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Truman’s 1947 Complaints About Jews Set Off a Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Ever since Harry S. Truman, defying the State Department and the military, recognized the state of Israel 11 minutes after its creation in May 1948, the 33rd president has been lionized as a friend to Jews.

Chaim Weizmann, the president of Israel, visited the White House soon afterward and gave President Truman a Torah. Years later, with the former president’s blessings, Hebrew University created the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 18, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Truman’s diary -- An article in Thursday’s Section A on the release of a 1947 diary kept by President Harry S. Truman included comments by Sara J. Bloomfield, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The article should have attributed the comments to an interview Bloomfield gave to the Washington Post.

So it came as something of a shock last week when the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence, Mo., released a diary Truman kept in 1947, in which he complained that Jews “have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement [sic] on world affairs.”

Complaining about a call from Henry Morgenthau, the former Treasury secretary who was head of the United Jewish Appeal, Truman fumed about a request to pressure Britain, then in charge of Palestine, into admitting a boatload of Jewish refugees made homeless by World War II. Their plight was portrayed in Leon Uris’ book “The Exodus,” which was made into a movie starring Paul Newman.

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“The Jews, I find are very, very selfish,” Truman wrote on July 21. “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. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire.”

Pundits seized on the quotes as evidence of prejudice. “It’s a good thing for Harry Truman that he’s dead,” opined Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, because “I would have decked him.” The Anti-Defamation League put out a statement decrying the diary entries, saying, “Sadly, President Truman was indeed a man of his times, and that much less a man because of it.” A staunch defender of Israel, William Safire, the newspaper columnist and onetime speechwriter for President Nixon, said Truman’s outburst was worse than slurs about Jews revealed in Nixon’s tapes.

But prominent historians who have made a life’s study of Truman’s character and his presidency argue that nothing in the 5,500-word diary changes their view of Truman as a champion of Israel. “The anti-Semitic comments were nothing new to historians,” said Alonzo Hamby, a Truman biographer and historian at Ohio University. “It was an outburst, rather like some other outbursts that Truman was capable of from time to time. It’s important to understand that Truman grew up in a small town and he absorbed the prevalent ethnic cliches.”

Historians point out that Truman went into the haberdashery business in 1919 with Eddie Jacobsen, whom he had met in World War I and who was Jewish. They remained lifelong friends, although Truman biographers say Jacobsen was never invited to the Wallace home, where Truman lived with his wife, Bess, and his in-laws.

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At a symposium tonight at the Truman Library in Independence, Ray Geselbracht, library education coordinator, is set to ask a panel of historians whether the diary will alter how they interpret Truman’s presidency.

“It’s hard to argue that Truman had deep-rooted antipathy toward the Jews,” Hamby said. “While he was in the Senate in the 1930s, he got involved in an investigation of the railroads. The general counsel for the committee investigation was Max Lowenthal, a public interest attorney who was Jewish and who became an unofficial advisor to Truman throughout his presidency.”

Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, agreed that “Truman’s sympathy for the plight of Jews was very apparent.” She added that Truman’s comments were “typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at that time in all parts of American society. This was an acceptable way to talk.”

Coretta Scott King came to a similar conclusion in 1983, when she traveled to Independence to receive an award from the museum. According to museum archivist Dennis Bilger, King was asked about disparaging remarks Truman made, calling civil rights protesters “a bunch of darn fools” for demonstrating in Richmond. She concluded that Truman, who issued an executive order in 1948 desegregating the military, had made the remarks, but that his overall record on civil rights was good.

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Historians seem to have reached similar conclusions about Truman remarks on Jews. Hamby notes that issues involving Israel’s creation and the repatriation of refugees displaced by World War II crowded Truman’s political calculus. Morgenthau, he added, was one of Truman’s least favorite officials in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

Robert Ferrell, another Truman biographer and former professor at Indiana University, argues that Truman was also being buffeted by problems in Europe and the Soviet Union. He was also under pressure from various interests, including many people who worried that recognizing Israel would damage U.S. relations with Arab nations -- and he was sinking in the polls going into the 1948 election.

Curators found the 1947 Truman diary this year. Written in a blue-covered book titled “1947 Diary and Manual of the Real Estate Board of New York, Inc.,” the document sat on the shelves for 38 years, until a librarian leafing through it discovered Truman’s writing behind 160 pages of ads and member lists.

The diary also contains vintage Truman candor. At one point he referred to the White House as “this great white jail,” and lamented that it was haunted by ghosts of presidents past. “Anyone with imagination can see old Jim Buchanan walking up and down worrying about conditions not of his making,” Truman wrote on Jan. 6. “They all walk up and down the halls of this place and moan about what they should have done and didn’t.”

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On March 7, as he was leaving Mexico City, Truman wrote that a doctor had told him he had cardiac asthma. “Ain’t that hell,” he wrote. “Well it makes no diff[erence]. Will go on as before. I’ve sworn him to secrecy! So what!”

That seems to sum up the attitude of some historians to the new disclosures. “I don’t think it tells us much that’s new,” said Richard Kirkendall, a Truman historian who organized tonight’s conference for scholars to present papers on Truman’s Farewell Address. Looking at people in the context of the times in which they lived, he said, is “a well-established tradition in the [history] profession.”


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