Middle East / Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds.

Caught in the Middle East

One issue in particular strained the relationship between American President Harry Truman, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee – Palestine.


Clement Attlee’s initial response in the summer and autumn of 1945 was to refuse Truman’s request to allow 100,000 Jews into Palestine. Attlee took no interest in domestic American politics. The State Department disagreed with Truman’s pro-Jewish policy and the then secretary of state George Marshall opposed his recognition of the state of Israel just minutes after it was proclaimed on 14 May 1948. In March 1948, when Truman had assured the head of the Jewish Agency, Chaim Weizmann, of his commitment to a United Nations solution for Palestine, Senator Warren Austin, the United States representative on the Security Council, put forward a tripartite trusteeship of the United States, Britain and France. Truman remarked that there were ‘people on the 3rd and 4th levels of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat’. [1]

Arab states in the Middle East sat on significant oil reserves and there was an impact on the whole Middle East of inserting a large group of new people into it. Yet, Attlee gave scant recognition to Truman’s position: the American president knew the political impact of the significant Jewish vote at home, and pursued his policy vigorously, even with such strong State Department opposition. Attlee did not even take the time to visit Truman to discuss the matter or discover what his underlying motivations might have been.

In November 1945, the British government proposed to the United States that an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry be set up to deal with the issue. The proposal was, however, uncompromising on the situation in the short term: ‘In regard to the immediate future, His Majesty’s Government have decided that the only practicable course is to maintain the present arrangement for immigration’ [2] – that is 1500 people per month. The committee, made up of six American and six British participants, reported in April 1946 and, aside from recommending that Palestine should be neither a Jewish nor an Arab state, with neither dominating, concluded that 100,000 Jews should be admitted into Palestine immediately. On 10 May 1946 Attlee wrote to Truman to ask that ‘every effort should be made to convene a conference and which Arab and Jewish representatives would meet with representatives of our two Governments’, [3] but Truman publicly approved the proposal to admit 100,000 Jews immediately. On 24 June, Attlee cabled to Truman that ‘Tension is mounting in Palestine and we are satisfied that precipitate action on the immigration question alone would provoke widespread violence.’ [4] On 29 June, he wrote in strong terms:

In view of the continuance of terrorist activity in Palestine culminating in the recent kidnapping of six British officers, His Majesty’s Government have come to the conclusion that drastic action can no longer be postponed…

… It is proposed to raid the Jewish Agency and to occupy it for a period necessary to search for incriminating documents. At the same time members of the Agency considered implicated directly or indirectly in Haganah [a Jewish paramilitary organization] outrages will be arrested. Similar action will be taken in the case of headquarters of the illegal organisations. [5]

To find an agreed position between Britain and the United States, ‘experts’ met from both sides: cabinet secretary Norman Brook chaired for the British, and the diplomat Henry F. Grady chaired for the United States. However, violence continued and, on 22 July 1946, the militant Zionist group Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with the loss of 91 lives. The ‘experts’ put forward proposals for a government to have overall control of Jerusalem and Bethlehem with an Arab and a Jewish state within a federal structure; admission of the further 100,000 Jews should be on the basis of Arab consent. This was known as the Morrison–Grady Plan; Morrison at this stage was chairing the cabinet’s Palestine committee. Given his earlier commitments to Jewish immigration, Truman was never likely to approve this and duly declined to do so. On 18 August 1946 Attlee wrote to Truman that it was ‘a great disappointment to us that you should feel yourself unable to give support to the plan recommended by the Anglo-American Expert delegations.’ [6] However, he pressed on with the idea of bringing the sides together to discuss the proposals: ‘it is, as I have said, our intention to place the outlines of the provincial autonomy plan before the conference.’ [7] Attlee was, however, overly optimistic – the Jewish Agency simply refused to attend the September conference, the Palestinian Arabs did not attend either and the remaining Arab states would not contemplate a Jewish state in Palestine.

Truman did not give up easily on this issue and sent a telegram to Attlee in no uncertain terms in the early hours of 4 October 1946 containing a draft statement for issue the next day:

I deeply regret that it has been found necessary to postpone further meetings of the Palestine Conference in London until December 16th and I sincerely hope that it will be found possible in the interim to begin moving on a large scale the 100,000 displaced Jews in Europe who are awaiting admission to Palestine. [8]

Attlee requested a postponement with Ernest Bevin (Labour’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) in Paris talking to Zionist leaders there, but was refused it. The following morning he replied bad-temperedly that the statement’s effects might well:

include the frustration of the patient efforts to achieve a settlement and the loss of still more lives in Palestine.

I am astonished that you did not wait to acquaint yourself with the reasons for the suspension of the Conference with the Arabs…

I shall await with interest to learn what were the imperative reasons which compelled this precipitancy. [9]

Truman replied by telegram on 10 October setting out the deep-seated American feeling on the issue:

My feeling was that the announcement of the adjournment until December 16 of the discussions with the Arabs had brought such depression to the Jewish displaced persons in Europe and to millions of American citizens concerned with the fact of these unfortunate people that I could not even for a single day postpone making clear the continued interest of this government in their welfare. [10]

World moral opinion was against Attlee on the issue. As the full horrors of the six million Jews systematically murdered by the Nazis emerged, the call for a Jewish homeland was louder than ever. When on 2 January 1947 The Times reviewed the year 1946, it declared: ‘the year closed with a fresh outbreak of terrorist activity in Palestine and with little hope of an accommodation between Jews and Arabs.’ It added:

The suggestion that 100,000 Jewish refugees should be admitted to Palestine as soon as practicable caught the imagination of humanitarian circles both in Britain and the United States, and Zionist opinion in the United States as well as in Palestine was greatly encouraged, and shows signs of even more dangerous impatience at British endeavours to prevent all Jewish immigration not sanctioned by the small minority quota. [11]

Emboldened by Truman’s support, in January 1947 the Jewish Agency demanded all of Palestine as a Jewish state – ‘acting apparently on the principle that it is necessary to ask for a yard to get a foot’, noted The Times. [12] Bevin remained opposed to changing the British policy of minimal immigration. On 19 April 1948, just one month before the proclamation of the state of Israel, Bevin wrote to Lord Inverchapel, Halifax’s successor as British ambassador to the United States:

As I saw it, the fundamental difficulty over Palestine was that the Jews refused to admit that the Arabs were their equals. If they could be brought to see that the principle of one man one vote applied in Palestine to Jews and Arabs alike as much as anywhere else our difficulties might be solved, and in such an atmosphere even the introduction of 100,000 Jewish immigrants might be possible. [13] ■

Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds is the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics. Out now in paperback, it is also the source of this article. Nicklaus Thomas Symonds is also Lecturer in politics at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Image courtesy of Wikicommons.


[1] Robert H. Ferrell (ed.) Off the Record: the private papers of Harry S. Truman (Middlesex:Penguin Books, 1982) p. 127.

[2] Quoted in Williams, A Prime Minister Remembers, p. 192.

[3] Ibid., p. 195.

[4] Ibid., pp. 196–7.

5. Ibid., p. 197.

[6] Ibid., p. 199.

[7] Ibid., p. 200.

[8] DO 35/1593, Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram, Serial No. T.453/46, 4 October 1946.

[9] DO 35/1593, Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram, Serial No. T.460/46, 4 October 1946.

[10] DO 35/1593, Prime Minister’s Personal Telegram, Serial No. T.468/46, 10 October 1946.

[11] The Times, 2 January 1947.

[12] The Times, 10 January 1947.

[13] PREM 8/859 Part II, E 4887/1078/G: ‘Conversation With the United States Ambassador: Situation in Palestine: Mr Bevin to Lord Inverchapel (Washington)’.


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