A dispute of 2,000 years standing is not, as a rule, easily resolved. What had started in 70 C.E., with the Roman sacking of the Judean capital of Jerusalem had landed, on the afternoon of May 12, 1948, inside the Oval Office of the White House. This time, the combatants would be a young White House Counsel and an august Secretary of State. Clark Clifford, carrying what he considered a “brief” from his client, President Truman, argued for a Jewish state; George C. Marshall, representing the American foreign policy establishment, argued against it. What Truman decided, two days later, when Israel declared itself a nation, would have epic consequences – and, in the telling, it seems his decision was touch-and-go right up to the last minute. Certainly it was on his mind – even, he reveals here, as he enjoyed a “grand” birthday, just five days before his reaching his fateful decision…
Whatever doubts Harry Truman might have had about a Jewish state in Palestine, he had none whatsoever about the man who did not want one: General George Catlett Marshall, his Secretary of State, was the greatest living American. He had, after all, saved the Allies in World War II, and was now about to save Europe from the Communists. Which is why, just three days before Truman held the most contentious Oval Office meeting of his presidency – with Marshall, about Palestine, on May 12, 1948 – he wrote to the man who could, in that meeting, do the one thing the president could not. Clark Clifford, Truman knew, would stand up to Marshall and maybe, even best him. Writing then on May 9th to thank Clifford and his family for helping to make his 64th birthday a grand one, Truman added a meaningful caveat. His birthday celebration, he said, was as nice as could be, “in spite of Palestine…”
“Dear Clark: The plates were a “ten strike.” Highly appreciated by “Miss Bess”and Margie as well as by me. The telegram from Marny [, Gerry, Joyce & Randy was as nice as could be. In spite of Palestine, R.R. Strike, and the D—n Republicans, it was a grand birthday. Your and your family’s contribution made it so.”
Palestine of course had been on Truman’s mind since the U.N. Partition vote in November 1947, and on Clifford’s, too. As White House Counsel Clifford in ’47, he had fought for a Jewish state in Palestine against the entire foreign policy bureaucracy – and won, having convinced Truman to support the United Nation’s partition of British-ruled Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states. Now, less than a year later, with Palestine in the midst of an Arab-Jewish War and preparing to declare itself an independent nation on May 14th, Truman would again hand Clifford a crucial brief. “I would like you to prepare yourself and you be the lawyer for the position that we should recognize Israel,” he said a day after sending this letter. He added ominously: “I am inclined to believe that General Marshall is probably opposed to it, but you get ready and we’ll set up a meeting…”
That meeting, at 4:00 in the afternoon on May 12, 1948, is much documented. Marshall argued Cold War realpolitik; Clifford argued morality, and atonement for Jewish suffering. There was more to it, of course, but when Marshall had heard enough, he erupted, claiming that if he were to vote in the 1948 presidential election, based on what he was hearing, he’d vote against Truman. In the shocked silence, Truman ended the meeting. “Well,” Truman told Clifford, “that was rough as a cob” – and then waited for the dust to settle. Two days later, it did, with Marshall proclaiming it was not his place to decide policy and pledging to not publicly oppose the President. That was all Truman needed: on the 14th of May, at 6:11 p.m., the United States became the first country to recognize the nation of Israel.
Across the globe, in Palestine, May 14, 1948 was unbearably hot, with a desert wind blowing full blast. Battles between Jews and Arabs raged; Jerusalem was besieged; armies from five Arab countries were poised to attack. The chances of Jewish survival, a neat fifty-fifty. And yet in the late afternoon, just a couple hours before the start of the Sabbath, and amid the horror, once again, of Jews fighting for their lives, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel – fought over, razed and rebuilt, besieged, attacked, conquered and recaptured, for millennia – a Jewish State among nations. Invitations to the declaration ceremony – secret, in light of the danger – had been hurriedly prepared.
The mimeographed page reads:
Tel-Aviv, 4 Iyar 5708
We’re honored to send you herewith an invitation to a session
D E C L A R I N G I N D E P EN D E N C E
which will take place on Friday, 5 Iyar 5708 (14.5.1948) at 4 p.m. in the hall of the museum (Rothschild Boulevard 16).
We request that you keep the contents of this invitation a secret, as well as the appointed time of the council’s assembly.
The invitees are requested to come to the hall at 3:30 p.m.
The invitation is a personal one. Attire: festive, dark-colored clothing.
As euphoric crowds danced in the streets, celebrating what was for many was the greatest moment of their lives, it seemed, perhaps, as if only Ben-Gurion, was not rejoicing. Looking just as far ahead as 24 hours, he privately mourned. “Today everyone’s happy. Tomorrow, blood will be spilled.”
And, the very next day, the party over, the bombs began to fall. But the Jews were finally a free people in a Jewish homeland – and so remain today, seventy years later.
HARRY S. TRUMAN. 1884-1972. The 33rd President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, D.C., May 9, 1948. To Clark Clifford at the White House.
Printed Document, accomplished in mimeograph, and signed (in print) “The Secretariat,” in Hebrew, being a secret invitation to the public declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948; 1 page, quarto, on the letterhead of the “People’s Administration,” Tel Aviv, 4 Iyar 5708 (May 13, 1948).