In the celebrations next week surrounding Israel's 60th anniversary, it should not be forgotten that there was an epic struggle in Washington over how to respond to Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. It led to the most serious disagreement President Harry Truman ever had with his revered secretary of state, George C. Marshall -- and with most of the foreign policy establishment. Twenty years ago, when I was helping Clark Clifford write his memoirs, I reviewed the historical record and interviewed all the living participants in that drama. The battle lines drawn then resonate still.
The British planned to leave Palestine at midnight on May 14. At that moment, the Jewish Agency, led by David Ben-Gurion, would proclaim the new (and still unnamed) Jewish state. The neighboring Arab states warned that fighting, which had already begun, would erupt into full-scale war at that moment.
The Jewish Agency proposed partitioning Palestine into two parts -- one Jewish, one Arab. But the State and Defense departments backed the British plan to turn Palestine over to the United Nations. In March, Truman privately promised Chaim Weizmann, the future president of Israel, that he would support partition -- only to learn the next day that the American ambassador to the United Nations had voted for U.N. trusteeship. Enraged, Truman wrote a private note on his calendar: "The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today. The first I know about it is what I read in the newspapers! Isn't that hell? I'm now in the position of a liar and double-crosser. I've never felt so low in my life. . . ."