Harry Truman, Anti-Semite?

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Was President Harry Truman anti-Semitic?

The National Archives has just released a newly-discovered diary kept by Truman, which includes an extremely harsh passage about Jews.

The diary entry is dated July 21, 1947–a little more than two years since Franklin Roosevelt had died during his fourth term in office, but before Truman, who was FDR’s vice president, had won the presidency on his own.

Former Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., had just spoken with President Truman about the plight of Holocaust survivors –apparently the passengers of the S.S.Exodus– whom the British had turned away from Palestine’s shores and sent back to Europe. Morgenthau hoped Truman would press the British on the matter.

Truman wrote in his diary: “He [had] no business, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement on world affairs. Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed.”

The “thousand Jews” to whom Truman referred were the one token group of Jewish refugees whom the Roosevelt administration had permitted to enter the U.S., outside the immigration quotas, during the Holocaust. Yes, Morgenthau and others who urged admission of those refugees had said they could be sent back to Europe after the war–but it was Truman who, in December 1945, approved their permanent admission to the United States. Truman recognized that it was unthinkable to force the refugees back to their native lands, where the Nazis had murdered their families and destroyed their homes and communities.

As we now know about FDR himself, Truman also had shown very little “sense of proportion” over the plight of Europe’s Jews when they were being slaughtered during the Holocaust. When a Missouri rabbi wrote to then-Senator Truman in 1943 to urge Congressional action to rescue refugees, Truman coldly replied: “I do not think it is the business of Senators who are not on the Foreign Relations Committee to dabble in matters which affect our relations with the Allies at this time …it is of vital importance that the Jewish Congregations be patient and support wholeheartedly the foreign policy of our government.”

Truman’s newly-discovered 1947 diary entry continues:

“The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I’ve found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.”

This passage indicates Truman had little or no appreciation that the victimization of the Jews had indeed been unique. Estonians and Latvians had experienced the ‘normal’ discomforts and dislocations of war. The Jews, by contrast, had been singled out for mass murder, and six million had been annihilated in gas chambers and machine-gun massacres–with the active collaboration of more than a few Estonians and Latvians, in fact.

Truman’s position on postwar admission of Holocaust survivors to the U.S. was equally insensitive. In 1947, Jewish organizations lobbied for legislation to bring in 400,000 Displaced Persons over four years. But Catholic groups and Congressional opponents of large-scale Jewish immigration cut it to two years, required 30% of the immigrants to be agricultural workers, and required 40% to come from Soviet-annexed countries such as Estonia and Latvia. The result: a bill that would help relatively few Jewish DPs. Truman refused to intervene. After Congress passed the bill, he issued a token statement criticizing it, but signed it into law anyway.

In matters concerning Jewish survival, Truman often substituted rhetoric for action. He urged the British to admit 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine–but never took concrete steps to pressure London to do so. He endorsed the admission of Holocaust survivors to the U.S.–but remained silent as the DP legislation was neutered. He granted diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel just minutes after the state was created–but refused to send Israel weapons to defend itself against five invading Arab armies.

Truman’s rhetoric was tied to his political strategy. He was interested in helping the Democrats in the 1945 election for governor of New York, the 1946 midterm Congressional elections, and, of course, his own election campaign in 1948. His rhetoric reflected the bare minimum necessary to make a positive impression on Jewish voters.

The symbolism of Truman’s dramatic recognition of newborn Israel did indeed leave a deep impression on American Jewry and, to this day, the popular perception of Truman as Israel’s savior has endured.

This is so despite earlier revelations about Truman’s anti-Jewish prejudices. Prof. Michael Cohen’s 1991 comprehensive study, Truman and Israel, previously revealed many additional examples of Truman’s bigotry–Truman had privately described New York City as a “kike town,” referred to his Jewish friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, as his “Jew clerk,” and wrote to his wife, Bess, about someone in a poker game who had “screamed like a Jewish merchant.” In June 1945, Truman wrote in a private memorandum: “The Jews claim God Almighty picked ’em out for special privilege. Well I’m sure He had better judgement. Fact is I never thought God picked any favorites.” And there were many other such remarks.

The new Truman diary passage is consistent with what we know of a man who, despite his personal friendship with several Jews and recognition of Israel, harbored deep anti-Jewish prejudices and was largely indifferent to the Nazi and Arab victimizations of the Jewish people.

July 2003