To the Editor:
Barbara W. Tuchman’s article, “The Assimilationist Dilemma: Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story” [May], . . . omits more than can be justified by family ties. I was particularly distressed by the author’s assertion that
. . . the record suffers from a certain distortion—in that the dominant voice, as in every historical record, belongs to the victors, who in this case are the Zionists. Events proved them right with regard to the revival of Israel and the assimilationists wrong. Consequently, the former appear in the record as the disciples of truth and the latter as obstructionists, blind and selfish bitter-enders, objects of scorn and sometimes of malice. The malice and falsity of Felix Frankfurter’s recollections of Morgenthau, published after the subject was safely dead, are a mean-spirited example.
Implied in the above statement are two serious accusations: first, that the Zionist movement, which Morgenthau opposed, has somehow denied him his rightful place in Jewish history; and second, that some Zionists, notably Felix Frankfurter, were mendacious in their accounts of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and the events which he helped shape. Both of these claims ring hollow when one examines not only the memoirs and correspondence, but the official records, particularly the files of the U.S. State Department (by no stretch of the imagination a pro-Zionist source) surrounding the diplomatic activities of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., during the crucial years between 1917 and 1920. Some of the key events of this period involving Morgenthau and the Zionists, as well as Morgenthau and Eastern European Jewry, Barbara W. Tuchman wisely chose not to mention in her tongue-in-cheek euology of her grandfather, for they throw considerable light on the reasons he has never been considered an ethnic hero by the majority of Jews, in spite of his many good works and philanthropies.
Most memorable in this connection was the ill-fated Morgenthau mission of 1917, which involved a secret attempt to explore the possibility of detaching the Turkish empire from its alliance with the Central Powers. As a cover for this diplomatic mission, Morgenthau did not hesitate to use the desperate plight of Palestinian Jewry. Thus, he informed the New York Times that he was going to the Near East in order to investigate, and possibly to ameliorate, the condition of the Jews of Palestine and those living elsewhere in the Turkish realm. In order not to arouse the suspicions of the Zionists at home and abroad, Morgenthau connived with Secretary of State Robert Lansing to include a prominent American Zionist in the legation. The choice fell on Felix Frankfurter, who was at that time assistant to the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, a close associate of Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and the acknowledged leader of American Zionism.
Frankfurter was . . . nonplused by the appointment and attempted to resist it. He did not know Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and when he finally met the ex-ambassador, was puzzled by him. “He wasn’t my kind of person,” he would later write, “in the sense that his talk was inconsequential and not coherent, but loose and big and rhetorical . . .” As the mission progressed, Frankfurter’s opinion of Morgenthau hardened, and he came to believe that the real purpose behind his assignment was to act as a kind of nursemaid to the ex-ambassador.”. . .
Nor was Morgenthau viewed more favorably in European Zionist circles. When the news of the proposed mission reached England (June 1917), it alarmed Chaim Weizmann who saw it as a plot to undermine the Zionist national movement, since peace overtures toward Turkey, if successful, would leave little room for Zionist aspirations in Palestine. Already deeply involved in the negotiations which would culminate in the Balfour Declaration, Weizmann was also disturbed by Morgenthau’s efforts to associate the American Zionist movement with his Turkish peace scheme and feared it might compromise his own negotiations.
Weizmann communicated these anxieties to various sympathetic English officials and was relieved to discover that the British government also opposed the Morgenthau mission, but did not dare to say so lest it alienate President Wilson. Seeking a way out of this political dilemma, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, suggested to Weizmann that he act as an unofficial British representative and meet with Morgenthau at Gibraltar. As Weizmann would later recall his instructions from Balfour, “. . . he was to talk and keep talking till I had talked him out of the mission.”
On July 4, 1917, as planned, a banquet in honor of Morgenthau was held in the fortress of Gibraltar. When the dinner was over, the British commander and his staff withdrew, leaving the American, British, and French representatives—Morgenthau, Weizmann, and a Colonel Weylalone. Weizmann . . . attempted to make Morgenthau recognize the futility of his mission. As the talks progressed, it became embarrassingly apparent to Weizmann that the ex-ambassador had no concrete plan . . . , but merely a vague notion that he could utilize his personal connections in Turkey to some end or other, and that he had not received any definite instructions from President Wilson. Finally, a day later, Morgenthau succumbed to Weizmann’s arguments and agreed to abandon his mission. He grandly announced his intention of going to Biarritz instead of Egypt, there to await further instructions from President Wilson.
Soon after the Gibraltar meeting, on July 8, 1917, a full report of the proceedings was cabled by the Morgenthau mission from the American Embassy in Madrid to Secretary of State Robert Lansing. Composed mainly by Frankfurter, the cable was a masterpiece of ambiguity as it attempted to give reasons for the abandonment of the mission. Frankfurter, however, was far from relieved by the unexpected turn of events, for Morgenthau had informed him that he intended to participate next in a meeting called by the Allied Powers to discuss the Balkan situation. Alarmed, Frankfurter tried to persuade the ex-ambassador that he was not at liberty to represent President Wilson at this conference, not having specifically been asked to do so by either the President or the State Department. In an effort to prevent another fiasco, Frankfurter fired off a cable to the Undersecretary of State, Frank Polk, informing him of Morgenthau’s plans and requesting that, “. . . they should somehow call Morgenthau home, get him away from Europe. . . .”
The subject of all this commotion blithely went his own way. He spent the greater portion of July and August in France, visited the French and British fronts, inspected American troops, attended numerous public ceremonies, and hobnobbed with various military personages. . . . In September 1917 Morgenthau returned to the United States to deliver a verbal report of his activities to President Wilson. . . .
The collapse of the Morgenthau mission was of the utmost importance to Zionism and Jewry. It allowed England and France relentlessly to pursue their course of dismantling the Turkish empire (as had been agreed upon in the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty), and it removed for the Zionists what might have been a serious obstacle to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. It thus paved the way for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Following the collapse of his mission, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., became even more embittered toward Zionism. On December 12, 1917, he published a letter in the New York Times in which he flatly stated that Zionism was, “. . . a surrender, not a solution, of the Jewish question. . .” which might cost the Jews of America whatever they had gained in liberty and equality. And at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Morgenthau, at the head of an anti-Zionist delegation, carried his vendetta against Zionism even further by disavowing the Balfour Declaration.
Equally detrimental to Jewry was Henry Morgenthau’s performance as head of a commission chosen to investigate the treatment of Jews in Poland after World War I. Convening from July through September 1919 at the invitation of the Polish premier, Ignace Paderewski, the Morgenthau commission traveled throughout Poland, visiting such places as Pinsk and Kielce where bloody pogroms had occurred. Not wishing to offend his hosts . . . he ignored the evidence of atrocities committed against the Jews and minimized the pogroms as isolated incidents. In the final report issued by the commission a great effort was made to justify the Poles. . . .
It is largely because of such incidents that Henry Morgenthau, Sr., has not been placed in the pantheon of Jewish greats, and not—as Barbara W. Tuchman suggests—because of Zionist versions of Jewish history or the malicious tone of Felix Frankfurter. . . .
Forest Hills, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Barbara W. Tuchman has brought back to public view events of an earlier era of American Jewry which I believe are relevant to the current debate regarding the relationship of American Jewry to Israel.
As Mrs. Tuchman points out, “The German-Jewish leaders in America gave the support without which there would have been no living settlement to incorporate into statehood.” She then speaks of the cooperation among Louis Marshall and other “establishment” leaders and Chaim Weizmann in creating the Jewish Agency. Since it is not the central theme of her article, Mrs. Tuchman passes over this point rather quickly. In fact, the total story of the negotiations leading to the establishment of the Jewish Agency for Palestine reveals that the eight-year delay in its formation was due in great part to the Zionist Organization’s insistence that the American Jewish establishment limit its role in the Zionist cause to providing funds. The American Jews were told to leave the decisions regarding the economic and political development of Jewish Palestine to the Zionists.
An example of this is the story of the Palestine Economic Corporation founded in 1924 by Marshall, Bernard Flexner, and Felix Warburg. Weizmann and the American Zionist leaders initially gave their tacit support to this project; after its formation, however, the new organization met the active opposition of Weizmann’s chief American lieutenant, Louis Lipsky, then President of the ZOA, and of the Zionist Organization’s Palestine offices. . . . The elimination of Justice Louis Brandeis and his followers from the power structure of the Zionist Organization in 1921 is another example of this same approach.
Today, many articles on . . . the economic crisis in Israel speak of the structural inefficiency of the Israeli economy. As a rabbi and student of Jewish history, I claim ignorance in matters of economic policy. However, many of the complaints brought forth today are parallel to the critiques voiced first by Brandeis and echoed later by Flexner and Warburg. The response seems to be the same today as it was then. American Jews should send money, give political support, but keep their criticisms to themselves. And those who dare to criticize establishment policy are branded . . . as anti-Zionists. . . .
[Rabbi] Neal I. Borovitz
To the Editor:
We were very pleased to see Barbara W. Tuchman’s article, based on a paper read at the American Historical Association-American Jewish Historical Society joint meeting held on December 28, 1976.
However, we regret that the identifying note did not include mention of our participation with the AHA, particularly since such a citation was included in the article by Eugene V. Rostow [“The American Stake in Israel”], which you published in the April COMMENTARY. Mrs. Tuchman and Professor Rostow appeared on the same program.
American Jewish Historical Society
Barbara W. Tuchman writes:
With regard to the letter from Joseph Adler, I think he would have been wiser to have confined his remarks to what was stated in my article, rather than to what he thinks is “implied.” I neither stated nor implied, nor do I think, that the Zionist movement “denied [Morgenthau] his rightful place in Jewish history.” I believe his place, small but distinct, belongs in American history and is not subject to denial or affirmation by Zionists.
I stand by what I wrote about Felix Frankfurter. Those who knew him as a person, as distinct from the myth, will acknowledge that when it suited his purposes he could be a character-assassin of a most accomplished kind.
I myself believe that the Zionists were right in their formulation of the Jewish destiny, that is, in the necessity of statehood in Palestine. The subject of my article, however (to which Mr. Adler does not address himself), was the idea and historical context of assimilation in the U.S.—as exemplified in the person of Henry Morgenthau, Sr.—and, further, to set the record a little bit straighter by pointing out that the assimilationists did far more to support the Jewish colony in Palestine than the Zionists have ever acknowledged; that indeed, but for that support, the yishuv might not have survived to become a state.
Unhappily any attempt, even so modest as this one of mine, to adjust the record instantly arouses all the old Zionist vituperation which, though understandable in the years when they were inferior in worldly position to the assimilationists, was always destructive, and is by now obsolete and tiresome. For Mr. Adler to state, for example, that I wrote “tongue-in-cheek”—that is to say, facetiously—about a person whom I loved and admired very much and who was an important influence in my life, is both absurd and insulting.
The function of a historian is not polemics but understanding—which brings me to Mr. Adler’s highly colored version of the Morgenthau mission of 1917, full of such loaded phrases as “connived with Lansing,” “grandly announced,” “blithely went his way,” “hobnobbed with. . . .” I do not know what Mr. Adler’s credentials are in this field, but I would advise the interested reader to look elsewhere for the facts. They have been fully and accurately presented in Howard M. Sachar’s History of Israel (Knopf, 1976) and in Isaiah Friedman’s The Question of Palestine, 1914-18 (Schocken, 1973), based on a thorough and scholarly examination of recently opened British as well as other archives.
I will not attempt to condense this complicated episode in these few columns, except to point out that the mission was not some flighty notion dreamed up by Morgenthau, as Mr. Adler, taking his cue from Frankfurter, pretends, but an official attempt, assigned to Morgenthau by the President and State Department, to detach Turkey and possibly shorten the war. “Washington was convinced,” Professor Sachar states, “that such a possibility might be usefully explored with Morgenthau’s ‘reliable’ Ottoman sources. In May 1917, therefore, the State Department requested the former Ambassador . . . to embark upon negotiation with certain ‘intermediaries’ in Switzerland. . . .” The subsequent events may be consulted in the works I have cited and also, more briefly, in Walter Laqueur’s A History of Zionism (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972).
I regret that all this space and readers’ attention have had to be given over to a communication that adds more mud than light to the subject it discusses.