6-237 Meeting with President Truman and Others, May 12, 1948

Date: May 12, 1948

May 12, 1948
Washington, DC

PRESIDENT Truman called Marshall to a meeting in the White House at 4:00 p.m. “because he was seriously concerned as to what might happen in Palestine after May 15” when the British relinquished their authority. Accompanying Marshall were Robert A. Lovett and two members of the department staff. With the president were his special counsel (i.e., political adviser), Clark M. Clifford; his administrative assistant, David K. Niles; and his appointments secretary, Matthew J. Connelly. (Foreign Relations, 1948, 5, pt. 2: 972–76; quote on p. 972.) “Of all the meetings I ever had with Presidents,” Clifford wrote in his memoirs, “this one remains the most vivid.” (Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir [New York: Random House, 1991], p. 3.)

Lovett began with “a lengthy exposition of recent events bearing on the Palestine problem.” Officials of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, he noted, had recently become confident—based on their military successes and the possibility of an agreement with King Abdullah of Transjordan—that they could establish a sovereign state without any necessity for a truce with the Palestinian Arabs.

“I intervened at this juncture,” Marshall is recorded as saying, to recall what he had told Moshe Shertok, head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, at a May 8 meeting: “I had stressed that it was extremely dangerous to base long-range policy on temporary military success. There was no doubt but that the Jewish army had gained such temporary success but there was no assurance whatever that in the long range the tide might not turn against them. I told Mr. Shertok, that they were taking a gamble. If the tide did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk which they were running.” (Foreign Relations, 1948, 5, pt. 2: 973.)

After some further discussion by Lovett, the president asked Clark Clifford to make a statement. As Clifford’s assistant George Elsey summarized the position they had developed: “1. Recognition is consistent with U.S. policy from the beginning. 2. A separate Jewish State is inevitable. It will be set up in a few days. 3. Other nations will recognize it. We shall have to, also, in a few months. 4. It is better to recognize now—steal a march on U.S.S.R. 5. The proposed State Dept action would accomplish nothing at all.” (Quoted in the editorial note ibid., p. 976.)

Lovett launched into the department’s rebuttal, saying that since the United States was a member of the Security Council’s Truce Commission on Palestine, it could not unilaterally get the council to drop the truce idea “and it would be most unbecoming, in light of our activities to secure a truce.” Moreover, “it would be highly injurious to the United Nations to announce the recognition of the Jewish State even before it had come into existence and while the General Assembly, which had been called into special session at the request of the United States, was still considering the question of the future government of Palestine.” In addition, “premature recognition” would hurt the president’s prestige, as “it was a very transparent attempt to win the Jewish vote but, in Mr. Lovett’s opinion, it would lose more votes that it would gain. Finally, to recognize the Jewish State prematurely would be buying a pig in a poke. How did we know what kind of Jewish state would be set up?” Lovett said he “failed to see any particular urgency in the United States rushing to recognize the Jewish State prior to possible Soviet recognition.” (Ibid., p. 975.)

Clifford recalled that Marshall then spoke “with barely contained rage and more than a hint of self-righteousness” regarding the presence of the domestic political adviser’s role in the foreign policy issue. (Clifford, Counsel to the President, pp. 12–13.) In the wording of the memorandum of conversation, Marshall then “remarked to the President that, speaking objectively, I could not help but think that the suggestions made by Mr. Clifford were wrong. I thought that to adopt these suggestions would have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by Mr. Clifford. The transparent dodge to win a few votes would not in fact achieve this purpose. The great dignity of the office of the President would be seriously diminished. The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford was based on domestic political considerations, while the problem which confronted us was international. I said bluntly that if the President were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.” (Foreign Relations, 1948, 5, pt. 2: 975.)

After May 16, Marshall and Lovett told the president, “we would take another look at the situation in Palestine in light of the facts as they existed.” The president “terminated the interview by saying that he was fully aware of the difficulties and dangers in the situation, to say nothing of the political risks involved which he, himself, would run.” (Ibid., pp. 975–76. Israel proclaimed its independence at 6:01 p.m. Washington time May 14 [i.e., 12:01 a.m. May 15 in Tel Aviv]. The United States gave the state de facto recognition at 6:11 p.m.) *