On Abba Hillel Silver’s 50th Yahrzeit, New Documents Vindicate his Strategy

by Rafael Medoff 

As the 50th yahrzeit of American Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver approaches, newly discovered documents appear to confirm his skeptical view of the Truman administration’s position on Jewish statehood.

Silver, a dynamic rabbi and Zionist orator from Cleveland, passed away on November 30, 1963. During the 1940s, he spearheaded a nationwide campaign of rallies, petitions, and lobbying to convince U.S. policymakers to support creation of a Jewish state in British Mandatory Palestine.

But not all Jewish leaders agreed with Silver’s activist approach. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who co-chaired the American Zionist movement alongside Silver, favored a more cautious strategy. He believed President Franklin Roosevelt, and later President Harry Truman, could be relied upon to support Zionism. Silver was more skeptical, arguing that senior U.S. officials could not be counted on to back Jewish statehood unless they faced serious political pressure from the Jewish community.

Two previously unpublished documents, recently located by this author at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, appear to vindicate Silver’s view, at least to some extent. The documents suggest that Major-General Harry Vaughan, a senior aide to President Truman, privately harbored extremely negative views of Jews and Zionism.

Vaughan was a longtime friend and important influence on Truman, although his role in Palestine policy is not widely known. He is not even mentioned in most books about American Zionism or America-Israel relations.

One of the newly-discovered documents is a memo to Silver from one of his top aides, Dr. Benjamin Akzin, written in March 1946. Akzin was one of the heads of the Zionist movement’s lobbying unit in Washington, D.C. In the memo, Akzin describes what “reliable informants” had recently told him about attitudes toward Zionism among Truman administration officials.

“As an example of the real feelings of inner White House circles,” Akzin wrote, “they cited an instance when, at a social occasion, it was pointed out that the Arab policy of the Government was certain to harm the chances of Jews in Palestine. To this, Colonel Vaughn [sic], the aide to the President and one of his very closest friends, replied: ‘Who cares about that? The Jews cause trouble wherever they live anyhow!’ ”

Akzin’s description accords with a second memo to Silver, this one from Eliahu Epstein, the chief Washington representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Epstein, who later changed his name to Elath, would serve as the first Israeli ambassador to the United States. In the memo, written in July 1947, Epstein complained that President Truman “remains passive” with regard to the Zionist cause.

Epstein then elaborated on the reasons for Truman’s indifference, the first of which was Vaughan’s influence: “I have heard that his military advisers, and especially his Military Aide, Major General Harry H. Vaughan, have a very bad influence on him where the Palestine question is concerned. According to my information, Vaughan is an anti-Semite and is strongly swayed by some of the British members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff.”

Truman’s Palestine policy was a maze of contradictions that often left American Jews bewildered. He urged admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1945, but then rebuffed calls by Silver and other Jewish leaders to put economic pressure on the British to open Palestine’s gates. Truman supported the November 1947 United Nations plan to partition the Holy Land into Jewish and Arab states, but three months later backed off and endorsed putting Palestine under a U.N. trusteeship. When Israel was established in May 1948, Truman granted it de facto recognition, but then refused to provide the Jewish state with any weapons to defend itself against the invading Arab armies.

Vaughan and Truman met while serving in the army together in 1918. Later, as vice president, Truman hired Vaughan as his adviser on military affairs and ushered him into the small circle of close friends with whom Truman drank bourbon and played poker.  

Vaughan occasionally found himself in the spotlight: in 1949, for example, a prominent journalist urged Truman to fire him for accepting a medal from Argentina’s fascist government. Truman angrily responded, ”No S.O.B. is going to tell me who to have on my staff or in my Cabinet.” And Vaughan did indeed remain by Truman’s side throughout the rest of his presidency–no doubt much to the dismay of American Zionists.

November 2013