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"I am Cyrus"
Harry Truman's support for the creation of the State of Israel was rooted in his interpretation of Scripture.
In November 1953, just a few months after leaving the presidency of the United States, Harry S. Truman was brought to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to meet a group of Jewish dignitaries. Accompanying him was his good friend Eddie Jacobson, a comrade from his Army days and former business partner in a short-lived men's haberdashery 30 years earlier. Jacobson introduced his friend to the assembled theologians: "This is the man who helped create the State of Israel." Truman retorted, "What do you mean, 'helped to create'? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus."
Truman was the only president of the 20th century who did not have a college education. In his generation, however, a secondary school education included the study of the Bible and ancient history, and therefore his audience would have known what few graduates of university history departments today know—that Cyrus II ("the Great") was the Persian king who overthrew the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C. and subsidized the return to Jerusalem of the Jewish population that been held captive in Babylon for 70 years. Cyrus's successors permitted the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and city walls. Throughout the two-and-a-half millennia of historical calamities that followed, Cyrus served as the symbol of the righteous gentile ruler who would make possible the ultimate and irreversible return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel—the restoration of their nationhood and security against their enemies.
Truman's self-identification with Cyrus had nothing to do with self-glorification. It followed from his understanding of history and of the Bible. His Sunday School teachers had taught him that someone, someday, would be called upon to be a second Cyrus.
Truman had joined a Baptist church in Kansas City at the age of 18 and maintained membership in a Baptist church throughout his life. At the time of his baptism, he wrote out a prayer on a card that he carried in his wallet for the rest of his life:
Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth, and the Universe: Help me to be, think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving, and patient with my fellowmen—help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings—even as Thou understandest mine!
Truman regarded himself (with justification) as a well-read man. Although he never went to college, he had as good a grounding in classical literature and the Bible as any other president in the 20th century—and in fact better than most. He was thoroughly convinced of God's direction of his own life, and of everyone else's. He pondered the extraordinary circumstances that had brought him into the Oval Office. He studied soberly his own strengths and weakness—fully at peace about the fact of his humble origins. And he came to the perfectly calm conclusion that he was Cyrus.
Keeping Britain's promises
Few Americans were prepared for the sudden death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, and fewer still for the succession to his office of the little-known vice-president Harry Truman. Buried within the enormous pile of projects on Roosevelt's desk when he died was the matter of how to dispose of Britain's Mandate over Palestine. Truman knew that the United Nations would inherit the promise of the League of Nations and Great Britain expressed in the Balfour Declaration of November, 2, 1917: "That His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …" Truman knew, too, that Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, the British statesmen who devised this formula, and President Woodrow Wilson, who endorsed it fully, understood that they were fulfilling the mandate that religious Jews associated with Cyrus.
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