The final morning of the Yalta Conference Summit, in February of 1945, saw FDR looking at the sunrise over the Crimea. President Roosevelt and his daughter Anna, who was serving as his aide on this historic trip, managed to get in some sight-seeing on the grounds of the Livadia Palace. The final plenary meeting was held in the president’s dining room, and the final communique’s wording was fleshed out.
At 3:45 PM, that afternoon when the final document was completed, FDR, Churchill and Stalin presented it to their foreign ministers, for their polishing and release. They signed three blank pieces of paper which were to be later affixed to the final copy of the conference’s statement. After the meeting FDR bade his farewell to Churchill, and thanked Stalin for his hospitality. Within a few minutes, after gifts were exchanged, FDR was wheeled to a waiting car and he was driven to the coast of the Black Sea. The Yalta Conference was over, and FDR began his journey, “the Last Mission” to Egypt and his meeting with the “three kings!” (Haile Selassie, King Farouk of Egypt and Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia).
As they made their three hour journey, FDR insisted that they drive through the devastated City of Sevastopol, once thought to be the most beautiful port city in Europe, now as the Chicago Tribune called it, “the city of death.” It was completely destroyed by the Nazi siege, and the pre-war population of 150,000, had been reduced to a few thousand. FDR boarded the USS Catoctin for a night’s rest in the captain’s quarters. In the morning he faced another 3.5 hour drive (80 miles) to Saki Airport, where he met Harry Hopkins, Secretary of State Stettinius and his translator Charles Bohlen, along with other members of the American delegation and Foreign Minister Molotov.
The flight was a slow and torturous effort covering 1000 miles and 5.5 hours from the Crimea to Egypt. Because of FDR’s heart condition, the flight could not be above 10,000 feet and the plane had to circumvent Turkey’s high mountain peaks. Eventually the plane landed at Deversoir Field on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake, which is part of the Suez Canal system.
Of course, this diversion from Yalta to his eventual destination of Washington, was made for the express purpose of dealing with the “Palestinian Problem. FDR had other interests also, a desire to build air bases in the region, a hope to extend the terms of the Atlantic Charter to the Arab World, and an interest in commercial access to the oil reserves of the Middle East. Whatever the thoughts were from contemporary critics of FDR’s policies toward immigration and the latter revisionists of this era, FDR had established the War Refugee Board, which saved the lives of an estimated 200,000 Jews, as more Jews were able to immigrate to America than the rest of the world combined. In the period that directly followed the Balfour declaration of 1917, FDR actively worked for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland.
In 1938, FDR sent a private message to British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain urging him to continue to allow Jewish immigration into Palestine. Eventually, this pleas was ignored, the British government issued a White Paper (1939) which basically abrogated the Balfour Declaration and limited Jewish immigration to 10,000 per year for the next five years. According to the projections regarding population, the Jews would be basically limited to being one third of the population. In Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s view, which he reported to FDR, this was keeping in the ultimate objective of keeping the Jews in a permanent minority.
FDR objected to this rationale and expressed his dismay to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. He disputed the White Paper’s claim that the “Framers” of the original 1922 mandate, had directed that “Palestine should not be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population!”
By, 1942, FDR supported the issuance of a joint statement released by the British and American governments and signed by nine other Allied nations, and indeed, reported on the front page off the NY Times, “condemning Germany’s bestial policy of cold blooded extermination of the Jews.” At roughly the same time, FDR told Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau that 90 percent of Palestine should be made Jewish, and the Arabs should be moved to land elsewhere in the Middle East, and that Palestine should become an independent country.
In the Third Washington Conference of June 1943, FDR informed Churchill that he favored and thusly supported, accepting all the concessions wanted by the Jews of Palestine, by transforming the Middle East into a bloc of independent Arab States, with Palestine as an exception, an idea that the imperialist Churchill found alarming. FDR even informed Chaim Weizmann that he convinced Churchill to support a post war conference of Arabs and Jews. FDR believed that the Jews might help the Arabs develop the region economically and agriculturally.
Though, FDR had maintained a some correspondence with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud, the Saudi potentate since the mid-1930’s, he learned from Lt. Colonel Harold Hoskins, whom he had sent to Palestine as his personal emissary to Palestine, that Sa’ud was not easy to sway on the issue of Zionism, no less a Jewish State. The Arab-speaking, Hoskins, found the Saudi ruler totally opposed on religious and cultural grounds. In a meeting with FDR in Washington, where Hoskins had a long and frank talk with the president. He stated, “The establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine can only be imposed by force and maintained by force.”
Even with all of this negativity, and Hoskin’s views that any post war decision on Palestine could only be taken with consultation with the Arabs and the Jews, still, FDR stayed optimistic. Of course, in plain language, according to the State Department, this meant there would be no agreement, because the Arabs, led by Sa’ud and others would never accept a Jewish State in the remaining part of the British Mandate. Thus, for the State Department, and understanding the influence of the British, in the region, this became their definitive assessment.
Despite this opposition, FDR did not renounce his support for a Jewish State. He also called for continued Jewish immigration into Palestine and indicated that “the American Government had never given its approval to the White Paper of 1939.” He also stated, in October of 1944, “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth. I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if I am reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization.”
This attitude of FDR set the stage for his planned meeting with Ibn Sa’ud on his way back from the Yalta Conference. In January, he reiterated his views to James Landis, the Director of the American Economic Mission to the Middle East., indicating that a “rapprochement” between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine might result from a direct meeting with Sa’ud. Landis never thought this would happen as he was skeptical about whether this was in violation of the principles of the Atlantic Charter. He even recommended that the US oppose the creation of an independent Jewish State, and argued that the best that could be hoped for was a “Jewish National Home under Arab hegemony.” He was just one part of the growing coalition of American officials, in the Department of State and the military, who opposed the alienation of the Arab World over a Jewish State. Innately, the huge need for oil during World War II, by the United States, certainly was a motivation for American planners. Historians Allan Lichtman and Richard Breitman, who co-authored “Roosevelt and the Jews,” (who I interviewed on the Advocates on April 3, 2013) wrote that there was significant anti-Semitism in the State Department, with many operatives who were virulently opposed to any Jewish State, including many anti-Zionist Jews.
Now, in the Great Bitter Lake, on the USS Quincy, on the evening of February 12, 1945, FDR contemplated his meeting with Ibn Sa’ud with hopeful anticipation. The next two days would foreshadow the consequences of that conflicted region for the next three-quarter of a century. With optimism, FDR contemplated that the next morning would bring about some level of success at this fateful meeting at the Great Bitter Lake. Eventually, Ibn Sa’ud, with his large retinue would arrive on the 1,620 ton, American destroyer USS Murphy from the Red Sea port of Jiddah. To accommodate the partially crippled King, who had never left his Kingdom before, the ship was laden with oriental rugs to cushion the steel decks for his arthritic legs. In David Woolner’s book, “The Last 100 Days,” he describes the boarding of Sa’ud onto the USS Quincy, “Originally the entourage was to be over 200, but because of the size of the ship, (1/10 of the 13,000 ton USS Quincy) and after intense negotiations, the number was reduced to 48, which included; an astrologer, a food taster, two ceremonial coffee-servers, the king’s physician, ten guards, three valets, and nine slaves, cooks , porters, and scullions.” Aside from this large retinue, “It was also agreed that a large tent would be erected over ship’s forecastle just as if the king were making a pilgrimage somewhere in the vast desert regions of his homeland.”
King Ibn Sa’ud had no sympathy for Jews in the least. He wanted German and Polish Jews, who survived, to be given choice parts of Germany and even claimed that Palestinian (Jewish) Brigade was fighting Arabs, though they were in combat in Italy against Germans and Italian forces. Sa’ud said that Jews only were able to irrigate and develop their lands because of money donated from British and American Jews. According to Henry H. Adams, the biographer of Admiral Leahy, FDR’s Chief of Staff, Sa’ud had been quoted as saying that “Israelites had treated the Arabs very badly, who had been residents of Palestine for generations- and if the Israelites did not behave better, he intended to throw them in the sea.”
In fact, FDR was pretty shocked and startled by Saud’s antipathy towards Jews. In their meeting on the USS Quincy, their conversation started with questions from Saud about the British and whether FDR would object to his meeting with Churchill. FDR hoped that after the war, the world would see, “a decline of spheres of influence, in favor of the “Open Door.” In this new world, the United States hoped that the door to Saudi Arabia would be opened “for her and other nations, with no monopoly for anyone,” as only by “the free exchange of goods, services and opportunities can prosperity circulate to the advantage of free peoples.” Of course, as a result of the war, both Britain and the United States were most concerned about oil, where it was located, and how reliable the access to the supply. Historically the United States was the greatest producer of oil and would remain in that position for many years after the war. But, during the war the ability to produce enough domestic oil for critical war needs was diminishing. (During the totality of WW II, more oil was used then all the previous years in the history of production and more than would be used in the following 20 or so years! Of the 7 billion barrels of oil used by the Allies during WW II, 6 billion were provided by the United States.)
With all this in mind, FDR believed it was an opportune time to discuss the matter that brought him to this meeting in the first place. He suggested to the King, in the wake of the disaster to the Jewish people during the war, that remnants of the Jews from central Europe be allowed to settle in Palestine, where they had an age-old sentimental desire to live. Of course, Sa’ud countered with various arguments regarding all sorts of rationale, including; that the Allies offer the choicest German lands to the Jews. Of course, FDR understood that this would never work, and that Jews would not wish to return to a hostile Germany, almost completely destroyed by the Allies. He knew that the Jews feared being placed in a potentially hostile country, which in the future years would threaten them once again.
Frustrated with Sa’ud’s intransigence, FDR complained that “the King had not helped him at with his problem.” At this point, the Saudi King, having lost all patience, stated that this over-solicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible for an uneducated Bedouin, with whom friends get more consideration than enemies. Of course, Sa’ud wanted no more Jews in Palestine and he repeated that the defeated Germans should become “willing hosts” for their victims. Eventually, FDR tried his last gambit, calling himself, “a farmer at heart,” and suggested that the Arabs could profit from irrigation and other methods of development. That made no impact on Sa’ud, who cared only for independence and certainly did not want to accept Western aid, as he felt it would only bring prosperity to the Jews.
Aside from the exchange of gifts, which included FDR’s spare wheel chair to the King, who could hardly walk, and a DC-3 plane, for the Saudi’s, along with a pilot and his crew (Saudi Arabia had no planes, nor pilots,) the meeting ended with FDR assuring the King that he personally, as president, would never do anything that might prove hostile to the Arabs, but stated the traditional State Department position that the Allies would make no decision on Palestine without first consulting both the Jews and the Arabs. Meanwhile, a disappointed FDR, indicated to the King that the captain of the Quincy felt it would be propitious time to for the ship to get under way. Of course, FDR was frustrated by his inability to move Sa’ud with all sorts of enticements that Sa’ud was inflexible, but FDR did realize that he was unable and unwilling to impose any Zionist goals by the force of American arms. In other words, it was quandary, bordering on failure.
After the meeting Ibn Sa’ud referred to the meeting on the USS Quincy as the high point of his life. He apparently thought that he had triumphed regarding his rejection of any compromise with the Jews. Even Churchill failed to budge him on any aspect regarding Jewish immigration to the Mandate. In fact, Sa’ud said that if he compromised, “it would be seen as an act of treachery to the Prophet, and to all believing Muslims, it would wipe out my honor and destroy my soul.”
After FDR’s return to America, and his address to Congress, on March 1, 1945, regarding the Yalta Conference, in passing he commented that Ibn Sa’ud had impressed him and that he had learned more in one meeting than he had gleaned in many meetings with Zionist and non-Zionist Jews. Of course, this really related to his and the Arab obsession with Jews. Many observers seized upon this remark as a sign that FDR had reversed himself and was now accepting the State Department’s line regarding it inherent opposition to a Jewish State. In truth, he basically, now understood the brutal intransigence of Sa’ud and the Arabs to a Jewish presence in the Middle East.
This statement, and its meaning, have been debated for generations and many have shaped their own interpretation. FDR, who was fighting exhaustion along with his hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and advanced heart disease, was not in any condition to over-explain the meaning of his words. But, according to many interpreters of his remarks, what he basically said; was that he learned that the Saudis were adamantly against any Jewish State, they would never make a deal, and any compromise that the Zionists assumed could happen, was not to be accomplished. Therefore, what he was responding to was, that all the “dreams” of a Zionist State would not happen with Arab consent, and they were not going to consent. Of course, in the last few months of his life, FDR did assure both the Zionists in America of his continued support and the British and the Arabs that he would not unilaterally force a Zionist state on them without their consent. This dualism is not easily answered. In a sense FDR was continuing his balancing act with his British Allies. He understood their deep reliance on both India, with their large Muslim population and their long relationship with the Arabs. Certainly he did want not to threaten their unity with extraneous issues not related to winning the war in both Europe and Japan. He was unaware that the Atomic Bomb would be successfully tested in the coming months, and therefore he looked forward to a long bitter and bloody struggle to subdue and conquer Japan. Again, Roosevelt was also exhausted by his 12,000+ mile trip back and forth to Yalta. The last leg of his voyage on the Quincy was marked by the fact that Harry Hopkins was terribly ill and had to be flown back to the states, and the death of his naval aide, and close friend General Edwin “Pa” Watson. In a sense, according to Ambassador Alexander Kirk, who had been part of the President’s diplomatic party, it was a “Death Ship!’
FDR’s Yalta Address was carried live on the radio, and his extemporaneous remarks led some among the American Zionists to wonder about his true commitment to a Jewish State. Maybe in reaction to this original misconception, FDR on March 16, 1945, allowed Rabbi Stephen Wise to quote him directly and say: that FDR’s positive position on Zionism, from October of 1944, had not changed. Wise’s private account of this meeting is more sanguine, as he wrote in a note to Chaim Weizmann. Wise revealed that FDR did something he rarely did, admit. As David Woolner, in current book, “The Last 100 Day, FDR in at War in Peace,” had written, “the one failure of his trip,” FDR confessed, “had been his meeting with Ibn Sa’ud.” Indeed, the president had arranged this meeting, “for the sake of your cause!” He deeply regretted his inability to make an impression on the Saudi ruler. “I have never so completely failed to make an impact upon a man’s mind in as in his case.” FDR feared that Sa’ud would attempt to unify the Arab States in a “holy war” which could easy defeat the small contingent of Jews in Palestine. He then revealed that the issue be brought eventually to the first meeting of the Council of the United Nations.
Franklin D. Roosevelt would never see the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco. As the world knows, he passed away on April 12, 1945, at his small home, the Little White House, in Warm Springs, Georgia. He was both the “Soldier of Freedom,” and as James MacGregor Burns said, “the Lion and the Fox.” He was the creator of the New Deal which halted and reversed the Great Depression. He authored the Four Freedoms and wrote the Atlantic Charter with Winston Churchill. He was the architect of victory for the Western World over the forces of darkness and enslavement. He founded the United Nations. His words and ideas would be incorporated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He fought for victory to the end, and gave his life as an average soldier would in battle.
At his death, Winston Churchill said, “In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilized the foundation of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might, and glory of the Great Republic to a height never achieved by any nation in history.” To Churchill, as he stated, “for us it remained only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion who ever brought help and comfort from the New World to the Old.”
In speaking of the late President, Churchill said in Parliament to the members of the House of Commons on April 17, 1945, “he died in harness, and we may say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end, all over the world. What an enviable death was his.”
In the end, neither FDR nor Churchill made any headway with Sa’ud, who was an obdurate, narrow-minded oligarch, who had no concept of what the future, which was upon him, would mean. FDR, caught between his desire to aid the Zionist cause and to maintain good relations with the oil-rich Arabs, would struggle with this intractable problem right up to his death.
Even though his effort in moving the process along, had failed, it had marked a remarkable alteration in the evolution of American involvement in foreign policy. The United States, from that moment on would now be a player in world events, aside from contributing mightily to the defeat of both the militarism of the Kaiser’s Germany in the First World War and Nazi Germany, in the 2nd. The United States had become a global force, far beyond the New World and the Monroe Doctrine.
His effort also was the first real effort by the American government into the historical struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in the Holy Land. This dualistic American policy, of balancing both needs, would last until today, over 73 years later.
In the words of David Woolner, “We will never know, of course, what FDR may have accomplished in Palestine had he lived but a few more years. What we do know is that, as with so many other matters, FDR’s inclination in the final weeks of his life was to revert to the argument that any possible action on the question of a Jewish Homeland would have to wait to until “some future time!” Of course, this procrastination, to some of his more vocal critics, was symbolic of his equivocation. Woolner also wrote, “FDR frequently lamented in private, the harsh military and political realities of the moment – in his mind included the possibility of a major war in the region – which left him no choice but to put the best face he could on some very difficult problems.”
FDR may have not succeeded with his risky gambit into Middle East politics, in his last meeting to the Great Bitter Lake, but for sure, no one could doubt his effort and his support for a Jewish Homeland. As he said in a message to the National Committee for Palestine, as they were about to celebrate Passover, as David Woolner has written, “he still harbored sympathy with the Jewish People in the unparalleled sufferings that have been called upon to endure during these war years.”