Oral History Interview with
Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 1933-46; Under Secretary of the Interior, 1946-49; Secretary of the Interior, 1949-53.
Oscar L. Chapman
April 21, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Chapman Oral History Transcripts]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Oscar L. Chapman
April 21, 1972
Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right, Mr. Secretary; to begin today, at the conclusion of our last conference we were discussing Israel. Are there any other facts that you want to set down on that subject?
CHAPMAN: I'd like to tell you of the incident coming in on the train from the western tour we made at that time. I don't have the exact date of that trip in my mind.
HESS: We call that the "June trip."
CHAPMAN: The June trip, all right. I don't remember the exact dates, but it's in my files there.
HESS: I think that that trip terminated the 18th.
CHAPMAN: Mr. Clifford and I had a long conference on the train coming through Ohio and Western Pennsylvania as the train was coming into Washington from this long trip. We had about two or three
hours there in which there were no stops. We got in here, I would imagine, around 3:30. There was a reception being given for Mr. and Mrs. Truman that evening over at the Mayflower Hotel. He was going to be there at 6 o'clock or 7.
On the train, Mr. Clifford and I discussed the Israeli situation from a basic point of view that first really had no relationship to the campaign, per se. We agreed very quickly that obviously this would be a great political asset, we felt, to the President's position, if he could endorse the State of Israel immediately. But we had a basis that was more fundamental, more basic than that, that will go down in history, in which President Truman's image grows and improves on you as it's related from time to time, because his approval of the State of Israel was not just for the political benefits that he did get out of it, and he did get some real benefits politically; but it was much deeper than that and went much farther than that. You had the United
Nations just getting underway. There were a lot of little countries from all over the world clamoring to become a member of that body and wanting to be a member of that body, feeling that it would offer them some protection.
Now, the basis of the Israeli thing came out something in this order. Here was a small country, and their people had been persecuted all over the world, in fact, in every country to some degree, and they wanted a homeland of their own. That was very deep and fundamental in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people. I felt, and so did Mr. Clifford feel, that if the president could set an example here and now, he had the opportunity to influence the United Nations for one thing. We felt that if the President could at this time give his approval and recognition to the State of Israel immediately, without any delay, it would have a great influence in building up the confidence of other little countries that knew they were going to have trouble or anticipated
some difficulties with their neighbors. There were a lot of little countries that felt like, "This man is interested in the little people, and not just the big power-play." It had a far-reaching influence on the peoples of the world, particularly the people from these small countries that had problems they wanted to get solved between themselves and sometimes much larger countries. They felt the United Nations was a good place to get them solved, so they wanted to be in. And yet, to have one of the principal leaders of the major power bloc, if you want to call it that, to come out and boldly endorse and give recognition to the State of Israel so quickly after it had established its position legally in the councils of the world, would be a lasting and growing influence, we felt. We thought it would not be recognized at first in the headlines. There wouldn't be much thought of it at first, until problems would come up between other little countries and some larger nations, and they would come to the United Nations
with a sense of hope that, "Here's one of the greater powers; they did this for Israel, and I believe we've got a friend among these powers of the world that will help us solve our problems." It would give them a great hope.
I could name you many of the little countries, which you know, many of the little countries that have been helped by the United Nations. They have been greatly helped by the President's position in recognizing Israel as quickly as he did. It's been very helpful to these people, and it's still helping the little countries. It will go down in history as one of the things, when you get far enough away from the tree so that you can see it in its proper perspective to the forest, the public will begin to appreciate what that meant, more than just some political benefits that he might have acquired through that action.
It was a basic thing to President Truman, and to Mr. Clifford, a basic philosophy of theirs, thinking of laying the groundwork for the future, of being able to say, "Well, we had a President who
did this for a little country," and if any injustices were imposed upon some other little country they could live in hope that they would have a friend at the United Nations to help them to get justice.
I wanted to make that detailed explanation to you because that got no publicity at the time at all. Everybody was writing about the immediate political impact this was having. It did have a beneficial political impact on the campaign, very beneficial.
HESS: Did you also take that into consideration?
CHAPMAN: Absolutely. I discussed that wholly with Mr. Truman, and I found that he was thinking about that more than he was of the immediate thing. He was more concerned about what it would mean in offering encouragement of leadership to the little people of the world, small countries, who wanted to be equals with us in the United Nations.
HESS: But it was also discussed that this might be a way of obtaining Jewish votes and contributions?
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes. I raised that, and I told them that there wasn't any question in my mind that it would be extremely beneficial for the immediate time being, to help us in the campaign. It would mean votes and contributions. But I felt that his philosophy and his feelings of it went so much deeper than that.
HESS: By the way, do you have a 1948 edition of the Public Papers of the President?
CHAPMAN: I have a copy at home,
HESS: The date of the recognition of the State of Israel has slipped my mind.
CHAPMAN: May 14.
HESS: May 14. That was what I was thinking. So that had taken place before the June trip.
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: So what you were discussing was after the fact?
CHAPMAN: That's why you've got to clarify that point; there was some confusion there.
HESS: There were two recognitions, the de lure and the de facto.
CHAPMAN: That's right, but I still have in my mind that we had made a trip in May, then one in June. The one in May was not a political trip. The one in June was; it was a political trip. Now, that's my recollection of that, and I don't have the papers to correct my memory here of them, and I want to check that.
HESS: That we can check on, because this was coming back from the trip to the West, on which you were the advance man?
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: That was in June.
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: I don't recall a trip in May, but we will check on that and see.
CHAPMAN: You can check your dates, because May 14 was the date of the recognition, and he sent that cablegram off about 5:30 in the afternoon, sixteen minutes after it was published over there.
HESS: But when you were discussing these matters with Clifford was before the recognition.
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes.
HESS: Before the recognition?
CHAPMAN: Oh, yes. This was before the recognition that we discussed it.
HESS: What should be done, not what already had been done?
CHAPMAN: Oh., no, we were discussing what ought to be done in this.
HESS: That's what I was thinking, because the trip, I'm positive, was in June, and I thought that the recognition, the first recognition of Israel, did come in May. Now, I'll just read a short quote from Patrick Anderson's book, The President's Men. This is on page 118, and he says:
In May, 1948, Clifford and Chapman persuaded Truman to override State Department objections and grant immediate recognition to the new state of Israel. They hoped a dramatic gesture of support to Israel would be repaid by Jewish votes and campaign contributions that fall. Eventually, Truman agreed...
That's what Mr. Anderson has to say.
CHAPMAN: That is correct; that is, we both, Clark and I, were absolutely together in our thinking about what was the right thing we felt the President ought to do.
But I want to give you a little sort of clarification on that, because so far it's always been referred to as the immediate political thing, and when I talked to Truman, I immediately caught that
he had in his mind, "What values does this have for the future of the little countries of the world." The man was fantastic, Truman. When I talked with him he was fantastic about his long-range thinking on this thing.
HESS: I want to discuss one word of Anderson's: He says "eventually." "Eventually, Truman agreed." What were Mr. Truman's views at first when you proposed this to him?
CHAPMAN: Well, this is the way we handled it. This is why when you're doing teamwork with another fellow you can check things pretty carefully. Clark would see him and talk to him about it, say one thing--this is just before we left for the West, now--and talked to him about it, or raised this question with him. He usually pulled me in on this, and then I would follow up by seeing the President the next day on something else, and I would raise the same issue with him again, discussing the ramifications of
what this meant, and also discussing the idea that the State Department was not sympathetic to this.
HESS: What were their main objections? Oil? British influence?
CHAPMAN: I think it was the British influence a great deal, and the British influence tied with the interest of the oil people who had their interests involved in this, and they naturally got their friends talking around.
HESS: In this matter, were there leaders of the Jewish community that came in to speak to you or to Mr. Clifford, or who communicated with you in some way?
CHAPMAN: That was done so consistently from coast to coast. I don't believe there was a stop that we made on that train anywhere from New York to California that some leader of that group didn't take advantage of the opportunity to
get their story told, their needs expressed for our help. They were very persuasive in the presentation of their case, at least I thought they were, and I felt they had done a very fine briefing job in putting down the facts of history there in its proper perspective of what was going on in the world at that time.
HESS: Do you recall any names, any particular leaders in the Jewish community, who may have spoken to you on this matter?
CHAPMAN: I can't think of any that didn't.
HESS: They all had.
CHAPMAN: To tell you the truth, I can hardly think of one that hasn't. They either talked to me or Clifford and usually both of us.
HESS: What about David Niles? He was Administrative Assistant in charge of minority matters at that time.
CHAPMAN: That's right.
HESS: Did you work with Mr. Niles on this same matter?
CHAPMAN: Yes. Oh, I talked to a dozen or so people that had any entree into the White House at all. I talked to them about it.
HESS: Did Mr. Eddie Jacobson, who was of course Mr. Truman's old haberdashery partner, did he have a hand in, or any influence in Mr. Truman's decision to recognize the State of Israel?
CHAPMAN: Decidedly, I'm quite sure he did.
HESS: Could you tell me about what influence he may have had?
CHAPMAN: I think he had this influence. You know, President Truman's principles of standing by a friend, and he knows you, and knows of you. He's going to listen to you with an open mind, and in Jacobson's coming to see him, or seeing him whenever he was there--now, I did not know
when he saw him, or anything of the kind, but I know he did talk with him about it. Jacobson had been his partner and they were friends, and he tried to help without injecting himself, let's say, into the picture. He didn't want to project himself in the eyes of his own people that he was trying to take advantage of his relationship with Truman, assuming a leadership role in what they were doing. He was very sensitive about that, and he was very good about it.
HESS: If I recall correctly, there was a time when Dr. Chaim Weizmann came over from Israel. He wanted to speak to President Truman; he had spoken to him on occasion, and then Mr. Truman decided that he did not want to speak to him on this occasion, and Mr. Jacobson intervened in Dr. Weizmann's behalf, and Mr. Truman did speak to him. Do you recall that?