What Did Truman's Outburst About Jews Signify?


Mr. Pollack is a Washington, DC-based defense consultant.

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Published excerpts from President Harry S Truman's newly discovered diary feature relatively little that appears to be substantively new about his policies or opinions. Certainly Truman's tendency towards anti-semitism, highlighted recently by Michael Beschloss, comes as no great revelation. But the diary's stream-of-consciousness quality does seem to shed some light on questions of psychological interest, particularly Truman's well-known ambivalence about the postwar Jewish refugee question.

On Jan. 16, 1947, the president writes about how benevolent and easygoing he is:

I like people and like to help 'em and keep 'em out of trouble when I can and help 'em out when they get into it.

The rule around here is that no one may speak to the President. I break it every day and make 'em speak to me. So-you see what I get. But I still want 'em to tell me.

Yet this reflection doesn't hold up so well six months later, on July 21, when it came to speaking with a certain former cabinet member:

Had ten minutes conversation with Henry Morgenthau about Jewish ship in Palistine [sic]. Told him I would talk to Gen[eral] Marshall about it.

He'd no business, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement on world affairs.

The "Jewish ship in Palestine" was, of course, the Exodus-1947, captured at sea by British warships and steered into Haifa harbor. By July 21, its passengers, stateless survivors of the Holocaust, were being packed by British soldiers into prison ships for deportation en masse back to Europe. Morgenthau's alleged lack of a sense of proportion or judgment on world affairs, which Truman so generously extends to Jews as a whole, seems to refer to the difficulties and friction that this particular incident, and the Palestine issue more generally, threatened to create between the U.S. and Britain, to say nothing of the Arabs.

(Parenthetically, it is worth noting that Morgenthau, when still Secretary of the Treasury, had already intervened on behalf of the Jews of Europe at their darkest hour. He had persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in January 1944. Absent Morgenthau's persistence, FDR apparently would have preferred to leave the Jews of Europe to their fate, probably fearing a domestic political backlash for any well-publicized actions on their behalf. In any event, the War Refugee Board sponsored the well-known rescue activities of Raoul Wallenberg, which saved the lives of some 200,000 mostly Hungarian Jews.)

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Truman then shifts gears, declaring domestic politics to be the source of his irritation. He lashes out at Morgenthau for allegedly having cost the Democrats the 1946 election by previously bringing 1,000 other such Displaced Persons to New York. What a contrast this makes with Truman's famous October 1946 "Four Freedoms" address to the UN, when he declared, "I intend to urge the Congress of the United States to authorize this country to do its full part, both in financial support of the International Refugee Organization and in joining with other nations to receive those refugees who do not wish to return to their former homes for reasons of political or religious belief."

Despite surface appearances, Truman's complaint does not entirely contradict allegations that he favored the Jewish cause abroad for the sake of votes at home, if perhaps for different reasons than are usually alleged. Indeed, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin -- himself no friend of the Zionist project -- may have been onto something when, during a Labor Party conference on June 12, 1946, he had gibed that the Americans favored Jewish immigration into British Palestine because "they did not want too many of them in New York." That is to say, in the mid-to-late 1940s, not giving offense to anti-semitic voters may have been just as important, if not more important, than courting Jewish voters in Truman's electoral calculus. Truman himself hinted as much in an August 6, 1947 message to Rabbi Steven S. Wise: "There seem to be two sides to this question. I am finding it rather difficult to decide which one is right and a great many other people in this country are beginning to feel just as I do."

Back in his diary entry of July 21, 1947, President Truman was still getting warmed up. He dwells bitterly on the selfishness of "the Jews," now a fully developed monolithic entity: "The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment."

Clearly, Truman was tired of hearing about the woes of the Jews. Margaret Truman, in her biography of her father, testified to his frequent sense of irritation at being lobbied. She wrote, "Not even in his memoirs did he feel free to tell the whole story, although he hinted at it." That being the case, the former president exercised good judgment in choosing not to give these feelings free rein outside of his diaries and private conservations. The obtuseness of his "selfishness" remark, in reference to a stateless population of some 100,000 people in the aftermath of the Holocaust, is striking. It is only more so in connection with Henry Morgenthau, whose father and namesake, a former ambassador to the Ottoman empire, had documented the Armenian genocide in his memoirs, and later led the Greek Refugee Settlement Committee of the League of Nations.

But Morgenthau was probably no longer on Truman's mind by this point. Instead, attacking "the Jews" in the pages of his diary may have helped Truman to push aside, for a moment, understandable feelings of guilt that he might have felt in reaction to the unworthy sense of resentment that welled up within him whenever he was called upon to provide still more assistance to these inconvenient people. Less than a decade ago, many Americans and Europeans seemed to have a similarly deplorable reaction to the plight of the Muslims trapped by Serb and Croat militias in the "safe areas" of Bosnia, depending almost wholly on the UN -- and ultimately the reluctant US -- for their physical survival.

Truman's outburst reaches fever pitch when he declares, "Yet when they [the Jews] have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog." This assertion, naturally, has no particular relevance to the situation of the Jews of Europe or for that matter America in the summer of 1947. It is simply an expression, in more or less traditional terms -- albeit in a particularly shocking formulation -- of the anti-semitism so deeply rooted in Western society in the modern era.

At this point, Truman appears to realize that he has gone too far, and attempts to diffuse his own rancor by generalizing away from anti-semitism in the direction of misanthropy: "Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes." Truman was sufficiently fond of this formulation to feature a variation in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt just a few weeks later: "The action of some of our United States Zionists will prejudice everyone against what they are trying to get done. I fear very much that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on the top, they are just as intolerant and as cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath. I regret this situation very much because my sympathy has always been on their side."

Truman concludes the diary entry, "Look at the Congress[ional] attitude on D[isplaced] P[ersons]-and they all come from D[isplaced] P[erson]s." In other words, Truman seems to be telling himself, these established men with such contempt for Jewish refugees are themselves descended from refugees (and here the vision of America as a haven for those fleeing religious persecution hovers in the background). They, the congressmen, ought to know better, Truman reminds himself. We could conclude that Truman was half-consciously rebuking himself for his own excess of a moment before. At a minimum, he was distancing himself from it, shifting back towards the words and opinions more congenial not only to civilized discourse, but to his own conscience as well.

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mari conea-rosenfeld - 7/17/2003

Why, is everyone so surprised? Did we forget so easily that George Marshall was also against the Jewish immigration? Therefore it is critical that as historians we are obliged to place Truman's private notes withing the context of the American culture of the 1940s, and as teachers we must educate the people to understand what that means to the interpretation of the statements in the diary.

Joe Schlunk - 7/16/2003

Pollock's piece is seriously overstated, makes inordinate use of inflamatory language, and lacks a sense of context! If we must devolve into petty psychology, let us at least admit that each of us is capable of holding dicotamous opinions. Truman's statement is reflective of the man of Missouri politics, not the larger person he came to be as President.

In referring to "Truman's Outburst,' Pollock alters a very personal and private utterence in what appears to be a public statement. And to use the term "fever pitch" to refer to a diary entry is simply ridiculous.

Nor is it possible to be sure that the ship was the Exodus. The responsible media suggest it could be, but there was more than one ship heading for Israel at the time.

Whatever else it was, Truman's recognition of Israel in 1948 was a very courageous act: more Americans resented it that approved it.


Stephen Kriz - 7/15/2003

Attention, Attention!

We have a loony on the loose in the Jewish Forum! Bring the tinfoil hat and the men in the little white coats......

mahavishnu - 7/15/2003

I've just visited a Russian newspaper site forum. There's a real war raging there. One of the participants residing in the States is literally on the loose. It looks like he's Jewish himself and what he's been doing for the past week is outrageous...

Wolf DeVoon - 7/15/2003

I find it implausible that the mission of academic history is to hypothesize "his diary may have helped Truman to push aside, for a moment, understandable feelings of guilt that he might have felt in reaction to the unworthy sense of resentment."

Let's teach facts, especially political abuse of power. Truman unilaterally validated 'creation' of the Jewish State (achieved entirely by heinous acts of terrorism) and pushed through Israel's membership in the U.N. to buy Jewish votes and media influence. If speculation on Truman's "half-conscious rebuking himself" is fair play, let's suppose he resented the perfidy of buying Jewish support to retain the White House.

Wolf DeVoon