Monday, March 27, 2023

I happened to finish David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman in the past two weeks. I found the work exquisitely detailed and footnoted, enthralling and moving. One might think that a book of its size (just shy of 1,000 pages) would be difficult to read in its entirety. But think again. This masterpiece is a real page-turner and completely engrossing.

So imagine my surprise to read in last week’s Jewish Link that McCullough got it “all wrong” when it came to an episode pertinent to Truman’s policies regarding the creation of the State of Israel (“Famed Truman Biographer Got It All Wrong on Zionism,” August 18, 2022). Rafael Medoff’s logic is that because Zionist leaders who attended the meeting in question did not mention that Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (co-leader of the American Zionist movement) allegedly “pounded on the president’s desk,” it is wrong for the author to repeat the dubious anecdote, and shows bias.

I have no idea if the incident did or did not occur. But one thing we know for sure from McCullough’s exquisite work was that Truman was not a perfect man (who is?) and he held deep-seated prejudices. His behavior towards the African American community was vulgar. And his behavior to Jews was not much better, bordering occasionally on antisemitism. Yet that did not prevent him from championing major civil rights legislation nor did it prevent him from assuring that the USA was the first country to recognize the State of Israel at the U.N., and led him to proclaim famously “I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus” (the most celebrated non-Jew in Tanach).

So was McCullough’s version a mistake? Perhaps. But a serious one? That’s ridiculous. I find it very telling that Medoff waited until a few weeks after McCullough’s death to enlighten us, giving the author no opportunity to respond. He had 30 years—the book was published in 1992—to say something, but his silence is deafening.

Robert Friedman
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