Seventy years ago this month, President Harry S. Truman wrote some angry words that did not come to light for more than half a century. When they were finally made public, his words triggered a firestorm of controversy and prompted allegations that Truman – though renowned in history as a champion of Israel – was actually an anti-Semite.
It was on July 21, 1947, that Truman wrote a note to himself regarding a telephone call he had just received from Henry Morgenthau, a prominent Jewish leader who had served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Morgenthau’s call to the White House pertained to the plight of the Exodus, a ship filled with Jewish refugees from Europe that the British Navy had stopped on its way to Palestine.
The President agreed to discuss the situation with the Secretary of State, but he was angry at Morgenthau for seeking what Truman regarded as special treatment for Jewish refugees. “He’d no business, whatever to call me,” Truman wrote after their conversation. ‘The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgment on world affairs. . . . [When] they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog.”
Truman tucked the note inside a 1947 diary. The diary and note were discovered at the Truman Library by the late Liz Safly, a longtime member of the staff. They were made public in 2003. The documents can be viewed on the Library’s web site at: https://www.trumanlibrary.org/diary/index.html
Truman’s statements – particularly his comparison of Jewish leaders to Hitler and Stalin – aroused widespread resentment in the press. But other commentators pointed to Truman’s longstanding devotion to the Zionist cause and his many Jewish friends as evidence that his angry words resulted from momentary irritation rather than deep-seated bigotry.
One important fact about Truman’s note was overlooked by almost everyone: the personal circumstances under which it was written. In July of 1947, Truman’s 94-year-old mother was nearing the end of her long life. On July 26, only five days after he composed his angry note, the President received word that she was unconscious and failing rapidly at her home in Grandview, Missouri. He rushed to the airport in Washington, but had to wait there for a copy of the National Security Act, which Congress had just passed. After he signed the bill into law, the plane took off for Missouri. On a cot in his stateroom, Truman dozed off and dreamed that his mother came to him and said, “Goodbye, Harry. Be a good boy.” Soon thereafter, Truman’s doctor came into the stateroom. “I knew what he would say,” Truman later recalled.
Martha Ellen Truman had passed away before her son could reach her bedside. When he arrived in Grandview that afternoon, the President went with his brother and sister to choose a casket. “A terrible ordeal,” Truman wrote in his diary. “I couldn’t look at her dead. I wanted to remember [her] alive when she was at her best.”
When personal strain and grief were added to the enormous burdens of his office, it was not unusual for Truman to lash out in anger at some ready target. The most famous example of this occurred in December 1950, when a critical newspaper review of his daughter Margaret’s singing concert prompted the President to write a furious letter threatening the critic with physical assault. Truman’s lifelong friend, Press Secretary Charles Ross, had died of a heart attack at his desk in the White House on the evening of the concert.
We do not know if his mother’s final illness was weighing on Truman’s mind when he wrote his angry words about Morgenthau’s call in July 1947. We do know that in the months that followed, Truman strongly defended Jewish interests in Palestine, and in May 1948, he granted diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel.
– Randy Sowell is an archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.
NOTE: This article has been corrected to credit Randy Sowell as the author.