Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 by Michael R. Beschloss




(Mildly Recommended)




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As I turned the pages of Michael Beschloss’ new book, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, I kept expecting to find some refreshing insight. Instead, I came away with the cynical attitude that Beschloss owed his publisher another book. In Presidential Courage, Beschloss selects challenges faced by nine U.S. Presidents, and briefly presents the nature of the challenge, and how that President displayed courage in the way in which he handled the challenge. When historians condense and focus their material, readers expect the narrative to be tightly written, and the insights to be clear. On these pages, the stories are familiar to many readers, and some are likely to disagree that the selections represent real courage. Here’s an excerpt, from the middle of chapter 27, “How Could This Have Happened?” pp. 214-217:


In October 1947, Eddie Jacobson implored the President to back the U.N. committee’s proposal for Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. He wrote, “Harry, my people need help and I am appealing on you to help them.”

The “future of one and one-half million Jews in Europe” was at stake:

“How they will be able to survive another winter in concentration camps and the Hell holes in which they live, is beyond my imagination. . . .There is only one place where they can go—and that is Palestine.”

The President endorsed Palestine’s partition, but warned that the U.S. would not give money to a Jewish state, and that it lacked deployable forces to defend it from the Arab armies.

Furious that Truman had overruled him, Loy Henderson tried to whittle down the territory allotted for the Jews. He argued that the town of Jaffa was “essentially Arab” and that Arab herdsmen required the Negev desert for “seasonal grazing.”

But after making it into the Oval Office, Chaim Weizmann, chief of the World Zionist Organization, unfolded maps and persuaded Truman that losing the Negev would undermine a Jewish state by blocking vital access to the Red Sea.


In late November 1947, at the U.N.’s temporary quarters in a converted skating rink at Flushing Meadows, Queens, Palestine’s partition came up for a vote by the General Assembly.

Truman had ordered his U.N. envoys not to anger the Arabs by using “improper pressures” to win support for partition. Thus in the initial bal­loting, partition fell one vote short of the necessary two thirds.

Arguing that U.S. prestige would suffer if allies like the Philippines and Haiti were seen voting against it, Clark Clifford persuaded Truman to let his aides lobby for partition. As Clifford recalled, “I kept the ram­rod up the State Department’s butt.”

Truman’s aide Dave Niles, inherited from FDR, called a U.S. envoy in Flushing Meadows and threatened “hell if the voting went the wrong way.”

When the final vote was taken, partition of Palestine passed over­whelmingly. Complaining of pressure from Washington, Arab delegates walked out.

At the White House, Niles reminded the President that during World War II, many of those same Arabs had been “allies of Hitler.”


A.J. Granoff and Eddie Jacobson “dug into our bank accounts” and flew from Kansas City to Washington. In the Oval Office, they told Truman, “We came here once in our lives not asking you for something. Just to say, ‘Thank you and God bless you.’”

The President’s friends knew that George Marshall was staunchly op­posed to a Jewish state. As Granoff recalled, when they encountered the Secretary of State outside Truman’s office, Marshall refused to greet them: “Just looked at us—stony. We despised him.”


Truman was anxious that people might think he had backed partition because of Zionist threats. Instead, he insisted he had “kept the faith . . . in spite of some of the Jews.”

After the U.N. vote, he warned a pro-Zionist New York Congressman that “the pressure boys almost beat themselves. . . . I don’t do business that way.”

In January 1948, he infuriated the New York Post publisher Ted Thack­rey by saying that he wished “the Goddamn New York Jews would just shut their mouths.”

Married to FDR’s old friend Dorothy Schiff, Thackrey replied, “I’ve got to assume that by ‘Goddamn New York Jews,’ you must mean my wife, who is also a Jew.”



Unwilling to give up, Loy Henderson now tried to block a Jewish state by harping on Truman’s aversion to using the U.S. Army to defend it.

At Henderson’s behest, just after the U.N. vote for partition, the U.S. announced it would halt all military shipments to the Middle East. Since Britain was arming the Arabs, the chief target of the embargo would be the Jews of Palestine.*

Chaim Weizmann implored Truman to cancel the embargo: “The choice of our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermi­nation.” But Truman dug in his heels.



Instead, coming to the rescue of Palestine’s Jews was none other than the FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Jewish friends asked him not to have the Bureau enforce the arms embargo too strenuously, and Hoover agreed.

When the FBI impounded a shipment of military equipment (la­beled “textile machinery”) bound for Jewish Palestine, Hoover’s friend Robert Nathan, a New Deal economist, assured him that the arsenal would never be used against the United States.

By Hoover’s order, the equipment sailed from New York Harbor un­trammeled.



In January 1948, Truman’s Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, told him that enforcing partition might require as many as 160,000 American ground troops. These would have to be diverted from Europe, where the President suspected that the U.S. might soon have to fight the Soviet army.

Loy Henderson proposed that since partition could not be imposed without a military commitment that Truman would not make, the U.N. should govern Palestine as a trustee when Britain withdrew in May.

From the other side, Clark Clifford warned Truman that the State Department was clearly “determined to sabotage” partition. Why should the U.S. be in the “ridiculous” position of “trembling before threats of a few nomadic desert tribes”?

Horrified that Truman seemed to be wavering on a Jewish state, Chaim Weizmann rushed to New York, hoping to see the President.

But Truman told his aides he had seen enough Zionists: “The Jews are so emotional, and the Arabs are so difficult to talk with that it is al­most impossible to get anything done.”

B’nai B’rith’s Frank Goldman called Eddie Jacobson in Kansas City. The President was “washing his hands” of Palestine: “You must help us, Eddie.”

Jacobson wired Truman, “I have asked very little in the way of favors during all our years of friendship, but I am begging you to see Dr. Weiz­mann as soon as possible.”

Tired of Zionist “badgering,” the President wired Eddie that the Palestine problem was probably “not solvable.”

Refusing to give up, Jacobson flew to Washington in hopes of chang­ing his mind.



* The State Department’s order also revoked passports held by any Americans who wished to join “armed forces not under the United States government,” which was in­tended to stop the growing number of American Jews who wished to fight alongside Jew­ish underground armies in Palestine like Haganah.


For some readers, Presidential Courage is perfect summer reading: not much to have to think hard about, and some interesting stories about nine U.S. Presidents.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2007 issue of Executive Times


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