Was Truman Antisemitic–and Does it Matter?

by Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org)

Former President Harry Truman accepted his wife’s rule to never permit Jews in their home, according to a new book.

Does this prove that Truman was antisemitic? And does it matter if he was?

The new allegation concerning the Trumans appears in the book Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, by Michael Beschloss, published by Simon & Schuster.

According to Beschloss, when talk show host David Susskind asked the ex-president, in 1953, why he had never been invited to the Truman home despite their many interviews, Truman replied: “You’re a Jew, David, and no Jew has ever been in the house. Bess runs it, and there’s never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother’s lifetime.” Beschloss also reports that in a private letter to his wife in 1957, Truman referred to New York City as “the U.S. capital of Israel.”

The latest revelation follows other unpleasant discoveries about the former president. Four years ago, researchers found a Truman diary entry from 1947 which declared: “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[erson]s 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.”

Prof. Michael Cohen’s book, Truman and Israel, previously revealed Truman’s remarks calling New York City “kike town”; referring to his Jewish friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, as his “Jew clerk”; and writing to Bess about someone in a poker game who had “screamed like a Jewish merchant.” Yet it is also true that Truman was more sympathetic to creating a Jewish state than was his State Department, and he quickly extended U.S. recognition to the newborn State of Israel in 1948.

Truman was not the only public figure of that era whose unflattering private views about Jews were accompanied by at least rhetorical support for Zionism.

A recently-discovered account of a 1939 conversation between President Franklin Roosevelt and then-Senator Burton Wheeler quoted FDR as saying, “You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins …”

A recent book about the owners of the New York Times, by scholars Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, quoted FDR complaining that the Times’s owners used a “dirty Jewish trick” to keep their newspaper within the family. It has also long been known that Roosevelt told French military leaders in North Africa in 1943 that limits should be placed on local Jews entering some professions, lest there be a recurrence of what FDR called “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany…”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a recently-discovered unpublished essay by Winston Churchill, written in 1937, justified antisemitic responses to Jewish moneylenders: “Every Jewish moneylender [reminds the public of] Shylock and the idea of the Jews as usurers. And you cannot reasonably expect a struggling clerk or shopkeeper, paying 40 or 50 per cent interest on borrowed money to a ‘Hebrew Bloodsucker’, to reflect that almost every other way of life was closed to the Jewish people.”

Did their private statements about Jews affect these leaders’ public positions on Jewish issues?

Churchill vocally supported the Zionist cause throughout his career. Yet as prime minister during the Holocaust, Churchill left in place the harsh White Paper policy that kept all but a handful of Jews from entering Palestine, thus trapping them in Hitler’s inferno.

Roosevelt expressed sympathy for the Jews being massacred by the Nazis, but refrained from taking meaningful steps to help them. On occasion, FDR told the British they should open Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler, but he was never willing to really lean on Churchill to do so.

Truman, for his part, showed little interest in the Holocaust. When a Missouri rabbi wrote to then-Senator Truman in 1943 to urge Congressional action to rescue refugees from Hitler, 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.”

As president, Truman urged the British to admit Holocaust survivors to Palestine, but he never seriously pressured London to do so. He is fondly remembered for granting diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel minutes after the state was created, but he refused to send Israel weapons to defend itself against five invading Arab armies.

In the end, Truman’s actions, and Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s as well, spoke louder than their words.

July 2007