Harry Truman’s Forgotten Diary

The Jews, I find are very, very selfish,” President Harry S. Truman wrote in a 1947 diary that was recently discovered on the shelves of the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., and released by the National Archives yesterday.

Written sporadically during a turbulent year of Truman’s presidency, the diary contains about 5,500 words on topics ranging from the death of his mother to comic banter with a British aristocrat. But the most surprising comments were Truman’s remarks on Jews, written on July 21, 1947, after the president had a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish former treasury secretary. Morgenthau called to talk about a Jewish ship in Palestine — possibly the Exodus, the legendary ship carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees who were refused entry into Palestine by the British, then rulers of that land.

“He’d no business, whatever to call me,” Truman wrote. “The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement [sic] on world affairs. Henry brought a thousand Jews to New York on a supposedly temporary basis and they stayed.”

Truman then went into a rant about Jews: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I’ve found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.”

Yesterday, those comments startled scholars because Truman is known as a president who acted to help Jews in postwar Europe and who supported recognition of Israel in 1948, when his State Department opposed it.

“My reaction is: Wow! It did surprise me because of what I know about Truman’s record,” says Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Truman’s sympathy for the plight of Jews was very apparent.”

But Truman’s comments were, Bloomfield says, “typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at that time in all parts of American society. This was an acceptable way to talk.”

“Truman was often critical, sometimes hypercritical, of Jews in his diary entries and in his correspondences, but this doesn’t make him an anti-Semite,” says John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University and a prominent Cold War scholar. “Anyone who played the role he did in creating the state of Israel can hardly be regarded in that way.”

Throughout his presidency, which lasted from 1945 to 1953, Truman was a prolific but sporadic diarist, jotting down his thoughts in diary books and on loose pieces of paper. This newly discovered diary appeared in a book titled “The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc., Diary and Manual 1947.” The book, which begins with 160 printed pages of information about the Real Estate Board, was donated to the Truman Library in 1965, seven years before his death, and has sat on shelves there ever since. Apparently its tedious title scared scholars away and nobody noticed Truman’s handwritten comments in the diary section in the back of the book until recently, when a librarian reshelving books happened to see them.

“This is probably the most important document the Truman Library has opened in 20 years,” Michael J. Devine, the library’s director, said in a prepared statement. “Once again, in this diary, we are able to hear that strong personal voice that Truman almost always projected in his writings.”

In one memorable entry, Truman recounts a meeting at which he offered to yield the 1948 Democratic presidential nomination to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower if Gen. Douglas MacArthur campaigned for the Republican nomination.

Truman’s comments on Eisenhower and MacArthur came in an entry dated July 25, 1947, years before Truman’s famous firing of Gen. MacArthur during the Korean War. In the entry, he wrote of a discussion that afternoon with Eisenhower, who was then Army chief of staff.

“We discussed MacArthur and his superiority complex,” Truman wrote. “Ike &I think MacArthur expects to make a Roman Triumphal return to the U.S. a short time before the Republican Convention meets in Philadelphia. I told Ike that if he did that that he (Ike) should announce for the nomination for President on the Democratic ticket and that I’d be glad to be in second place, or Vice President. I like the Senate anyway. Ike &I could be elected and my family &myself would be happy outside this great white jail known as the White House.”

Truman did not reveal how Eisenhower, who was elected president as a Republican in 1952, reacted to his suggestion. He did note that he and Ike agreed to keep quiet about it: “Ike won’t quot [sic] me &I won’t quote him.”

But Eisenhower did tell the story to confidants, and it leaked out and was recounted in “Eisenhower,” a 1983 biography by Stephen E. Ambrose.

“At the time, Truman’s chances for reelection appeared to be nil,” Ambrose wrote. “Eisenhower assumed that Truman wanted to use him to pull the Democrats out of an impossible situation. The general wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party; his answer was a flat ‘No.’ ”

Eisenhower sat out the 1948 election, as did MacArthur. Truman ran against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey and won a stunning upset victory.

The diary contains several other interesting Truman comments.

He had praise for Gen. George C. Marshall, whom he appointed secretary of state: “Marshall is, I think the greatest man of the World War II. He managed to get along with Roosevelt, the Congress, Churchill, the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he made a grand record in China.”

On Jan. 6, he wrote: “Read my annual message. It was good if I do say it myself. . . . Clark Clifford did most of the work. He’s a nice boy and will go places.”

In that comment, Truman proved prescient. Clifford, then a 40-year-old Truman aide, later became an aide to President John F. Kennedy, secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson and a major Washington power broker until his death in 1998.

On March 7, he wrote: “Doc tell’s [sic] me I have Cardiac Asthma! Aint that hell. Well it makes no diff, will go on as before. I’ve sworn him to secrecy! So What!”

On July 28 — “terrible day” — Truman wrote about his mother’s funeral. “Along the road cars, trucks and pedestrians stood with hats off. It made me want to weep — but I couldn’t in public. I’ve read through thousands of messages from all over the world in the White House study and I can shed tears as I please — no one’s looking.”

But Truman’s famed plain-spoken wit is also evident in the diary. On July 4, after attending Independence Day festivities in Monticello, Va., he wrote a passage that can only be called Trumanesque:

“Mrs. Astor — Lady Astor came to the car just before we started from Monticello to say to me that she liked my policies as President but that she thought I had become rather too much ‘Yankee.’ I couldnt help telling her that my purported ‘Yankee’ tendencies were not half so bad as her ultra conservative British leanings. She almost had a stroke.

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The president's diary, written in the back of a book donated to the Truman Library in 1965, was discovered by a librarian reshelving books.