Seventy years ago, the front page of the November 3, 1948, edition of The Chicago Tribune read “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune’s announcement proved premature, as incumbent President Harry Truman pulled an upset victory over his Republican challenger, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. In addition to serving as an early example of fake news, the immortal image of Truman triumphantly brandishing the headline lets us reflect on his relationship with the Jewish people.
American Jews have rightly lionized Truman for his embrace of Israel. When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israeli independence in May 1948, Truman spurned the counsel of his State Department, which feared backlash from oil-rich Arab countries, in recognizing the State of Israel just 11 minutes later. His anti-Soviet policy of Containment thereafter made Israel a check against the USSR’s influence in the Middle East and laid the groundwork for robust support of the Jewish state under future administrations. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon followed Truman’s example of extending support to Israel as a means to counter Soviet aggression up until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while presidents since then have all maintained the special relationship. We should credit Truman for both recognizing the State of Israel and consolidating the U.S.-Israel relationship.
A Missourian of hardscrabble stock (he lacked both a college degree and middle name), Truman embodied the New Deal-era progressivism that resonated deeply with American Jews. The latter’s affinity for the labor movement and corresponding loyalty to the Democratic Party helped Truman win the 1948 election, in which he took 75 percent of the Jewish vote. As president, Truman prioritized civil rights and other social reforms largely supported by Jewish voters. On international affairs, his administration’s anti-Communist stance was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the United Nations, all of which strengthened the liberal internationalist order that took shape in the post-war years.
Truman’s mark on Jewish culture runs deep. For example, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Truman Research Institute works to promote peace in the Middle East and beyond. As vice president in early 1945, Truman posed while playing the piano at the National Press Club as the beautiful Lauren Bacall (herself Jewish) lounged on top — the image was captured in another memorable photograph. Truman, like his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt, led a Democratic Party in which Jews felt at home and a country in which they could prosper.
In private, however, Truman voiced derisive views of Jews. In a diary entry about former Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, he dismissed Jewish people as “very, very selfish.” Other scornful remarks about Jews have come to light as well. His wife Bess was by some accounts an anti-Semite, as there is evidence suggesting she never allowed Jews in her home. Such contemporary revelations paint a clearer picture of Truman’s character.
Though his alleged anti-Semitism was not as vile as other politicians’ (Richard Nixon comes to mind), Truman did hold prejudices not uncommon in mid-century America. Morgenthau’s short tenure aside, his Cabinet included no Jews — although nor did Eisenhower’s.
Truman was an imperfect man with imperfect views. The unfavorable regard he had for Jews does not negate his many contributions to the Jewish community or the country as a whole. One should judge Truman on his actions, not on a few unflattering comments. As collective memory of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” fades, we ought to recognize the great president he was without overlooking the flawed man he was.
Daniel J. Samet is a foreign-affairs researcher based in Washington,