But Harry Truman was a savvy politician with an autodidactic appreciation for history – ancient and recent. As a boy, when his chronic near-sightedness kept him from some strenuous activities, he would lose himself in books. According to historian Michael Beschloss, among his favorites was a “gold-trimmed, four-volume history called Great Men and Famous Women.” One of the men chronicled was Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who “enabled the Jewish people to leave their exile and go back to Palestine.” It’s possible that this ancient story may have been on Truman’s mind as he dealt with the Jewish-Palestine issue. More recent history, particularly the events of the late 1930s, may have also influenced his presidential decisions.
Appeasement was never really a “bad” word until it became forever identified with the foreign policy failures in Great Britain under the premiership of Neville Chamberlain. The word itself simply means to pacify or soothe. Most of us understand that there is a measure of this required for peaceful and civilized living and discourse.
But when appeasement met Adolf Hitler, it was manipulated, twisted, scorned, and ultimately dismissed. To put it in the words of Sean Connery playing a character in the 1987 movie The Untouchables, Mr. Chamberlain had brought a knife to a gunfight in Munich.
To make matters worse, his knife was crafted out of a very thin sheet of paper.
Harry Truman was a senator from Missouri when all this was going on and he watched in horror as Great Britain seemed to be officially determined to feed Europe to the Nazi alligator one bite at a time. He also knew and noted that the policy of appeasement was not just in play over the fate of Czechoslovakia, but it also had another deadly and dreadful application – one that would impact the Jewish people.
The British government released a White Paper on the issue of Palestine in May of 1939. Since the 1917 Balfour Declaration and during the period British Mandate they had been largely supportive of Jewish migration to Palestine and the idea of a Jewish state there. In essence, the new policy statement changed all of that. It advocated severe limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine; this at a time when European anti-Semitism was reaching critical mass.
By the way, this new policy was a big hit in Berlin.
Winston Churchill saw it differently. He spoke to the House of Commons on May 22, 1939 “as one intimately and responsibly concerned in the earlier states of our Palestine policy,” and insisted that he would not “stand by and see the solemn engagements into which Britain has entered before the world set aside.”
Senator Truman also issued a forthright condemnation that was inserted into the Congressional Record:
“Mr. President, the British Government has used its diplomatic umbrella again,” (this being an unmistakable dig at Chamberlain) “…this time on Palestine. It has made a scrap of paper out of Lord Balfour’s promise to the Jews. It has just added another to the long list of surrenders to the Axis powers.”
When George W. Bush spoke to the Knesset about appeasement, he was speaking to the children and grandchildren of a generation that had gone through unspeakable horror. And the road to holocaust had been paved with appeasement. Yet some supposedly bright people apparently think that a U.S. president sitting down with someone who calls Israel a “stinking corpse” could have some constructive result.
When Harry Truman, in a singular act of political courage, and against the advice of men he admired, recognized the new State of Israel, there is no doubt that he had a sense of the past. The internal world of thought, nurtured as a child through the reading of history, was very present in the man. Shortly after leaving office in 1953, while visiting a Jewish school in New York City, he was introduced as “the man who helped to create the State of Israel” – Truman interrupted and said: “What do you mean ‘helped create?’ I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!”
Sadly, some in Great Britain were slow to learn. It would take eight months before the Labor government could muster the courage to acknowledge the fledgling nation. Though out of power, Churchill returned to wilderness form as he decried this failure again and again. Speaking to the House of Commons in December of 1948 he mocked the idea that his country had not yet officially recognized Israel:
“The Jews have driven the Arabs out of a larger area that was contemplated in our partition schemes…They have established a government which functions effectively. They have a victorious army at their disposal and they have the support both of Soviet Russia and of the United States. These may be unpleasant facts, but can they be in any way disputed? Not as I have stated them. It seems to me that the government of Israel which has been set up in Tel Aviv cannot be ignored and treated as if it did not exist.”
As in the days of Truman and Churchill, so it is today – some will see appeasement as a panacea. But wiser people know better.
The key is to keep the wiser people in charge.