UNTIL middle age, Harry Truman was a typical small town rustic, eking out a scrubby living as farmer-handyman, amateur banker, and railroad clerk, occupations that kept him barely solvent. After returning from service in World War I, he invested some modest inherited funds in a small haberdashery. When that business went bankrupt, Truman turned to politics as a prot'eg'e of Tom Pendergast, a venal Kansas City boss, by whom he was supported for a county commissionership with the title of judge. He served inconspicuously for several terms and, in 1934, now 50, he was handpicked by Pendergast for a US Senate seat. He performed his legislative chores as a backbencher, winding up the first two-thirds of his life as a minor political figure from a nonstrategic constituency.
In his second term in the Senate, Truman's career took an unexpected turn. He became chairman of a special committee to investigate defense contracts. Now in the public eye, he ferreted out the rampant graft and corruption of the war period, undoubtedly saving the country billions. His militant chairmanship earned him national headlines and lifted him from obscurity. His watchdog achievement earned him the respect of Franklin Roosevelt who settled on Truman for his vice-president when he ran for and won an unprecedented fourth term.
In April 1945 FDR died, and the small town courthouse Truman became the White House Truman. His impressive leadership in helping to craft the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, The Berlin airlift, NATO, and an independent Israeli state quickly answered the question asked by the chancelleries of Europe, ``Harry who?''
A new volume by Dr. Michael Cohen, a distinguished Israeli historian (``Truman and Israel,'' University of California Press), concentrates on Truman's key relationship to Jewish Holocaust survivors, holed up in displaced person's camps and desperate for a new life in Israel. Virtually all earlier studies of Truman's role during the four years of life-and-death struggle that climaxed in the establishment of Israel hailed his record as a triumph of courageous and compassionate statesmanship.
Truman found himself placed in the hagiarchy with the Biblical Nehemiah who, more than two millennia earlier, had restored the Jewish homeland after the Solomonic kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians.
Dr. Cohen is much more reserved. Thirty years after the Truman presidency he has had access to the diaries, letters, and interviews of many of the participants in the passions and actions of the period. There were sharp disagreements between the chief officials of Truman's State Department, who were preoccupied with retention of Arab good will, and White House personal aides who urged diplomatic and economic support for Jewish aspirations.
Truman waffled, almost uniformly substituting soft phrased rhetoric for yes-no-perhaps commitment. In 1945 there was lip service to a commission recommendation to appeal to the British foreign secretary to permit the transfer to Palestine of 100,000 stateless displaced person exiles.
Truman, however, kept postponing pressure on the British who held the mandate in Palestine.
In 1947, the United Nations narrowly voted for partition, after Truman's aides had lobbied vigorously for such action. But the President retreated from enforcement when war erupted with the invasion of the six Arab states that surrounded the beleaguered Promised Land.
In the attempt to achieve a truce and ultimate peace, the State Department strongly recommended in 1948, that Palestine be placed under a UN trusteeship. When Truman supported the proposal, he outraged the Zionists and the leaders of the American Jewish community who had been given the impression that a sovereign state would have Truman's blessing.
Continuous pressure on Truman from the influential Jewish lobby brought on spasms of irritation and anger. Truman would have relished Noble Laureate I.B. Singer's wearied lament, ``We are a people who cannot sleep. The trouble is that we don't let anyone else sleep.''
Even when Truman's anger was mollified by his hometown chum, Eddie Jacobson, or his devoted legal counsel, Clark Clifford, or above all, his closest White House aide, David Niles, they were unable to bring him forthrightly to the counsel they offered. At crucial times, when he agreed to receive Israeli leaders, all he offered was rhetorical support. He seemed always to be playing the Hamlet role, ``twixt will and will not.''
Ultimately what brought Truman into solid support for a viable partitioned state, including the Negev (that became 60 percent of all Israel), was the totally unexpected 1948 Israeli military victory over the combined Arab states. The State Department leaders and Truman's personal staff were finally assured that an Israeli state, won by its own efforts and clearly capable of defending what it had won, could become a strategic asset - a kind of stationary aircraft carrier to protect American interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Truman now was ready to go all the way. In May, 1948, immediately after Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence, Truman announced US recognition of a sovereign Israel.
A few minutes after he made the announcement, the President telephoned Niles, ``Dave, I want you to know that I've just announced recognition. You're the first person I called, because I knew how much this means to you.'' The next year, Truman went farther and stood solidly behind the vote for UN membership for Israel.
Cohen's detailed record of the unreliability of even the most compassionate friends of Israel and the Jews makes it easier to understand the present, almost unanimous, determination of today's Likud and the hard-right parties in Israel never to risk the nation's security.
Since the Holocaust tragedy and the desperate struggle to command their own destiny, there is a complete change in the historical dependency stance of the Jews.
The resigned Shylock stereotype, ``Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,'' has now been repudiated. The national will is now rooted in the Talmudic saying, ``God and Man are partners (shutfim) in the work of creation.''
The Israelis concede that it may take miracles to safeguard uncompromising self-reliance. But, as Ben Gurion stated when independence was won, ``Anyone who does not believe in miracles, is not a realist.''