Truman's Diary in Perspective


Mr. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University, is the author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman.

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Perhaps no item in the recently released 1947 Diary of Harry S. Truman attracted as much attention-and condemnation-as three small pages on what was probably the most personally vexing issue of his years in the White House, Palestine. The diary itself, although exciting to archivists and historians, in truth contains little that is new to scholars. Even that three-page outburst about "the Jews" is largely duplicated in other of Truman's private writings. But to a larger public that knows Harry Truman only as a dim pop culture icon, it was unsettling. To some Jewish intellectuals, it was yet another indication of an ever-simmering hostility, from supposed friends as well as known enemies. To a few historians on the left, still living in the time warp of the sixties and seventies, it was welcome proof that Truman was a bigoted know-nothing. It is tempting to dismiss such reactions as overwrought manifestations of the oh-so-sensitive world in which we live. But our times seem to demand an explanation; so let's attempt to provide one by looking at Truman's personal background, his political perspectives, and the actual substance of what he wrote.

Truman grew to adulthood in a turn-of-the-century rural/small-town Protestant setting. It was one in which cliches about Jews as money-grubbers and sharp dealers would have been common. It is more than likely that Truman would have heard the verb "to Jew" (as in "I Jewed the price down") quite a lot. It is equally likely that his actual contacts with Jews were very few, even when he worked for a few years as a bank clerk in Kansas City. In such situations cliches are absorbed but not deeply felt.

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Politically, Truman was very much a child of a midwestern "populistic" style of progressivism. He admired William Jennings Bryan, probably thought well of Fighting Bob La Follette (he greatly admired his son when they served in the Senate together), and was devoted to Woodrow Wilson. Well, the Populists were anti-Semitic, weren't they? So some historians-most notably, Richard Hofstadter (The Age of Reform)--once thought so on slender evidence, and no doubt most "populists" shared the same folk-culture images of Jews that Truman surely absorbed. But long, long ago, Walter Nugent (The Tolerant Populists) convincingly demonstrated that the Kansas Populists not only welcomed Jews, but actually nominated one for state office (Treasurer) and elected him. C. Vann Woodward ("The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual") even earlier had reminded us that if one looked for actual violence against Jews in late nineteenth-century America, it was far more often found in Boston or Brooklyn than in the Populist provinces. As for Truman, we know that one of his heroes was Justice Louis Brandeis, a Jew and passionate Zionist.

Truman himself as a young man was capable of tossing out casual ethnic slurs. For example, twenty-seven years old and on his way to participate in a federal land lottery for would-be homesteaders in South Dakota, he wrote: "I bet there'll be more bohunks and 'Rooshans' up there than white men. I think it is a disgrace to the country for those fellows to be in it. If they had only stopped immigration about twenty or thirty years ago, the good Americans could all have had plenty of land." (HST to Bess Wallace, Oct. 16, 1911) This was the language he knew--of other farmers, of Independence friends, of his brothers in the local Masonic Lodge. But how did he act? All indications are that he related to people one at a time without much concern about their religion or ethnicity. In Kansas City, he got to know a Jew named Eddie Jacobson as a fellow bank clerk, served in the National Guard with him, and appointed him to run the camp canteen when they trained for World War I in Oklahoma. "I have a Jew in charge of the canteen by the name of Jacobson and he is a crackerjack," Truman wrote to Bess Wallace (Oct. 28, 1917). The enterprise was a success for which Truman gave Jacobson perhaps a bit more credit than he deserved and took some ribbing from fellow officers about his affinity for Jews.

He and Jacobson went off to France together with the 129th Artillery Regiment, returned to the United States in 1919, and became partners in the Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery. Jacobson appears to have contributed no money to the enterprise, but Truman clearly valued his services and his friendship. In the war, Truman had also commanded and won the loyalty of a unit composed heavily of Irish Catholics from Kansas City. When the haberdashery failed, he would align himself with Kansas City's Pendergast machine, an Irish Catholic organization anathema to the local Ku Klux Klan. Truman would have been happy enough to take nominal membership in the Klan also, but not at the cost of renouncing his associates. As a politician and, nearly as one can tell, as a person, his instincts ran in the direction of inclusiveness. As a senator Truman would pick up another close Jewish associate, Max Lowenthal, counsel for the Interstate Commerce Committee, a protege of Justice Brandeis, a committed Zionist, and a trusted informal adviser through Truman's presidency. During World War II, the senator cautiously adopted the Zionist objective of a Jewish state.

By 1947, Truman was president, and his administration was being ripped apart by the issue. Leading national security officials opposed the creation of Israel; political advisers emphasized the importance of Jewish votes and campaign contributions; Americans debated whether armed Zionist forces in Palestine were terrorists or freedom fighters. It was in this atmosphere that one of his least favorite persons, Henry Morgenthau, attempted to intervene with him. When he had a chance later in the day, the still-angry president, delivered some thoughts about "the Jews" (the Zionists who had been pressuring him) caring about only their own problems and being indifferent to the difficulties of other displaced persons, followed by a reflection that an underdog of any race or ethnic group who got on top was capable of "cruelty or mistreatment" of others.

About nine months later, Eddie Jacobson came to the White House and persuaded Truman to grant a secret interview to Chaim Weizmann, who would subsequently become the first president of Israel. ("You win, you bald-headed son-of-a-bitch. I will see him," Truman told Jacobson.) It was another significant step in Truman's eventual decision, after many zigs and zags, to recognize the new Jewish state as soon as it was proclaimed--and to do so over the opposition of his secretaries of state and defense.

It may be easy to read Truman's words a half-century later and take offense. But the establishment of the state of Israel was a messy, morally ambiguous process. We know now that it created complex problems that do not yield easily to formulas that posit one side as absolutely good and the other as absolutely evil. Just as Truman's decision for recognition rested on complicated impulses. His feelings about Jews, blacks, and other ethnoreligious groups involved conflicting emotions, which he resolved constructively. Above all, the world of 1947-a world with vivid memories of Nazism and the discovery of the death camps-attached a somewhat more activist meaning to the term "anti-Semitism" than privately written words, expressing a passing frustration. Perhaps we should follow its example.

Related Links

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    Andre Mayer - 8/11/2003

    I think it's worth pointing out that Truman did not pick at random his examples of underdogs changing their tune when on top. He mentioned, in addition to Jews, two (American) religious groups: Baptists and Mormons. Both are, in fact, well chosen examples of groups that advocated tolerance as oppressed minorities, but sometimes enforced their own views when they gained power.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 8/6/2003

    Thank you for the fine analysis of Truman's comments and for placing them in the messy context of the creation of Israel.

    I would simply add that the belief that oppressed people can, in turn, oppress others has a sad measure of truth to it.