Famous Truman biographer has it all wrong about Zionism

Historian David McCullough won a Pulitzer Prize for “Truman,” his biography of President Harry S. Truman. McCullough also won a second Pulitzer and two National Book Awards for her other books. He even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yet despite his many awards and accolades, McCullough, who died August 7 at age 89, got a crucial episode in the history of President Truman’s policy regarding the establishment of the State of Israel wrong.

The story concerns Rabbi Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, the dynamic co-leader of the American Zionist movement in the 1940s, along with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.

Rabbi Silver mobilized Zionist activists across the country – Christian and Jewish – to participate in a massive campaign of rallies, lobbying, petitions and other demonstrations urging President Truman to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Truman was deeply unhappy with the pressure, and since Silver was his main instigator, the President disliked him – intensely. In a handwritten note to an aide in 1946, Truman blamed “terror and money” as “the causes of some, if not all, of our troubles”. (By “terror” he was referring to Jewish underground militias attacking British targets in Palestine.)

It should be noted that President Truman spoke just as harshly about large swathes of American Jewry, not just Silver. For example, in the midst of a cabinet discussion on July 30, 1946, about American Jews’ dissatisfaction with his Palestinian policies, Truman exploded: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect me to be lucky? McCullough himself called Truman “angry.”

Nevertheless, according to McCullough’s biography of Truman (pp.598-599), it was Silver’s intemperate behavior that helped to anger the president against the American Zionist movement: “Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s attitude was particularly offensive to Truman…during a meeting in Truman’s office, Silver had pounded on Truman’s desk and yelled at him.

This anecdote is found in many books and articles on the time. It is often cited as evidence that the obnoxious and belligerent Silver—as the face of obnoxious and belligerent American Jews in general—endangered the entire Zionist enterprise by his outrageous attempt to intimidate the President of the States. -United. The story is framed as an indictment not just of the Silver man, but of the very idea of ​​outspoken Jewish political behavior.

The claim that Silver banged on the president’s desk and yelled at him always struck me as implausible. Rabbi Silver was a passionate man, but he knew how to behave in meetings with the President of the United States and other government officials.

The claim that Silver banged on the president’s desk and yelled at him always struck me as implausible.

Sure enough, my investigation into the source of the alleged incident quickly raised more questions than it answered. McCullough’s only source was the aforementioned “terror and money” memo, which mentions no punches or screams.

So I checked Truman’s daily calendar to see when the alleged incident could have taken place. Silver only visited the White House twice during Truman’s presidency, on September 29, 1945, and July 2, 1946. But he didn’t go alone. Silver was accompanied by Stephen Wise on the first visit, and Wise, along with Zionist officials Nahum Goldmann and Louis Lipsky, on the second. Which means if Silver had indeed “hammered” the president’s desk and yelled at him at every opportunity, there would have been eyewitnesses.

It turns out that Wise, Goldmann and Lipsky were fierce rivals to Silver. Surely they would have mentioned an incident that would have justified their view of him. Yet their autobiographies, published letters, and private correspondence say nothing about the subject. Goldmann, in his memoirs, claimed of Silver that “there was something of the terrorist in his manners and attitude.” But he didn’t mention any punches to illustrate Silver’s supposedly terrorist nature. Incidentally, President Truman also did not mention it in his own published memoirs.

Several other books that chronicle the alleged punches cite another third-hand source: an obscure book (a history of a Kansas synagogue) that quoted Elinor Borenstine, the daughter of Truman’s Jewish friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson.

So I phoned Ms. Borenstine for clarification. It turned out she had relied on a 1968 essay by her father, in which he reported that Truman had once complained to him about the “disrespect and meanness of certain Jewish leaders toward him.” “. Jacobson wrote nothing about punching or shouting. In fact, he didn’t mention Silver by name.

Interestingly, however, there is another anecdote from this period, based on a more solid source, which involves “pounding” of the fists, but it was Truman who was doing the pounding.

Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, a highly respected investigative journalist, reported on March 10, 1948, that Truman had lost his temper during a recent conversation about Palestine with “a New York editor.” (He was referring to Ted Thackery of the New York Post.) Pearson wrote, “Pounding his desk, [Truman] used words that cannot be repeated about the “Jewish (virgins) of New York”. “They are disloyal to their country. Disloyal!’ he shouted.

President Truman denied the story, but Pearson held firm. Is it possible that Truman, in his complaints to Eddie Jacobson or others about “disrespectful” Jewish behavior, was in fact projecting something in his own intemperate ways?

Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: David McCullough was wrong. His biography, Truman, was a bestseller. It won rave reviews. It was even made into an HBO movie. But McCullough’s careless accusation of an American Zionist leader, made without any documentation, reminds us that even Pulitzer Prize winners can sometimes make mistakes, serious mistakes.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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