Truman show’s real star

As ome of my best friends are Jews. It is a boast so thin and irrelevant that it has become an in-joke. So it was a surprise to discover, when reading the other day, that one of the most important and positive events in the modern history of the Jewish people took place because someone's best friend was Jewish. And I thought it was a story worth telling.

It is, after all, Israel's 65th birthday and birthdays are a moment for reminiscence. When Harry S Truman (the S stood for nothing, by the way, his middle name was just S) returned from the First World War, he didn't want to go back home to the farm where he had done back-breaking work from his youth into his 30s. He had seen some of the world now, and he wanted something better.

So he had the idea of going into business. He knew how, too. He had met a Jew. And with his Missouri rural upbringing, he thought if he knew a Jew he was half-made. So he hooked up with his army buddy, Eddie Jacobson, and set up a shirt and haberdashery store in downtown Kansas City.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, given how things turned out for him) Truman's confidence was misplaced. "Truman & Jacobson" did well at first but after the first year it began to struggle and eventually the company collapsed, leaving both men with considerable debts. Harry Truman, with the patronage of "Big Boss" Prendergast, went into politics partly because it promised a steady income with which he could pay off his creditors.

One of his best friends was Jewish

Not much more than 20 years later, after a series of extraordinary political events, the failed shirt salesman became the most unlikely president of the century. And to him, rather than Franklin Roosevelt, fell the incredibly difficult decisions thrown up by the Second World War. What to do about the Russians and their advance through Eastern and Central Europe, what to do about the atom bomb and then the H-bomb, what to do about Korea, what to do about the collapsing economies of Western Europe?

And what to do about the Jews. "Everyone else," Harry Truman used to say to his aides, "everyone else who's been dragged from his country has someplace to go back to. But the Jews have no place to go."

After the war, it fell to Truman to decide what to do when the British could no longer afford their mandate. Should the country be partitioned, with a Jewish state created? Should America recognise a new state of Israel? Two big things led him to think it should. The first was that he had natural human sympathy for the Jews and their plight. The second was that the domestic politics of the Jewish vote in the presidential election of 1948 said he should support them.

But two things said he should lean the other way. The state department was opposed, meaning that the man Truman admired the most, the man he credited with winning the war, General Marshall was opposed. The second, oddly, was that Jewish lobbying had driven the president to distraction. He was more than fed up with it.

There was, however, one other factor. One of his best friends was Jewish. Truman had decided that he would stick close to his diplomats. Chaim Weizmann came to lobby and Truman wouldn't even see him. But then Eddie Jacobson asked to see his old business partner. He begged just one favour.

Truman had an idol, said Jacobson, and it was former President Andrew Jackson. Well he, Jacobson had an ally and it was Chaim Weizmann. Would his old friend, for old time's sake, spare just a few minutes for his idol? Truman felt he had to agree.

And it was in his meeting with Weizmann that Truman committed himself. America would support partition.

So the next time someone says that one of their best friends is Jewish, be polite about it. You never know when it might come in handy.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 10:45am, May 17 2013