henderson was director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs and his memorandum, coming less than a month after a United Nations special committee had recommended partition, stands as one of the most perceptive analyses of the perils that partition would bring.

Henderson informed Marshall that his views were shared by “nearly every member of the Foreign Service or of the department who has worked to any appreciable extent on Near Eastern problems.” Among the points Henderson made:1

“The UNSCOP [U.N. Special Committee on Palestine] Majority Plan is not only unworkable; if adopted, it would guarantee that the Palestine problem would be permanent and still more complicated in the future.
“The proposals contained in the UNSCOP plan are not only not based on any principles of an international character, the maintenance of which would be in the interests of the United States, but they are in definite contravention to various principles laid down in the [U.N.] Charter as well as to principles on which American concepts of Government are based.
“These proposals, for instance, ignore such principles as self-determination and majority rule. They recognize the principle of a theocratic racial state and even go so far in several instances as to discriminate on grounds of religion and race against persons outside of Palestine. We have hitherto always held that in our foreign relations American citizens, regardless of race or religion, are entitled to uniform treatment. The stress on whether persons are Jews or non-Jews is certain to strengthen feelings among both Jews and Gentiles in the United States and elsewhere that Jewish citizens are not the same as other citizens.
“We are under no obligations to the Jews to set up a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration and the Mandate provided not for a Jewish state, but for a Jewish national home.2 Neither the United States nor the British Government has ever interpreted the term ‘Jewish national home’ to be a Jewish national state.”

Although the State Department reflected Henderson’s anti-partition views, Harry Truman’s White House was supporting partition because of strong political pressures. Truman was so unpopular at the time that there was speculation he might not be able to win the Democratic Party’s nomination, much less the presidential race.3 As the vote in the General Assembly on partition approached, Henderson made another effort to change Truman’s mind. On Nov. 24, he wrote that “I feel it again to be my duty to point out that it seems to me and all the members of my Office acquainted with the Middle East that the policy which we are following in New York at the present time is contrary to the interests of the United States and will eventually involve us in international difficulties of so grave a character that the reaction throughout the world, as well as in this country, will be very strong.”

“These proposals ignore such principles as self-determination and majority rule.”

He continued: “I wonder if the President realizes that the plan which we are supporting for Palestine leaves no force other than local law enforcement organizations for preserving order in Palestine. It is quite clear that there will be wide-scale violence in that country, on both the Jewish and Arab sides, with which the local authorities will not be able to cope....It seems to me we ought to think twice before we support any plan which would result in American troops going to Palestine.”4

Under Secretary of State Robert A. Lovett was so impressed with the memo that he personally read it to President Truman. But Truman, worried about his election campaign in the coming year and urged by advisers such as Clark Clifford to endorse partition as a way to gain Jewish support, ignored Henderson’s warnings.5 Five days later the U.S. voted for partition in the historic session of the General Assembly.

As the months passed and Palestine descended into the chaos and violence predicted by Henderson and the State Depart-ment, Truman could no longer escape the fact that partition had led to massive bloodshed. George Kennan, the director of policy planning at the State Department, warned on Feb. 24, 1948 that violence in Palestine could only be stopped by the introduction of foreign troops. He urged that the U.S. not be drawn into the quagmire:

Major Responsibilities

“The pressures to which this Government is now subjected are ones which impel us toward a position where we would shoulder major responsibility for the maintenance, and even the expansion, of a Jewish state in Palestine....If we do not effect a fairly radical reversal of the trend of our policy to date, we will end up either in the position of being ourselves militarily responsible for the protection of the Jewish population in Palestine against the declared hostility of the Arab world, or of sharing that responsibility with the Russians and thus assisting at their installation as one of the military powers of the area.”6 Similar views were expressed by the CIA and the Defense Department.

Despite such grave concerns, Clifford continued to urge Truman to maintain support of partition. In a memo on March 6, Clifford argued that if the U.S. deserted it now it would make “...the United States appear in the ridiculous role of trembling before threats of a few nomadic desert tribes....the Arabs need us more than we need them. They must have oil royaltiesor go bankrupt.”7 Implicit was the underlying message that Jews were more important to Truman’s election than Arabs. As Truman himself once said: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious forthe success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” 8

By now, Arabs and Jews were slaughtering each other on a daily basis. Jewish forces were gathering strength and were on the verge of major attacks outside the limits defined by the U.N. for the Jewish state. Tens of thousands of Palestinians had already been turned into refugees, presaging the tragedy that soon would result in more than half of the total Palestinian community losing their homes.

The horrors unfolding in Palestine could not be ignored. On March 19, Truman renounced partition. The U.S. announced in the U.N. Security Council that America believed partition was unworkable and that a U.N. trusteeship should be established to replace the British when they ended their withdrawal from Palestine on May 14.9

Reaction in the press and the Jewish community was deafening. Headlines screamed: “Ineptitude,” “Weakness,” “Vacillating,” “Loss of American Prestige.”10 From Jerusalem, the consul general reported: “Jewish reaction...one of consternation, disillusion, despair and determina-tion. Most feel United States has betrayed Jews in interests Middle Eastern oil and for fear Russian designs.” 11 Truman tried to shift the blame to the State Department, claiming it had acted without his approval. However, it is clear that he had personally given approval for the change in strategy.12

In the end, Truman regained Jewish support two months later when he overrode stiff opposition by the State Department and made the U.S. the first nation to recognize Israel as an independent nation on May 14. Truman’s decision had so disgusted Secretary of State Marshall that he told Truman to his face that he believed the president was acting on Clifford’s political calculations to win Jewish support, adding: “I said bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.”13 On Nov. 2, Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey to win election to a full term as president.

Recommended Reading:

  • Donovan, Robert J., Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948, New York, W.W. Norton, 1977.
  • Grose, Peter, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
  • Khouri, Fred J., The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, third edition, 1985.
  • Laqueur, Walter and Barry Rubin (eds.), The Israel-Arab Reader (revised and updated), New York, Penguin Books, 1987.
  • Mallison, Thomas and Sally V., The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order, London, Longman Group Ltd., 1986.
  • Rearden, Steven L., History of the Office of the Secretary of State: The Formative Years—1947-1950, Washington, DC, Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1984.
  • U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States 1947 (vol. 5), The Near East and Africa, Washington, DC, U.S. Printing Office, 1971.
  • U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States 1948 (vol. 5), The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, Washington, DC, U.S. Printing Office, 1975.
  • Wilson, Evan M., Decision on Palestine: How the U.S. Came to Recognize Israel, Stanford, CA, Hoover Institution Press, 1979.

Notes:

  1. Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter referred to as FRUS), “The Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs (Henderson) to the Secretary of State,” Sept. 22, 1947. Text is also in Wilson, Decision on Palestine, pp. 117-21.
  2. The Balfour Declaration was issued 11/2/17, saying Britain favored establishment of a “national home” for Jews in Palestine. Its text: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Text of the early and the final drafts of the declaration are in Mallison, The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order, pp. 427-9. Text of the Mandate is in Laqueur and Rubin, The Israel-Arab Reader, pp. 34-42; a partial text appears in Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma (3rd ed.), pp. 527-28.
  3. Rearden, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, p. 181.
  4. FRUS 1947, “Memorandum by the Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs (Henderson) to the Under Secretary of State (Lovett),” Nov. 24, 1947, pp. 1281-82.
  5. Wilson, Decision on Palestine, p. 124.
  6. FRUS 1948, “Report by the Policy Planning Staff,” Feb. 24, 1948, pp. 656-57.
  7. FRUS 1948, “Memorandum by the President’s Special Counsel (Clifford),” March 6, 1948, pp. 687-96.
  8. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis, p. 322.
  9. Thomas J. Hamilton, New York Times, 3/20/48; the text of the U.S. statement is in the same edition as well as in FRUS 1948, “Statement Made by the United States Representative at the United Nations (Austin) Before the Security Council on March 19, 1948,” March 19, 1948, pp. 742-4.
  10. Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, pp. 275-76.
  11. FRUS 1948, “The Consul General at Jerusalem (Macatee) to the Secretary of State,” March 22, 1948, p. 753.
  12. Donald Neff, “Palestine, Truman and America’s Strategic Balance,” American-Arab Affairs, Summer 1988.
  13. FRUS 1948, “Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary of State,” May 12, 1948, pp. 975-6.

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