FDR’s Five Minutes With the Saudi King

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty-five years ago this week, President Franklin Roosevelt uttered one of the most remarkable public statements ever spoken about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

FDR addressed Congress on March 1, 1945, to report on the Yalta conference and his other meetings abroad. Briefly referring to the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine, the president departed from his prepared text to offer this observation from his meeting with Ibn Saud, the kind of Saudi Arabia: “I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.”

Roosevelt’s statement sparked a barrage of criticism from Congress and the American Jewish community. “The choice of the desert king as expert on the Jewish question is nothing short of amazing,” Colorado Senator Edwin Johnson averred. “I imagine that even Fala [the president’s dog] would be more of an expert.”

The era’s foremost Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, immediately requested an audience with the president, in order clarify the president’s intentions.

Wise knew all too well the problems inherent in such meetings. The first was just getting FDR’s attention. In a document I recently found at the Central Zionist Archives, World Jewish Congress co-chairman Nahum Goldmann in 1944 described to David Ben-Gurion and other leaders of the Jewish Agency in Palestine what it was like trying to have a meaningful discussion with Roosevelt: “It is impossible to educate him, because you get to see him only once every six months, for thirty minutes, ten of which are spent by him telling anecdotes, after which he expects to hear you tell him anecdotes, and then there are only ten minutes left for a serious conversation–what can one accomplish like this?”

The second problem in discussing Palestine with Roosevelt was his tendency to talk out of both sides of his mouth. When he met Wise following the “five minutes with Ibn Saud” remark in March 1945, FDR began by berating the Jewish leader about the dangers of seeking Jewish statehood: “You are a minister of religion. Do you want me to encourage five or six hundred thousand Jews to die?” Yet at the same time, he told Wise he still stood by a letter he wrote five months earlier, supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Then, shortly afterwards, FDR met with anti-Zionists Joseph Proskauer and Jacob Blaustein, leaders of the American Jewish Committee, and told them “the project of a Jewish state in Palestine was, under present conditions, impossible of accomplishment…”

Vice President Henry Wallace had it right when he wrote in his diary: “The President certainly is a waterman. He looks in one direction and rows the other with the utmost skill…”

What was really remarkable about FDR’s “five minutes” remark was its honesty. Speechwriters and p.r. handlers know the dangers of presidents making unrehearsed statements about the Middle East. But every once in a while, a president slips and says what he really thinks. FDR probably DID learn more in those five minutes than from any another source.

What Ibn Saud told him was that the Arab world would never accept a Jewish state of any size in the Holy Land. Saud also “objected violently” to proposals to create a temporary haven in Libya for Jews fleeing the Nazis. The king recommended settling all Holocaust survivors in Germany after the war. He even spurned FDR’s talk of international aid to develop Arab countries; Saud feared the benefits of such development might be “inherited by the Jews,” since Jewish immigrants to Palestine might be secretly planning to conquer the entire Mideast.

Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins, reflecting on the “five minutes” remark years later, still found it difficult to understand. “The only thing he learned, which all people well acquainted with the Palestine cause know,” Hopkins wrote, “is that the Arabs don’t want any more Jews in Palestine.” Perhaps that was it–perhaps until he heard it first hand, FDR harbored the illusion that the Arabs would agree to a Jewish state, if it occupied a small enough area or did not admit too many immigrants.

Nahum Goldmann may have been unable to educate Roosevelt in the ten minutes he said were allotted for Jewish leaders’ conversations with the president, but the Saudi king managed to educate FDR in five–by being brutally honest.

March 2010