By Rafael Medoff
A senior member of President Harry Truman’s own administration secretly gave American Zionist lobbyists advice in 1946 on how to pressure Truman to support creating a Jewish state.
According to a document I recently found at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, when Zionist lobbyists needed advice on how to use the 1946 midterm elections as leverage on the White House, they turned to Truman’s own Solicitor General (the official who represents the administration before the Supreme Court), J. Howard McGrath.
A lawyer by profession, McGrath rose quickly in the ranks of the Democratic Party in his native Rhode Island. He was vice-chairman of the state party by 1928 and chairman two years later. After a four-year stint as U.S. district attorney in Providence, McGrath was elected governor in 1940. In 1944, he was one of the organizers of the Democratic National Convention and helped line up the votes to replace Vice President Harry Wallace with Senator Harry Truman. In the process, McGrath forged close ties with both Truman and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet at the same time, he was straying far from the party line on Jewish issues. Starting in 1942, McGrath’s name began appearing among the endorsers listed on newspaper ads by the Bergson Group, a political action committee that criticized the Roosevelt administration on the issues of Jewish refugees and creating a Jewish state. He also served as a sponsor of Bergson’s 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
Associating with Jewish critics of President Roosevelt was a risky move for a rising Democratic politician. Certainly McGrath would need to maintain good relations with the White House to advance his political career.
Why McGrath took an interest in Jewish affairs is not clear. Perhaps his Irish heritage and resentment of British control of Ireland created a sense of solidarity with the Jewish struggle to oust the British from Palestine. Other Irish-Americans who were active in the Bergson Group, such as attorney Paul O’Dwyer and Congressman Andrew Somers of Brooklyn, cited their resentment of the British as a factor. The feeling was mutual: in one internal British government memo I located, a Foreign Office staffer slurred Somers as “the less happy type of Irish-American Catholic demagogue.”
It is unlikely McGrath was motivated by pursuit of Jewish votes, since Jews comprised barely 3% of Rhode Island’s population. But McGrath had plenty to say on the subject when Benjamin Akzin, a senior lobbyist for the American Zionist Emergency Council (precursor of AIPAC), came seeking advice on “the Jewish vote.”
Akzin, who in later years would found and chair Hebrew University’s political science department, and would serve as president of Haifa University, met with McGrath on March 14, 1946. He began by expressing his distress at “the lag between promise and performance” in the Truman administration’s Palestine policy. “Friendly statements” about Zionism were not matched with deeds. “I came to ask what he could advise,” Akzin reported afterwards to his colleagues, “and what he could do to help us in order to obtain some action.”
McGrath responded that “not being in the Cabinet, he could not raise the Palestine issue.” Moreover, “he has to stick to his own job, and any attempt by him to influence the policy of other Departments would be strongly resented.”
Then he turned around and proceeded to advise Akzin on how best to influence those other departments.
The Zionists’ “technical arguments” about rights and history would not succeed, McGrath said. They needed to adopt “a political approach” that would highlight the likelihood that Jewish voters would turn away from the Democrats in the upcoming midterm congressional elections. “He was very emphatic on this point.”
McGrath suggested organizing “a group of Democratic congressmen in threatened areas” to “take up the [Palestine] matter collectively with the Administration…After all, the real issue in the coming elections concerns the control of the House, rather than that of the Senate.” The administration might take heed if warned that the Democrats could lose control of the House over the Palestine issue.
Another “effective means of pressure on the Palestine issue”, McGrath said, would be for the Zionists to contact “the Democratic candidates for governorships and for the Senate in the key states with a considerable Jewish population.” Each of those candidates “is going to have several talks with the President, with [national Democratic Party chairman Robert] Hannegan, and with the other key persons of the administration.” If the candidates would make the administration “realize the gravity of the situation in their states” — that is, the danger of losing badly-needed Jewish votes — “this would produce better results [regarding U.S. policy on Palestine] than anything else would produce.”
McGrath then offered to personally raise the issue in upcoming meetings with Hannegan and Attorney General Tom Clark. “He will tell them that he personally believes that the Administration did not stand by promises made to the Jews in respect of Palestine, and that he fears that the resulting revulsion of feeling among many Jews is likely to be one of the most dangerous clouds in connection with the coming elections,” Akzin reported.
Akzin and his colleagues took McGrath’s advice. Throughout 1946-1948, the American Zionist Emergency Council, under the leadership of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, systematically mobilized Democratic members of Congress and gubernatorial and congressional candidates to speak out in favor of Jewish statehood. These efforts were an important part of the successful nationwide political pressure campaign undertaken by American Jewry in the months leading up to the birth of Israel.
And McGrath kept the promise he made to Akzin to help promote the cause of Jewish statehood. That November, he was elected to the United States Senate and became one of the strongest proponents of Zionism on Capitol Hill. The following year, he was chosen to head the national Democratic Party. In that capacity, he was an important source of pressure on the White House to support creating a Jewish state. The Truman administration’s backing for the United Nations partition resolution in November 1947, and its recognition of the new State of Israel in May 1948, were in no small measure due to the frequent behind-the-scenes warnings the White House received from McGrath and other prominent Democrats about the impact of the Jewish vote.
That U.S. policy was influenced in part by a Jewish lobbying strategy secretly hatched by one of the administration’s own top officials adds another rich layer of irony to a momentous episode in the history of America-Israel relations.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and co-author, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel.’