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Truman and the Trusteeship Proposal


The State and Defense Departments were convinced that the UN partition decision and the United States’ role in securing its passage would have severe negative implications for American foreign policy. George Kennan, then head of the Policy Planning Staff said: “U.S. prestige in the Moslem world has suffered a severe blow, and U.S. strategic interests in the Mediterranean and Near East have been seriously prejudiced.” Moreover, he added, “our vital interests in those areas will continue to be adversely affected to the extent that we continue to support partition.”

Defense Secretary James Forrestal remained perhaps the most outspoken critic, however, complaining that “it was a most disastrous and regrettable fact that the foreign policy of this country was determined by the contributions a particular bloc of special interests might make to the party funds.” Forrestal was particularly worried about American oil supplies and told a cabinet meeting in early January 1948 that without Middle Eastern oil, the United States would soon have to convert to 4-cylinder cars. Forrestal’s concerns were not completely unfounded; in fact, the Arab League announced the following month that American oil companies would not be allowed to lay pipelines across the territory of any member states as long as the United States continued to support partition. Meanwhile, the Zionists claimed that the entire oil issue was being blown out of proportion by the State Department in an effort to scuttle partition.

The Zionists were far less active after the partition resolution political pressure, but he still felt indirect pressure. For example, the defeat of a pro-Zionist Democrat in a special election in a predominantly Jewish district in New York suggested that Jewish voters were disenchanted with the Truman Palestine policy. James Hagerty concluded the election indicated “Truman had little, if any, chance of winning” New York in the presidential election. The immediate reaction of the party bosses was to urge Truman to take a more pro-Zionist position.

There were other pressures emanating from Palestine as well. Even before the partition vote had been taken, it was clear there would be a war in Palestine. On January 9, the first large-scale assault took place and the number and intensity of attacks gradually increased. By February, the British said that so many Arabs had infiltrated that they lacked the forces to run them back.

The Joint Chiefs were particularly concerned about the possibility of the Soviets taking advantage of the instability in Palestine and allying with the Arabs. It was largely for this reason that the United States had rejected the creation of an international force to implement the UN decision; that is, the Soviets would insist on participation in such a force if the U.S. did, and would thereby obtain a foothold in the region. The alternative, that the United States would send a force of its own to enforce partition, was practically and politically unpalatable. General Alfred Greunther had informed the president in mid-February that it would require anywhere from 80,000 to 160,000 troops to do the job, and that partial mobilization would probably be necessary.

Clark Clifford

White House Counsel Clark Clifford advised the president that the Jews could defeat the Arabs without U.S. troops, but needed arms. He also recommended that the United States stop appeasing the Arabs, and instead brand them aggressors, and ask the Security Council to declare their actions a threat to peace. He suggested that the United States propose an international peacekeeping force composed of volunteers, thereby avoiding the problem of Soviet and American troop involvement. “The cruel fact is that American morale is collapsing right around us today,” he wrote, “because the American people feel that their government is aiding and abetting in the disintegration of the United Nations – the one great hope of the American people for peace.” Clifford added that “in order to save the United Nations for our own selfish interests, the United States must promptly and vigorously support the UN actions regarding Palestine. The credibility of the president (whose ‘insistence’ clinched the adoption of partition in the UN), as well as the credibility of the UN are at stake.” In answer to Forrestal’s concern over oil supplies, Clifford said the “Arab States must have oil royalties or go broke.” Finally, he concluded by arguing that unless the United States remained committed to partition, the Soviets would not see any barrier to their expansion.

After ignoring his pleas to see Chaim Weizmann, Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s old haberdashery partner decided to go to visit the president on March 13: He was told that Truman did not want to discuss Palestine, but Jacobson insisted. Truman, Jacobson says, “was abrupt in speech and very bitter in the words he was throwing my way. In all the years of our friendship he never talked to me in this manner.” Jacobson had come with a particular objective, however, and he was not to be deterred. In a now famous conversation, Jacobson compared his feelings toward Weizmann with Truman’s hero worship of Andrew Jackson in an impassioned appeal. Reluctantly, Truman agreed to see the Zionist leader.

The secret meeting between Weizmann and the president took place on March 18. The two men reached a mutual understanding and Weizmann left confident that Truman remained committed to partition. A day later, however, the pro-partition forces were shocked when U.S. Ambassador Warren Austin announced at the UN that the United States had decided partition was unworkable and proposed an inter­national trusteeship for Palestine instead.

Warren Austin

The reaction from the Zionists was incredulity and anger. The opinions of others were mixed. The New York Times called the trusteeship proposal “a series of moves which has seldom been matched for ineptness in the handling of any international issue by an American administration.” Pro-partition senators called the decision “one of the most shocking retreats in the history of our foreign relations.” Another Senator, Carl Hatch, saw the decision as a courageous act by the president: “He has cast aside politics and he doesn’t care what happens to him politically. He has told me that he intends to do what he thinks is right without regard to the political consequences.”

Truman tried to calm the furor by explaining the vote at a press conference on March 25. He said that trusteeship was an effort to fill the vacuum soon to be created by the termination of the Mandate on 15 May.” The president tried to justify the proposal as a means of insuring a peaceful solution:

Unless emergency action is taken, there will be no public authority on that date capable of preserving law and order. Violence and blood­ shed will descend upon the Holy Land. Large scale fighting among the people of that country will be the inevitable result. Such fighting would infect the entire Middle East and could lead to consequences of the gravest sort involving the peace of this nation and the entire world.

When Truman was asked whether he still supported partition at some future date, however, he replied that he was trying to say just that.

Given that there was already large-scale violence, and that the Jews had already made it clear that they would not accept anything less than a state, it was difficult to see how the trusteeship proposal could succeed. Moreover, given the president’s assurances to Weizmann the day before the announcement at the UN, it was unclear how the idea ever got past the president. Weizmann called Jacobson afterward and told him that he didn’t believe the president knew what was going to happen at the UN. Several writers argue that Truman was surprised by what transpired. Margaret Truman and Robert Silverberg both report that the president learned about the speech when he read the morning newspaper the next day. Margaret Truman found a note on her father’s calendar that said the State Department had unexpectedly pulled the rug out from under him and reversed his Palestine policy. “The first I know about it is what I read in the papers!” He lamented that he had been put in the position of “a liar and a double-crosser.”

After reading the paper, Silverberg relates, Truman called in Clifford who found the president “as disturbed as I have ever seen him.” Clifford called Secretary of State George Marshall in San Francisco and Undersecretary Robert Lovett in Florida and was told by both that they were equally amazed by the trusteeship proposal. Clifford discovered, according to this version, that Marshall had initialed a State Department memorandum that called for trusteeship if partition proved unworkable.

While Marshall was in California, a State Department official, opposed to partition, sent Austin instructions to give the speech. This deception, Silverberg concludes, so infuriated Truman that he became a staunch Zionist for the first time, and insured that he would no longer listen to “the appeasers of the Arabs, the worriers over oil, the frenetic anti-Communists, and the subtle anti-Semites in the Departments of State and Defense.”

Marshall apparently was not only aware of the proposal but had approved it. Robert McClintock, a special assistant to Deputy Undersecretary Dean Rusk, wrote the following in brackets on a draft of the Austin speech: “It is undeniable, however, that the establishment of internal order in Palestine by the Security Council in pursuance of its duty to maintain international peace might establish conditions under which the Palestine Commission could succeed in carrying out its mandate according to the terms of the resolution of November 29, 1947.” According to McClintock, this phraseology meant the United States supported partition; omitting the sentence, he said, “would knock the plan for partition on its head.” In the final draft of the speech, Marshall deleted the sentence.

On February 21, 1948, Truman received a working draft of a speech Austin was to give on the 24th, with a cover letter explaining that Marshall had not yet approved the draft or discussed it with Forrestal. In a separate paragraph, the letter said that if the partition resolution could not be carried out, it would be necessary to refer the issue back to the General Assembly to consider some form of UN trusteeship. Marshall wanted the president to “consider and approve” this alternative “in relation to further development of the problem.”

On February 22, Truman approved the draft with the following proviso: “I want to make it clear, however, that nothing should be presented to the Security Council that could be interpreted as a recession on our part from the position we took in the General Assembly.” The following day, Marshall gave the final draft to the president with a message attached saying the speech “does not represent recession in any way from the position taken by us in General Assembly. In fact, it is stronger with regard to threats to the peace which have developed since Assembly discussion.” This was true of the speech Austin gave on the 24th, but Marshall apparently did not point out the change in the March 19 speech, which included the trusteeship proposal. This suggests that either Marshall did not see McClintock’s comment, or that he did and deceived the president. It is not clear, however, whether Truman read the final draft of the March 19 speech, and misunderstood it, or simply accepted Marshall’s interpretation.      

Three other studies present an entirely different picture suggesting that Truman was not deceived by the State Department but knew all along about the trusteeship proposal and personally approved it. According to Zvi Ganin, it was Marshall who notified Austin on March 8 that the president had approved the draft statement calling for trusteeship. The president had not discussed the draft with either Clifford or Special Assistant David Niles, and apparently signed it without realizing it signified a reversal of his position. The State Department then avoided discussing the issue to ensure that neither Clifford nor Niles would find out. The idea that the president would sign something like that without realizing what he was doing appears a bit farfetched and, in fact, Michael Cohen presents evidence that the president did not act carelessly.

Cohen relies on a memorandum that provides Lovett’s version of the events surrounding the trusteeship proposal. According to Lovett, Clifford was shown the draft of Austin’s speech on March 6 and Lovett discussed it himself with Truman on March 8. Lovett explained that he did not believe partition was viable and that it was necessary to have an alternative. The president’s response, according to Lovett, was that “we were to go through and attempt to get the approval of implementation of the General Assembly resolution, but if we did not get it we could take the alternative step. That was perfectly clear. He said it to General Marshall and me.” Truman later told Marshall that he would have taken steps to avoid the political heat had he known when Austin would make his speech.

On the other hand, Cohen argues that Marshall might not have given Austin approval to give the speech when he did if Truman had told him about the meeting with Weizmann. Head of the Near East Bureau at the State Department Loy Henderson said the reason for the fiasco “was that more than a week had passed between Truman’s authorization and the speech itself, and Truman might have presumed by then that the situation did not in fact call for a change in policy.” Truman also may have assumed, Henderson suggested, that he would be consulted before the speech was made.

Clifford’s strongly worded memorandum on March 8 cited above makes it clear that he was not in favor of any policy that could be interpreted as a retreat from partition. This followed a memorandum sent by Marshall to the president and the cabinet that said it appeared partition would not be possible, and the Palestine problem would have to be returned to the General Assembly for fresh consideration. Marshall then sent Austin “an approved” text for a statement on the Palestine problem, which included the trusteeship proposal on March 5, the same day he informed the president that partition was unworkable.

Over a week later, Marshall told Austin the president had approved the statement on March 5 for use “when and if necessary.” The approval, then, came before Lovett’s reported meeting with the president. It also conflicts with Steven Spiegel’s version, which claims that Truman gave oral approval for the trusteeship plan to Marshall and Lovett on March 8.

Austin issued the statement after a majority of the Security Council had expressed opposition to the implementation of partition, so he no doubt believed that he was acting in concert with Truman’s instructions. It does not appear, however, that Truman knew that it had indeed become necessary to retreat from partition, at least temporarily for the sake of peace, and that State Department officials intent on scuttling partition had taken ad­ vantage of the president’s faith in Marshall, and his acceptance of the Secretary’s interpretation that trusteeship did not represent a “recession” from prior United States policy.

According to Spiegel, the pro-partition forces were outmaneuvered because Truman was preoccupied with other foreign policy issues ; the president was still irritated by Zionist pressure; Secretary Marshall had become personally involved ; Niles was out of the office with a heart ailment during most of the period pre­ ceding the trusteeship proposal; and the president had approved trusteeship as-an alternative to partition.30

The evidence, then, is contradictory. The Zionists had some warning of the possibility that a policy reversal was on the horizon but did not maintain sufficient pressure on the White House to prevent Truman from approving at least the possibility of a change. On the other hand, Weizmann did meet with the president and secured a commitment to partition the day before the Austin speech. The most reasonable explanation would appear to be that Truman did approve the trusteeship proposal as a contingency, but not because he had changed his mind about partition. Given his humanitarian interest in the problem, he was probably responding to the deteriorating situation in Palestine by accepting an alternative that was said to be a peaceful solution.

It also appears that Truman did not expect the proposal to be advanced without first consulting him and, given his intense feelings about loyalty and honesty, it is unlikely he would have approved Austin’s speech after speaking to Weizmann. Of course, it would be naive to believe that by this time Truman did not know that trusteeship would be opposed by the Zionists and their supporters, suggesting that his willingness to consider it under any circumstances was, as Senator Hatch claimed, based on non­political grounds. Thus, the decision can best be explained by the fact that the deteriorating security situation in Palestine reinforced the realist arguments of Truman’s advisers, which the president became more willing to accept, because the threats to peace had become real and imminent, and therefore coincided with his own beliefs. The Zionists’ arguments for support of partition became less persuasive as it became clearer that bloodshed could not be averted.


Ian J. Bickerton, “President Truman’s Recognition of Israel,American Jewish Historical Quarterly, (December 1968);
Michael Cohen, “Truman, the Holocaust, and the Establishment of the State of Israel,” Jerusalem Quarterly, (Spring 1982);
Herman Druks, The U.S. and Israel, 1945-1973, (NY: Robert Speller & Sons, Inc., 1979);
Foreign Relations of the United States, (DC: Government Printing Office, 1948);
Zvi Ganin, “The Limits of American Jewish Political Power: America’s Retreat From Partition,” November 1947-March 1949,” Jewish Social Studies, (Winter-Spring, 1977);
Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America. (NY: Schocken Books, 1984);
Robert Silverberg, If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem: American Jews and the State of Israel, (NY: William Morrow and Co., 1970);
John Snetsinger, Truman, the Jewish Vote and the Creation of Israel, (CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1974);
Steven Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America's Middle East Policy from Truman to Reagan. IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Harry S. Truman, Years of Trial and Hope, vol. 2, (NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1956);
Margaret Truman, Harry S. Truman, (NY: Quill, 1972).

Source: Mitchell G. Bard, The Water's Edge And Beyond, (NJ: Transaction Publishers: 1991), pp. 159-167.

Photos: Public Domain.