JTA’s veteran Washington reporter Ron Kampeas describes the U.S.-Israel friendship through portraits of 13 of presidents, from Harry Truman to Donald Trump. This is part 1 of a 3-part series.
Harry Truman: Recognizing the new State of Israel
On May 12, 1948, two days before David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, things were tense at the White House. Truman was torn between his secretary of state, George Marshall, who counseled against recognizing the new Jewish state, and Clark Clifford, his White House counsel, who said Truman should recognize Israel.
What tipped the balance? Truman’s deep Christian faith, coupled with his old Army buddy and former haberdashery partner, Eddie Jacobson, who traveled to the White House to make the case for the Jewish state. Truman sent his telegram recognizing Israel 11 minutes after Ben-Gurion proclaimed the country’s existence on May 14, 1948.
Truman also may have recalled a letter he had received a few weeks earlier from Chaim Weizmann, in which the future president of Israel wrote:
“The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination. History and providence have placed this issue in your hands, and I am confident that you will yet decide it in the spirit of the moral law.”
Truman would not be the last president to harbor a passion for Israel, to sustain a close friendship with a Jew ... and to explode into anti-Semitic vituperation (for instance, President Richard Nixon). Truman resented pressure after World War II from Jewish groups to resettle millions of Jewish refugees.
“If Jesus Christ couldn’t satisfy the Jews while on earth, how the hell am I supposed to?” he told his Cabinet in 1946.
His tendency to explode under pressure manifested itself in his relationship with the Jewish state he helped midwife. In 1949, he threatened to break with Israel unless it allowed the return of some Palestinian refugees displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence (Israel agreed, but Arab states rejected the offer). And he pressured Israel, without success, to withdraw from lands captured during that war.
Dwight Eisenhower: War hero seeks a ‘balanced’ approach
Eisenhower sailed into office in the 1952 election as the general who ended World War II. There was a Jewish reason to buy into the hero worship: Eisenhower insisted that the world learn of the barbarism he witnessed when he liberated Nazi death and concentration camps because he correctly anticipated there would be efforts to deny it.
Speaking to a group of journalists and congressmen at Buchenwald in 1945, he said: “You saw only one camp yesterday. There are many others. Your responsibilities, I believe, extend into a great field, and informing the people at home of things like these atrocities is one of them.”
His comprehension of the horror included the realization that Jews were its principal victims.
“The Jews were in the most deplorable condition. For years they had been beaten, starved, and tortured,” he wrote in his 1948 account of the war, “Crusade in Europe.”
Nevertheless, Eisenhower believed Truman had tilted U.S. policy toward Israel and sought a more “balanced” approach, which led to years of frustration with Israel and to the establishment of two important institutions: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which cultivated support for Israel in Congress as a means of tempering Eisenhower’s coolness, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to show Eisenhower that the U.S. Jewish community was unanimous in its support for Israel. (Eisenhower aides had played up support for Israel-critical policies by marginal Jewish anti-Israel groups.)
The relationship reached a crisis in 1956 after Israel joined Britain and France in capturing the Sinai Peninsula as a means of keeping Egypt from nationalizing the Suez Canal. Eisenhower was furious, and his pressure on Israel forced a pullout. He contemplated cutting off not only U.S. assistance to Israel but private money going to the Jewish state, he later wrote.
Who stood in the Republican president’s way? The Senate majority leader, a Democrat from Texas named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who said that “cracking down” on Israel would show a double standard considering how soft Eisenhower had been on the repression of democratic protesters in Hungary the same year.
John Kennedy: Martyr concerned about nukes
The assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, devastated Americans, and Jews were no exception.
On Nov. 25, a Monday, synagogues opened for the national day of mourning — and Jews flocked to services in large numbers. (The night of the assassination, nightclub owner Jack Ruby attended a memorial service for the president at Temple Shearith Israel in Dallas. Two days later, he shot and killed the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, fueling a half-century of conspiracy theories. A key piece of evidence was a film of the motorcade as Kennedy was shot; it was made by a Jewish Kennedy supporter from Dallas named Abraham Zapruder.)
Within weeks of Kennedy’s death, the Jewish National Fund announced plans to build a memorial to the slain president in a Kennedy forest near Jerusalem.
Kennedy was the first non-Protestant, and Irish Catholic to boot, to be elected president. After he secured the nomination, stories imagining the once-unimaginable proliferated in the Jewish press: Could a Jew be elected president?
More Cabinet-level Jews worked for Kennedy than any predecessor. He overrode Eisenhower-era policies and increased arms sales to Israel. He unabashedly dove into pro-Israel politicking: in 1961, he pardoned Herman Greenspun, the Las Vegas Sun publisher who had been convicted in 1950 for gun running to the nascent Zionist state. On the Dec. 5 after his death, he was to have been the guest of honor at the annual dinner of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Above all, Kennedy feared the proliferation of nuclear weapons on his watch. He demanded an accounting of the nuclear reactor Israel was building near Dimona. At a 1961 meeting in New York with Ben-Gurion, the prime minister noticeably mumbled a lot and used terms like “for the time being” in promising that the reactor would not produce weapons-grade material.
Kennedy wanted Americans to inspect the plant; Israel dodged the requests. In May 1963, Kennedy threatened to isolate Israel unless it let in the inspectors. Neither he nor Johnson made good on the threat, and today, Israel’s nuclear capabilities are its worst-kept secret.
Lyndon Johnson: No better friend
After Kennedy was killed and Johnson became the 36th president, LBJ told an Israeli diplomat, “You have lost a very great friend. But you have found a better one.”
Indeed, it was Johnson, as Senate majority leader, who years earlier had stood in the way of Dwight Eisenhower’s plans to cut off assistance to Israel. He knew few Jews growing up in Texas, but cultivated lifelong friendships as he rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party, which had become the natural political home for most Jews.
Historians regard Johnson as the president most uniformly friendly to Israel.
“Johnson was the most emotionally committed to Israel of any American president — a fact that is not popularly known but is clear from his background,” Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, said last year at a symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Johnson was the first president to invite an Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, on a state visit. They got along so well — both men were farmers — that Johnson paid Eshkol the rare compliment of inviting him to his ranch.
LBJ soon abandoned pressure on Israel to come clean about the Dimona reactor. He increased arms sales to Israel, and in 1968, after Israel’s primary supplier, France, imposed an embargo as a means of cultivating ties in the Arab world, the United States became Israel’s main supplier of weapons, launching talks that would lead to the sale of Phantom fighter jets to Israel.
Johnson wanted to commit more forcefully to Israel’s cause in the lead-up to the Six-Day War, but felt constrained from a dramatic show of military might because of the failures of Vietnam that dogged his presidency. Nonetheless, he ordered warships within 50 miles of Syria’s coast as a warning to the Soviets not to interfere.
In a speech in the war’s immediate aftermath, Johnson nipped in the bud any speculation that the United States would pressure Israel to unilaterally give up the land it had captured. He laid down not only the “land for peace” formula that would inform subsequent U.N. Security Council resolutions, but made it clear that any formula had to ensure Jewish access to Jerusalem’s Old City.
Richard Nixon: The anti-Semite who saved Israel
Nixon liked Israelis — a lot. He was close to Golda Meir, the prime minister; Moshe Dayan, the defense minister; and Yitzhak Rabin, the ambassador to the United States. Rabin would break diplomatic protocol and campaign for Nixon in 1972. Nixon saw his resolute, paranoid Cold Warrior reflected in Israelis. Like him, they were hard-edged realists forced to play for the highest stakes of all: their existence.
Nixon stands out among presidents for taking the boldest risk for Israel: a much-needed arms airlift during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. An astonishing 567 missions by American aircraft (not to mention deliveries by sea and El Al flights) kept Israel fighting. Nixon ignored the counsel of his closest adviser, Henry Kissinger, a Jew, who wanted to allow the war to play out for a while longer to give Egyptian President Anwar Sadat political cover to make peace in its aftermath. The stakes were too high for Israel to play with timing, Nixon told Kissinger.
Nixon had little to gain and much to lose. He was in his second term, and the Republican was never going to win over the largely liberal Jewish vote. The airlift spurred an Arab oil embargo, driving gasoline prices sky-high. Preoccupied by Watergate, mired in Vietnam, and against advice, Nixon risked a new war with the Soviets to save Israel.
Nixon “made it possible for Israel to win, at some risk to his own reputation and at great risk to the American economy,” historian Stephen Ambrose said.
Israel’s leadership knew it.
“President Nixon has done many things that nobody would have thought of doing,” Meir said, toasting Nixon during his 1974 visit. “All I can say, Mr. President, as friends and as an Israeli citizen to a great American president, thank you.”
The man who saved Israel, however, was obsessed with Jews, as White House tapes released after Nixon’s resignation revealed. He shared with underlings a host of complaints: “The Jews are all over the government.” “Most Jews are disloyal.” “You can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.” “The Jews are born spies.” Jews were prevalent on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” drawn up, according to a 1971 memo by White House counsel John Dean, to assess “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” The same year, Nixon asked White House personnel chief Fred Malek to count and name the Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He was convinced they were skewing jobs numbers to make him look bad.
Yet in June 1974, in the darkness of Watergate, weeks before he would be the first president to resign, Nixon became the first president to visit Israel on the job. Speaking on the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, he sounded relieved, like he had come home.
“We have been through, over these years, some difficult times,” he said. “During the period that I have served as president of the United States, we have been through some difficult times together, and I can only say that the friendship that we have for this nation, the respect and the admiration we have for the people of this nation, their courage, their tenacity, their firmness in the face of very great odds, is one that makes us proud to stand with Israel, as we have in the past in times of trouble, and now to work with Israel in a better time, a time that we trust will be a time of peace.”