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Harry Truman’s Diary: How Legitimate Are Charges of Anti-Semitism?

David Eugene Blank
Spring 2004

The brouhaha over a short three-paragraph long Diary entry President Harry S. Truman made on July 21, 1947 that had been long misplaced has led to the less than convincing suggestion that our 33rd President was a closet anti-Semite. The writer rises to defend President Truman’s 1947 Diary entry and its critical reference to “Jews,” from the charge of its revealing an anti-Semitic nature. He rises to Truman’s defense to argue that if his fellow Jews opt to have their organized Jewish life revolve around highly politicized agendas such as providing a foreign nation, Israel, with an unquestioning American political lobby, or to advance other secular political causes in the public arena in the name of a Jewish community, criticizing Jews as forming either a “Zionist lobby,” or as a key “Jewish cabal or hawkish” faction of the “neo-conservatives” surrounding President Bush is, therefore, robust, and legitimate free speech, and is not anti-Semitic.  

President Truman’s Diary entry, read and understood within the context of the reality of 1947, and not through the tinted lenses of 2004, is not anti-Semitic. The anger that “Give Them Hell Harry” was expressing in his diary on July 21, 1947 was not directed at Jews, but primarily at the man he summarily fired — as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in July, 1945, Henry Morgenthau Jr., and the “Zionists,” who Morgenthau represented. A quick reading of the text of the long lost Truman Diary and its entry for July 21, 1947, [available at www.truman library.org/diary/transcript] would reveal that the target of Truman’s anger was clearly Morgenthau, who as Chair of the United Jewish Appeal had called him about the British seizing an illegal Zionist ship, The Exodus, loaded with 4,500 European Jewish DPs or displaced persons.  

Guerilla Theater  

The voyage of this ship from France to Palestine in July, 1947, which was funded by American Zionists, was “pure political and guerilla theater,” designed to sabotage President Truman’s declared call for “restraint” by all sides in the growing conflict in Palestine, and his effort to assist our ally, Britain, in maintaining control there in the face of an ongoing, deadly Zionist terror campaign that killed many British soldiers, some even days before the ‘Exodus incident’ burst upon the world. Truman wrote, “Had ten minute conversation with Henry Morgenthau about Jewish ship in Palistine [sic] ... He’d no business, whatever to call me.”  


President Truman had three legitimate reasons to be angry with Henry Morgenthau in 1947. Following Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945, and the Nazi surrender in May, 1945, President Truman was so worried about Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s attitude toward postwar Germany and so fearful of the disaster the vindictive and harsh “Morgenthau Plan,” [ which called for the de-industrialization and dismemberment of Germany] would cause if it were to be attempted, that in July, 1945 — at a time when the U.S. was without a Vice President, according to Michael Beschloss’ study, The Conquerors: Roosevelt and Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany 1941-1945, he demanded the immediate resignation of Henry Morgenthau as Treasury Secretary, prior to going to the all important Potsdam Conference.  

The second reason for Truman’s July, 1947 anger at Morgenthau, was that as President, he knew the contents of the super-secret U.S. Army intelligence, Venona Intercepts of Soviet diplomatic and KGB wire traffic between the U.S. and Russia. The Venona Intercepts — supported by recent findings in the former Soviet Union — strongly suggested that the notorious “Morgenthau Plan” for postwar Germany being pushed by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau was largely drafted by a nest of Soviet agents, led by Harry Dexter White, Henry Morgen-thau’s key assistant at Treasury. [See Beschloss, work cited above, pp. 150-157, and also see Henry Morgenthau III’s family biography, Mostly Morgenthaus: A Family History, pp.423-427]. In January 1952, after Morgenthau visited the FBI and was briefed on the Harry Dexter White file, he was distraught and wondered, if “White [had] maneuvered him, on behalf of the Soviets, to help keep Germany from blocking their domination of postwar Europe.”  

The third reason for Truman’s anger at Morgenthau was that the bitter private debate within the Roosevelt administration over the “Morgenthau Plan” had been linked to GOP President candidate, Thomas Dewey, who made it the cornerstone of his criticism of Roosevelt’s “improvised meddling” in the war that caused unnecessary U.S. casualties. Even worse, Hitler’s propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, attacked the proposed “Morgenthau Plan,” as a “Jewish murder plan” to liquidate Germans forcing many Germans to feel that they had to fight to the bitter end. Fortunately for all of us, the vindictive “Morgenthau Plan” for postwar Germany, was replaced by the more far-sighted “Marshall Plan,” in 1948. U.S. financial assistance to war ravaged Europe helped make Germany into the prosperous and genuine democracy that it is.  


Following his being fired by President Truman in 1945, Morgenthau, who had considered himself a most Americanized Reform Jew, became a “born again” Jew and a strong Zionist. He chaired the United Jewish Appeal, 1947-1950, raising over $450 million for Israel, and handled a $500 million bond for that nation. For the reader to understand Truman’s July 21, 1947 diary ramblings about “Jews” not having “judgment on world affairs,” and of “The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greek get murdered or mistreated as D[Displaced] P[persons].” we need to read the above in terms of 1947 reality.  

The political dilemma Truman faced in 1947 was complex. Despite the close ties the American Council for Judaism [ACJ ] had developed between itself and key State Department officials such as Kermit Roosevelt [who was to become a senior official in the CIA] and Loy W. Henderson, neither Truman nor his staff saw in the ACJ, a potential American Jewish constituency group, that could be developed to support opposition to Palestinian partition. Under its President, Lessing J. Rosenwald, the ACJ attempted to educate our fellow Americans about the difference between, Judaism the religion, and Zionism, a political movement, and to the fact that many American Jews were not Zionists. President Truman in 1945, appeared not to be aware of the ACJ education effort to distinguish between the words, “Jews” and “Zionist.” He hesitated even to see Lessing J. Rosenwald, President of the ACJ, until finally meeting with him in December, on the same day he met with the non-American, Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann.  

It is possible that Truman perceived Rosenwald and the ACJ leadership to have Republican and perhaps conservative political leanings. Although Rosenwald had worked for the Roosevelt administration, his father was involved in Republican Reform efforts in Chicago, and Adm. Lewis Strauss, an ACJ founder in 1942, who stayed in the background, was a long-time associate of former President Herbert Hoover. In his study of the ACJ, Jews Against Zionism, The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948, Thomas A. Kolsky suggested that Truman, may have dismissed the ACJ as representing a “minority of Jews,” with a Roper poll of American Jewish attitudes towards Zionism in 1945, revealing an 80 percent support for it compared to a slightly better than 10 percent support for the ACJ. Had Truman opted to publicly support the ACJ, in the 1945-1948 period, this public show of support might have engendered an increased ACJ presence and support within the American Jewish community.  

European Immigration  

The second reason why Truman failed to reach out to the ACJ was that a key element of its program was to have the U.S. open itself up to European immigration, and that carried with it its own political problems. In 1947, the majority of Europe’s six million DPs or Displaced Persons were Christians who fled the contemporary terror of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, as the “iron curtain” descended, rather than the estimated 250,000 Jewish DPs, who had survived Hitler’s former terror. Truman’s Diary entry was that of a fiercely partisan Democrat, fuming at the fact that GOP charges that he was allegedly soft on Communism, was partly responsible for the GOP’s Congressional electoral victory in 1946. Opening up the U.S. to massive European immigration, which Truman favored, presented him with an awesome political dilemma. On one hand, increased migration might cause unemployment to rise, while on the other hand, with regards to the Jewish DPs, Truman had to come to grips with what Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life, called “the popular association of Jews with Communism.”  

By 1947, the anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S. had started, and as Novick wrote in his above book, American Jewish groups were in near “panic” over the fact that there was a preponderance of Jews among those charged with espionage, or who were “hostile witnesses” in the various investigations underway to delouse Communist influence from key institutions such as the universities and Hollywood. Novick and Lenni Brenner, in Jews In America Today, suggested that key American Jewish groups supported Zionism and directing the bulk of the 250,000 Jewish DPs to Palestine as a means of avoiding a “feared rise in anti-Semitism.” Brenner, quoted from an American Jewish Committee memorandum that stated that, “Admitting concentration camp survivors would perhaps mean importing more anti-Semitism.” The Jewish Establishment apparently reasoned that it was better to send these Jewish DPs to Palestine/Israel, than have them migrate to the U.S.  

The fact is that America moved to combat anti-Semitism, as it rearmed to face the Soviet threat. Senator Joseph McCarthy, for example, appointed two Jewish attorneys, Roy Cohn and David Shine, to do “his dirty work.” The Federal judge who presided at the Rosenberg trial was Jewish, as were the prosecutors. Many universities started to end their infamous quota systems on admission of Jews, and even Hollywood, not known for its bravery, tackled anti-Semitism. There was a 1947 crime thriller, Crossfire, [starring Robert Mitchum] that dealt with the murder of a Jew by a “blue collar” demobilized soldier, and Hollywood quickly made the 1947 best selling book, Gentlemen’s Agreement, which attacked “white collar” anti-Semitism into a movie with Gregory Peck.  


Truman’s strongest criticism in his Diary on July 21, 1947 about “Jews,” as “underdogs,” needs to be read in the context of his fuming over the Middle East. He wrote, “Yet when they [the Jews] have power, physical, financial or political, neither Hitler nor Stalin has any thing on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog. Put an underdog on top ... he goes haywire.” This declaration, it seems clear, is a reference to that “Jewish ship in Palestine,” ‘The Exodus,’ and his anger at the Zionists and their pressure tactics. Warren Bass, author of the recently published book, Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance, writing for the JTA [Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 07/22/2003, ] may have succinctly best described Truman’s dilemma in 1947, as being “Torn between a Zionist lobby frantic to create a state ... and an American foreign policy establishment ferociously arguing ... [against] ... a Cold War calamity, Truman waffled, improvised and fumed.”  

In 1947, Truman was not yet convinced that partition was the best way to go in Palestine. As he moved to pass the “Marshall Plan,” [European Recovery Program], he realized that European recovery needed a reliable and low-cost oil supply from a stable Arab Middle East. It appears that Truman was also aware that the Jewish DPs in Europe were being radicalized in a way similar to the radicalization of the Palestinians who left their homeland in 1948 and to a lesser degree in 1967. This radicalization needs to be seen within the reality of 1947, and the fact that the ruthless Soviet Dictator, Joseph Stalin, had declared himself to be the patron of Zionism. Communist officials in a number of East European countries, primarily Poland, were allowing or encouraging their Jews to migrate to Palestine.  

Jewish DPs  

Among the estimated 150,000 East European Jews who made their way to the DP camps were former “Red Army” officers and soldiers. Henry Morgenthau III’s own account of his father’s activity accepts that the Jewish DPs were being shepherded by the Haganah (the Zionist underground military organization) into 64 collection points or camps, mostly in the U.S. Zones of Occupation in Germany and Austria, and we can assume that the young and able bodied were being shaped into a significant military force. The start of Israel’s external intelligence service, the Mossad, was in postwar Europe, and a number of Mossad agents had a Soviet KGB background. Truman had every reason to fear, and to fume about this “alliance of convenience,” between the Zionism of David Ben-Gurion, and that of Soviet Dictator, Stalin. A violent explosion in the Middle East would both disrupt European recovery and threaten the position of Britain, America’s strongest ally, and would open that vital region to Soviet penetration.  

His Diary entry of July 21, 1947 represented his “fuming.” Britain, exhausted by World War II, in February, 1947, announced that it would leave Palestine and was handing its future over to the consideration of the United Nations. Truman in July, 1947 wanted calm and “restraint” by both Arabs and Jews in Palestine, but the voyage of The Exodus was designed to provoke a crisis, and prevent restraint and reconciliation. The Exodus was a former Chesapeake Bay Ferry purchased by American Zionists associated with Henry Morgenthau, to smuggle illegal arms into Palestinian Jewish communities. Its full name in 1947 was Haganah Ship Exodus 47, and its 4,500 passengers were mainly able bodied military aged young men and women, who were both disciplined and dedicated to conquer Palestine.  


President Truman’s Diary entry of July 21, 1947 was “salty” and “blunt” reflecting his personality and the prejudices of his background. In reality, however, it was not anti-Semitic. The writer accepts the historic judgment that, with his poll numbers being low in late 1947, after considering the impact of the “Jewish vote” in vital states such as New York, [Governor Dewey, the 1948 GOP candidate was from New York]. Truman moved to support partition as part of his come back from behind winning electoral strategy.  

With regard to Truman’s fuming that “Jews” could be as bad as Hitler and Stalin, to be sure, Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians in 1948 and since, has certainly not risen to the levels of Hitler or Stalin’s mass murder. Still, it has often been in violation of international law and Jewish ethics. In 1948, the Israeli army engaged in what some have called the forced removal of about 700,000 Palestinians from their historic homes. The massacre of some 400 Palestinians at Deir Yassin was part of this effort.  

The recent media frenzy about Truman’s private Diary excesses and their being referred to as anti-Semitic is overblown, as is the promotion of such a notion by some Jewish voices. Some of those who are prepared to accept the alleged anti-Semitism of Harry Truman seem unprepared to similarly describe even more extreme outpourings against Jews by some on the Christian Right who embrace the Sharon government’s policies. Consider the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s statement that the “Antichrist must be Jewish.” It seems that his support for Israel’s maximalist positions renders such declarations acceptable.  

Give and Take of Political Rhetoric  

Beyond this, as long as many in the Jewish Establishment perceive and present the Jewish community as essentially a political entity with a public political agenda — rather than as a religious group — they must be prepared for the give and take of political rhetoric and commentary which results, all fair game for First Amendment-protected criticism.  

As Jewish organizations increase their ties with Christian Evangelical groups whose faith is fused with visions of an apocalyptic end of days, and of “The Jew” playing the role of the “Antichrist catalyst” to Armageddon, the notion of presenting Harry Truman as, somehow, an “anti-Semite” lacks credibility.  
Public Record  

President Truman’s Diary was a means of privately expressing his frustrations with the events of the day and the pressures being placed upon him. It is his public record that should determine his place in history and, in the fullness of time, that will surely be the case.  

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