President Truman and UN Vote 1947 – Blessing or Curse?

Photo collage by Risto Huvila - photos: public domain (UN & White House)

Seventy-two years ago, on Thanksgiving weekend in 1947, world Jewry gathered around their radios holding their breath. A live broadcast from the United Nations headquarters in Flushing Meadows, New York was about to commence. The world powers – small and large – were ready to cast their ballots either for or against the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. What was at stake was no less than the future of the Jewish people.

I recount the story of this fascinating process in my book The Miracle of Israel and President Truman, and let the story start in September 1947:

* * *

At the same time in Washington, there was a tough tug-of -war going on for the future of Palestine. President Harry Truman had, since the beginning of his term of office in April 1945, insisted that Britain open the gates of Palestine to the Jewish concentration camp survivors, but there was no acceptance of his demands from Prime Minister Attlee.

When the Palestine question was transferred to the UN, Truman was opposed by his own administration and especially by the top officials of the State Department, then led by Secretary of State Marshall, all of whom who were afraid the Arab nations would be driven into the Soviet bloc and, subsequently, close off their oil wells, which, in turn, would bring the industry and economic growth of the superpower to a halt.

However, the President did not succumb to that threat but, instead, said that he did not make decisions based on oil but rather on what was right.

Truman had just appointed Marshall as the Secretary of State in January 1947, not knowing what kind of an opponent on the Palestine question this successful five-star wartime general would be. At the beginning of January, the President had, in his diary, penned flattering descriptions of the general: he is the most capable man in the whole gallery (Jan 1), and Marshall is – as I think – the greatest man in the Second World War (Jan 8).

Secretary of State Marshall had refrained from stating his view on the Palestine question beyond the summer of 1947 but, in his speech to the General Assembly on September 17, he announced that his country would give great emphasis to the Special Committee’s [UNSCOP, UN Special Committee of Palestine] partition plan. Zionists interpreted this as support for the Jewish State and so did the Arabs.

The next day, after Marshall’s speech, the Director of the State Department of Middle East and Africa, Loy Henderson, wrote to Undersecretary Robert Lovett stating that the delegates of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Transjordan and Saudi-Arabia had warned that the view presented by the Secretary of State jeopardized the United States’ relations with these nations.

On September 22nd,  Henderson wrote  a memo to Marshall where he justified, in detail, why the United States should not support the partitioning of Palestine into two states, saying that ”nearly every member of the Foreign Service or of the Department” is against the establishment of the Jewish state. The key points of Henderson’s memo were the following:

  1. An advocacy on our part of any plan providing for the partitioning of Palestine or the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state would be certain to undermine our relations with the Arab, and to a lesser extent with the Moslem, world at a time when the Western World needs the friendship and cooperation of the Arabs and oilier Moslems.
  2. If we advocate a plan providing for partitioning and the setting up of a Jewish State, we shall certainly be expected to make major contributions in force, materials and money to the implementation of such a plan if it is adopted.
  3. Any plan for partitioning Palestine would be unworkable.

As a result of this, Marshall invited the representatives of the Arab nations to lunch the following day and assured them that the United States was still open-minded about a solution for Palestine.

In a Washington meeting with his closest officers in the beginning of October, Marshall emphasized that “The US is committed historically to the encouragement of Jewish immigration to Palestine. The US, however, is not committed to support the creation of a Sovereign Jewish State.”

This statement brought out the discrepancy between the President’s view and that of the Secretary of State. As soon as he became President, Truman had informed the State Department, in the spring of 1945, that he endorsed the establishment of the Jewish State, and, by the fall of 1946, he had already publicly supported the case.

Truman was, in fact, between a rock and a hard place with his unambiguous opinion, and he was irritated by the State Department’s opposition and the pressure from Zionists. The latter went so far that in the fall of 1947, Truman decided not to see one single representative of any Jewish organization concerning the Palestine question.

This was widely interpreted as Truman turning his back on the whole notion of the Jewish State, which baffled the Jewish communities all throughout the United States and Europe.

As a matter of fact, Truman had, for a long time, been tired of the pressure from the Jewish organizations, especially when they all disagreed with one another and no plan or thought from the President seemed to suit anyone. Frustrated by harsh critique from a certain Jewish organization, Truman noted at a cabinet meeting in July 1946:

Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?

The Ad hoc Committee, appointed by the UN General Assembly, discussed the Palestine question throughout most of October and heard the final speeches from the Arab and Jewish representatives on October 18. Jamal Husseini, who represented the Arab Higher Committee, announced that they accepted neither the UNSCOP majority nor minority report but, instead, wanted to establish an independent, democratic Arab state covering the entire Palestinian territory. Husseini justified the Arabs’ right to Palestine by claiming that many sources mentioned that the east European Jews were originally Khazars from areas in Southern Russia and Turkey, and that, therefore, they should have nothing to do with Palestine.

In his closing speech, Chaim Weizmann, representing the Jewish Agency, underlined the 1922 resolution of the League of Nations as a foundation for the creation of a Jewish State after the British mandate. As an interesting detail, written at the end of Weizmann’s speech, was a Bible verse related to the return of the Jews (Isaiah 11:11-12):

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean.

He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.

The opinions of the State Department and the White House on the propositions of the UNSCOP majority report were constantly different. Marshall would have been ready to give the Negev Desert to the Arabs, but Truman called the American members of the UN delegation personally and stated that in spite of the State Department’s view, the Negev needed to be a part of the Jewish State.

On November 7, Marshall wrote this memo to Truman:

The Middle East is undoubtedly in for a rocky time. In Palestine, we have a situation which is badly fouled up by the past mistakes of many people, including ourselves. These probably cannot be settled without great unpleasantness, including violence.

The further development of this situation is inevitably going to present favorable opportunities for the Russians to fish in muddy waters. These they will exploit to the limit.

But if we and the British remain united in the resolve to hold this area free of Soviet control, and agreed as to the methods for doing so, we ought to be able to weather the storm.

The point of the justifications of Marshall and the State Department had little by little shifted from the threat regarding the oil supply to the Soviet expansion efforts, about which they knew Truman was extremely concerned.

Many other countries waited to form their own opinions, in order to hear the Soviet and American views presented at the General Assembly and the Ad hoc committee which would determine how they would vote in the final decision.

Truman had ordered his trusted men to be directly in touch with the leadership of UN member states and to pressure them to vote for the partition of Palestine. Truman’s Press Secretary had written him the following note:

Palestine votes look a little better.

  1. We have been in touch with Liberian minister to try to get the Government’s instructions to support us.
  2. I think we have Haiti.
  3. We may get Philippines out of No and into abstention, or with luck, yes.
  4. Cuba still won’t play.
  5. Greece is uncertain but has the excuse of the Balkan Commission vote trade with Moslems.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion, behind the scenes, was held between Harvey Firestone, the owner of a large car tire company together with William Tubman, the president of Liberia. Truman used all his influence – direct and indirect – to get as many nations as possible behind the partition plan. Firestone company’s rubber tree plantations made up the lion’s share of Liberian export earnings, and Firestone personally let the country’s president know that if Liberia voted against the partition plan, Firestone would not implement the planned factory expansions in the country. The call had the desired effect.

When Loy Henderson from the State Department heard rumors that the White House had overridden the Department and given a direct instruction to the American members of the UN delegation, he called Herschel Johnson, the acting UN Ambassador, who confirmed that this was the instruction of the President’s advisor David Niles.

It was difficult for Henderson to believe that the President had authorized Niles to give such a directive, but Truman confirmed his involvement in the matter to Eddie Jacobson and Abe Granoff, his long-time Jewish friends from Kansas City, when, on December 8th,  they came to thank Truman for the UN partition decision:

Mr. President, we came here once in our lives not asking you for anything. Just to say thank you and God bless you.

Truman told the men he had been responsible for persuading the delegations from different countries to support the partition decision, and Jacobson even wrote an article about this with Truman’s blessing to the National Jewish Monthly.

In the General Assembly’s final discussion, both the United States and Soviet Union expressed their support for the two-state model, according to which a Jewish State and an Arab State would be established simultaneously in Palestine. Soviet representative Andrei Gromyko said in his speech that any other model was out of the question, because the Arabs had announced that they would not take part in any kind of cooperation with the Jews.

The UN General Assembly received the results of the vote as well as the arguments supporting the partition plan by the subcommittees of the Ad hoc Committee. Then, finally on Saturday, November 29, 1947 – the same weekend that the United States celebrated Thanksgiving – the world organization was ready to vote for the Palestine partition plan, according to which two independent nations were established in the territory and the City of Jerusalem remained an international trusteeship administered by the UN.

The vote was as follows:

33 nations voted for the two-state model: Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Soviet Union, Sweden, Ukraine, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

13 nations voted against the partition plan: Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen,

10 nations abstained from voting: Argentina, Chile, China, Columbia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Honduras, Mexico and Yugoslavia,

Siam (current Thailand) was absent from the voting.

The Jewish people around the world followed the voting on their radios, holding their breath – and after hearing the result, broke into unprecedented elation. In Flushing Meadows, a Jewish Zionist delegation which had followed the General Assembly’s voting on the spot broke into tears, and their rabbi shouted in a loud voice: This is the day the Lord has made!

Finally, the road was open to establish a nation of their own in Palestine – to a territory from which the Jewish people were driven out with force 1,900 years earlier. Now, if ever, it was appropriate to end the prayer with the words,  ”Next year in Jerusalem!”

From the point of view of international politics, the Palestine partition plan was the first major contentious international issue upon which the Soviet Union and the United States agreed. Similar like-mindedness has not often occurred since that vote.

As a Christian, I cannot help but think about the present position the 13 nations who went against the establishment of the Jewish State. Most of these nations have experienced years or decades of war or other acts of violence, poverty and corruption. By 2017, each one of those nations had already, at some point, drifted to being on the verge of collapse either in terms of their economic, political or human rights system.

What the Almighty said to Abraham concerning the Jewish people in Genesis chapter 12 seems to be true in light of history:

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.

About the Author
Risto Huvila, a public speaker, pianist and writer from Finland, observes European and American Middle East policies and antisemitism through evangelical lenses. As chairman of the Federation of Finland-Israel Associations and vice-chair of the Finnish Holocaust Remembrance Association, he is an active advocate for Israel. Risto has authored the book The Miracle of Israel and President Truman and he appears frequently in media.
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