04/09/2012 02:57 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Truman, Obama and Israel

As President Obama struggles to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis and remain a friend of Israel, he would do well to look at what another Democratic president, Harry Truman, did in 1948 while seeking reelection and dealing with the birth of Israel.

After extricating America from Iraq, nothing could be worse for President Obama than a new war in Iran. Such a war would, if it became regional, draw in American forces and pose a direct threat to the democratization process now under way in so many Arab countries across the Middle East and Africa.

But the president also knows that even the appearance of softness in his support for Israel will add to his troubles with Jewish voters and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful, pro-Israel lobbying group that Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a friend of Mitt Romney since they worked together in the 1970s at the Boston Consulting Group, met with during his last visit to America.

Harry Truman confronted similar electoral and diplomatic challenges in 1948 when, as underdog, he ran for president against New York's Republican governor Thomas Dewey and faced opposition from both South Carolina's Dixiecrat governor Strom Thurmond and liberal Henry Wallace, President Roosevelt's former vice president -- each of whom drew over a million votes in his presidential bid.

Truman's Middle Eastern problems began in the spring of 1947 after Great Britain announced that by the summer of 1948, it would end the special mandate over Palestine that the League of Nations had awarded it following World War I. In their consequences, Truman's difficulties in the Middle East were as much domestic as international.

The case for exercising caution with regard to Israel was, ironically, made most powerfully not by the isolationists in Congress but by Truman's State Department, led by World War II hero and former Army chief of staff George Marshall.

American support for partitioning Palestine in order to create a Jewish state, the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department declared in January 1948, "has already brought about loss of U.S. prestige and disillusionment among the Arabs," and promises to foster "deep-seated antagonism" for many years to come.

If America wants a Jewish state to come into existence, the Policy Planning Staff went on to say, it "must be prepared to grant economic assistance, together with aid to the Jewish authorities through the supply of arms, ammunition, and the implements of war."

Such warnings could not be ignored, but with the 1945-46 Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals still vivid in voters' minds, there was enormous pressure for America to champion the creation of a Jewish state.

Truman was not guilty of hyperbole when in his Memoirs he wrote that "Jewish pressure on the White House" was unrelenting. From Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), which had been formed in 1939, there was a steady drumbeat for the creation of a Jewish state.

On May 16, 1948, a "Salute to Israel" rally organized by AZEC filled Madison Square Garden and included among its speakers political heavyweights Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer, and Franklin Roosevelt's former secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Throughout 1948, Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey was outspoken in his defense of Israel, openly courting the Jewish vote, and in June the Republican National Convention promised full recognition of Israel in accord with the boundaries set by the 1947 United Nations resolution.

At the same time Truman was never free from pressure by the left to support a Jewish state. The most prominent of Israel's liberal supporters was Eleanor Roosevelt, but a host of intellectuals, ranging from Nation magazine editor Freda Kirchwey to playwright Ben Hecht, were also firmly in the Israeli camp by 1948.

Even Truman's closest friends were willing to use their personal influence to win his support for the creation of a Jewish state. In March 1948, while there was still intense debate going on in the United Nations over Palestine, Truman's old friend from Kansas City, Eddie Jacobson, took advantage of his ties with the president to secure a private White House visit for Chaim Weizmann, the future president of Israel.

The turning point for Truman came at a May 12 White House meeting with Secretary of State Marshall and officials from the State Department. At that meeting Truman's special counsel, Clark Clifford, made the case for prompt recognition of the Jewish State after Britain's mandate ended on midnight May 14. Clark urged Truman to get out ahead of events by announcing his intention to recognize Israel on May 13.

Marshall, in turn, argued that Clifford's advice seemed like nothing so much as a "transparent dodge to win votes," and in his official memorandum of the meeting, Marshall made no effort to hide his anger. "I said bluntly," Marshall wrote, "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."

Marshall's fear was that America was putting itself in a position in which it would be continually obligated to bail out Israel from hostile neighbors. He was, as Israel's future ambassador to America, Abba Eban, would complain, filled with "scepticism" about Israel surviving in the midst of a sea of hostile Arab states.

Truman now faced a terrible predicament. He could not afford an open break with Marshall, who commanded far more respect in Congress than he, but he was determined to recognize the existence of a Jewish state as soon as the British mandate over Palestine concluded,

Truman's decision was to compromise. As Clark Clifford observed years later in an essay, "Recognizing Israel," written for American Heritage magazine, Truman knew that with an election coming up it was important to be guided by "political considerations" as well as his deepest beliefs.

In deference to Marshall, Truman refused to announce in advance his intention to recognize Israel. When asked at his May 13 press conference if the United States would recognize a Jewish state, Truman replied, "I will cross that bridge when I get to it." But eleven minutes after Israel declared itself a state, Truman issued a press release announcing America's de facto recognition of Israel's provisional government. De jure recognition would wait until Israel held elections in 1949.

Marshall's fear that Israel would "be able to survive only with continuous assistance from abroad" (Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U. S. foreign assistance since World War II, according to the Congressional Research Service) has been borne out by history, but while in office, Marshall never made his May 12 confrontation with Truman public.

The result was a foreign policy victory for Truman that paid off in the polls. In November Truman upset the heavily favored Dewey in a close election, taking 49.5 percent of the popular vote to Dewey's 45.1 percent.

Whether Obama can walk the same tight rope that Truman did in 1948 is the question. Truman never put American troops in harm's way in the Middle East, nor did he allow himself to get trapped between a rock and a hard place, as the president has by rejecting a containment strategy (Truman's way of dealing with the Soviet Union) for Iran and declaring "it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.