The Education of a "Wise Man"

By Allan Arkush
Friday, April 20, 2012

Eddie Jacobson was once a folk hero among American Jews, and even today he is far from forgotten.  In their authoritative book A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, Allis and Ronald Radosh tell how Truman's old business partner from Missouri did his part to bring the State of Israel into existence.  Jacobson made his greatest contribution in March, 1948, when the U.S. government was considering whether to withdraw its support for the United Nations' recently adopted plan for the partition of Palestine.  American Zionists, frustrated by President Truman's refusal to hear their arguments, struggled to get Chaim Weizmann, their most irresistible statesman, through the White House door.  Only thanks to Jacobson's intervention did they finally succeed.  "You win, you baldheaded son of a bitch," Truman muttered to his pal before agreeing to see the man whom Jacobson identified—falsely—as his personal hero.  During the subsequent hush-hush White House meeting, the President assured Weizmann that the U.S. would continue to favor partition.

In doing so, Truman cast aside the anti-Zionist policy designed by a much greater celebrity than Eddie Jacobson: George F. Kennan.  As the first head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff and one of the most important of the "Wise Men," the architects of America's Cold War strategy, Kennan was generally preoccupied in the late 1940s with Europe and the Far East.  But in January and February of 1948 he produced position papers that called for abandoning the plan to create two new states in Palestine and for establishing a UN trusteeship over the country instead. 

As John Lewis Gaddis explains in in his recent, justly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning  George F. Kennan: An American Life, Kennan's opposition to the creation of Israel stemmed from his overall conception of American interests in the Middle East in the early Cold War.  Kennan feared that, one way or another, establishing a Jewish state would play into the hands of the Soviets and, worse, might require the deployment of American troops to enforce partition, an act that would be "violently resented by the whole Arab world."  Kennan, according to Gaddis, "failed to consider the humanitarian implications of withdrawing American support for a Jewish state only three years after the world had learned of the Holocaust."

But one should not leap to the conclusion that Kennan, like other State Department officials of his day, was some kind of anti-Semite.  He may have uttered some unsavory things about Jews here and there; but he also went out of his way, at his diplomatic posts in Czechoslovakia and Germany in the late 1930s, to help Jewish friends and acquaintances escape from Hitler's Europe.  Nor was Kennan one of the State Department's notorious Arabists, although he might have become one if his appointment in 1937 to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had not been cancelled at the last minute. Abruptly reassigned to duties in Washington, he gave up his study of—Yiddish. 

What Gaddis fails to note is another concern of Kennan's in 1948:  that the establishment of a Jewish state would disserve the best interests not only of the United States but of the survivors of the Holocaust themselves. As Kennan and Loy Henderson declared at the time, it was "improbable that the Jewish state could survive over any considerable period of time in the face of the combined assistance . . . for the Arabs of Palestine from the Arab states."

In the years following his unsuccessful effort to prevent its birth, Kennan does not seem to have paid much attention to the Jewish state.  The 400 pages that Gaddis devotes to his subject's subsequent career as a diplomat, scholar, and public intellectual include virtually no mention of the country.  But this in itself is noteworthy.  Kennan, a State Department veteran who brooded frequently and publicly about the detrimental impact of ethnic minorities on the formation of U.S. foreign policy—he was, in the end, an isolationist—is just the sort of person from whom one might have expected complaints, toward the end of the 20th century, about the "Jewish lobby."  Yet on those few occasions when he did speak about Israel, his remarks were essentially quite favorable.

In his 1977 book The Cloud of Danger, for instance, Kennan affirms that "when we lent our support, nearly thirty years ago," to Israel's establishment, "we accepted a certain share of the responsibility for the success of the undertaking."  If this affirmation sounds somewhat rueful, the same cannot be said of what follows:

I am fully aware of, and indeed personally share in, the deep concern of a great part of American opinion for the survival and the prospering of this new state.  I interpret this concern as a commitment of sorts—a commitment not to the Israelis but to ourselves—a commitment to do all in our power, short of the actual dispatch and employment of combat forces, to assure that Israel continues to exist—that its people are not destroyed, enslaved, or driven into the sea by hostile neighbors.

There were limits, Kennan thought, to what the U.S. should be prepared to do for Israel; but there were also limits to what it should try to make Israel do.  Explicitly taking issue with George Ball, another State Department veteran and no friend of Israel, Kennan argued that the terms of any Arab-Israeli agreement should be "left for direct negotiation between Israel and her Arab neighbors."  For it was "they, after all, not we, who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved."  For example, it might be good for Israel to give up the Golan Heights; "but how can we be sure?  What would our responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?"

These observations constitute only a very small part of George Kennan's 1977 tour d'horizon.  But anyone who recalls his opposition to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 should be aware of them.  There are occasions when it is useful to be reminded that a Wise Man has learned something from experience.

Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2022 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.