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Behind the Scenes in the White House: May 12, 1948

Part I

I had always heard that Clark Clifford was an official in the United States administration who was supportive of Israel. He worked for United States presidents for almost four decades, from Truman to Carter. Recently, I came across his 700 page book: “Counsel to the President” (1991). I looked at the index under “Israel” and “Palestine” and was very disappointed. There were only minimal references. But then, I started the book. He opens it with a fascinating story about the creation of the state of Israel. He writes that, “of all the meetings I ever had with Presidents, this one (of May 12, 1948) remains the most vivid.”

This meeting with the President pitted him in a debate with the legendary war hero whom President Truman revered: his Secretary of State, General of the Army, George Catlett Marshall. Truman viewed him as “the greatest living American.” The meeting in Truman’s office took place two days before the Jewish Agency—under the leadership of Ben-Gurion—intended to announce the creation of a new state—still unnamed—in part of Palestine. (“The name ‘Israel’ was as yet unknown. Most of us assumed the new nation would be called ‘Judaea.’”)

As further background, Marshall had firmly opposed American recognition of the new Jewish state. Marshall’s opposition was shared by the other State and Defense Department officials. For example, Secretary of Defense Forrestal had told Clifford: “There are 30 million Arabs on one side and about 600 thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities?” These high officials were also deeply influenced by the Arabs’ huge oil reserves. So far, they had done everything in their power to thwart the President’s Palestine policy. Now that the British were leaving, the State Department wanted to turn Palestine over to the trusteeship of the United Nations.

Clifford writes that from the moment Truman became President, he always supported the right of the Jews to their own homeland, and this was Clifford’s view as well.

On May 7, Clifford had a meeting with Truman and showed him the speech he had written for May 13, when Truman would announce his recognition of the Jewish state. Clifford then watched Truman call Marshall, and Marshall strongly objected to the recognition. The phone conversation ended and Truman turned to Clifford: “Clark, I am impressed with General Marshall’s argument that we should not recognize the new state so fast. He does not want to recognize it at all, at least not now. I’ve asked him and (Under Secretary of State) Lovett to come in next week to discuss this business. I think Marshall is going to continue to take a very strong position. When he does, I would like you to make the case in favor of recognition of the new state.”

Clifford continues: “He paused, then looked at me intently for a moment. ‘You know how I feel. I want you to present it just as though you were making an argument before the Supreme Court of the United States. Consider it carefully, Clark, organize it logically. I want you to be as persuasive as you possibly can be.’”

Clifford continues: “President Truman had asked me to debate the man he most admired, whose participation in the Administration was essential to its success. I was 41 years old, in my third year at the White House as a Presidential aide. Virtually every American regarded General Marshall—then 67—with respect bordering on awe. He had capped his central contribution to victory in World War II with his speech at Harvard a year earlier, proposing what became known as the Marshall Plan … His name was now associated with a peaceful purpose—the reconstruction of Europe—and alone among statesmen, he carried the credentials of a great soldier. Without his towering presence, the administration would be much diminished, perhaps even mortally wounded—at home and abroad—at a time of great challenge …”

“Out of respect for Marshall and a keen sense of his own political interests, the president knew that he should not overrule Marshall; rather, he would see if I could convince the great man.”

“Marshall did not like me. As far as he was concerned, I was a domestic presidential adviser who had no business meddling in foreign policy. As I prepared … for the showdown with Marshall, I felt that I knew what the president wanted, and—more importantly—how he felt …”

“The Zionist position in 1948 was simple: Partition Palestine into two parts, one Jewish, one Arab. On its surface, the joint British-State Department position favoring trusteeship might have seemed a reasonable way to avoid conflict, but the President feared that if Palestine was turned over to the United Nations, the Arabs would combine military action and diplomatic foot dragging in an effort to throttle the Jewish state at its birth. I fully agreed…”

“This was the only time I would ever argue a case against General Marshall. Knowing the President was privately on my side did not reduce the difficulty of the task—after all, he was counting on me to turn Marshall around.”

“Marshall and Lovett had prepared a position paper for the President’s consideration. Reading it before the meeting, I saw it amounted to a clever way to avoid recognizing the new nation. And I feared that the President’s respect for Marshall might prevail. The meeting began (on May 12), exactly 50 hours remained before the new nation—still without a name—would be born.”

Clifford explains that the debate/meeting did not go well. Marshall felt that Truman was only taking his pro-partition position to help court the Jewish vote. He also was angry that Clifford, a domestic policy advisor, was involved in this critical foreign policy decision. He got very angry at the president and acted disrespectfully towards him. Marshall implied that he might resign if Truman recognized the Jewish state.

Clifford writes: “Here was the indispensable symbol of continuity, whom President Truman revered and needed, making a threat that if it became public, could virtually seal the dissolution of the Truman administration and send the Western Alliance—then in the process of creation—into disarray before it had been fully structured. Marshall’s statement fell short of an explicit threat to resign, but it came very close.”

Truman knew he had to end the meeting before Marshall—in his highly agitated state—made more inflammatory statements. He closed the meeting and said to Marshall: “I understand your position, General, and I’m inclined to side with you in this matter.” (Mitchell First: He only said this so Marshall would leave in a non-agitated state.)

After Marshall left, Truman said: “I never saw the General so furious. Suppose we let the dust settle a little—then, you can get into it again and see if we can get this thing turned around. I still want to do it. But, be careful. I can’t afford to lose General Marshall.” (Truman was an unelected president, and viewed by most of the American people as “a temporary custodian” of the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)

Due to space limitations, I have to keep you in suspense about the rest of the story until next week. (But, we all know that the story ends with Truman’s recognition.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. (He cannot make a biographical joke in the middle of this tense story.)

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