Was Harry Truman a Zionist?

tags: Israel, Zionism, Harry Truman



John B. Judis is a senior editor of the New Republic.

In November 1953, after he had left the presidency, Harry Truman traveled to New York to be feted at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When his old friend Eddie Jacobson introduced him as “the man who helped create the state of Israel,” Truman responded, “What do you mean ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus.” Truman was referring to the Persian King who overthrew the Babylonians in 593 B.C.E. and helped the Jews, who had been held captive in Babylon, return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

In his Memoirs, published in 1956, Truman cast himself as a consistent proponent of the Jewish state, and some of his noted biographers have followed suit. In Truman, David McCullough writes that when Truman recognized the new state of Israel in May 1948, he had “no regrets” about what “he achieved.” Truman’s reputed devotion to Israel has become the standard by which subsequent president’s commitment is measured. In 1982, Richard Nixon described Ronald Reagan as the “most pro-Israel president since Truman.” A Boston Globe editorial in 1998 described Bill Clinton as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” In 2009, Charles Krauthammer described George W. Bush as “the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman.” And Vice President Joseph Biden declared in 2012 that “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.”

To be sure, Truman had no regrets about Israel after he left office. Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion recounted how when, during a meeting in New York in 1961, he praised the former president for his “constant sympathy with our aims in Israel … tears suddenly sprang to his eyes.” But in the years leading up to, and in the months following, American recognition of Israel in May 1948, Truman was filled with doubt and regret about his role. The rosy portrayal of Truman’s unquestioning commitment to and constant sympathy with Israel, which is often linked to a picture of the younger Truman as a Christian Zionist, is dead wrong....



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