In 1917, quiet and friendly Eddie Jacobson had clerked in an Army canteen under Lt. Harry Truman.After the war, the friends opened a Kansas City men’s store, which they ran until losing everything in the Depression.
In 1947, during Truman’s presidency, Jacobson went to see him. Saying he’d never ask his old friend for a personal favor, Jacobson wanted to discuss “my suffering people.” Later that year, Jacobson asked the president to endorse a plan for separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Meanwhile, Truman’s advisors were warning that if it helped create a Jewish state, America would become the enemy of the entire Arab world.
Truman, always sensitive when people tried to sway him, found both sides hard to deal with. He refused to meet with the chief advocate for a Jewish homeland.
Visiting Truman again and unable to hold back tears, Jacobson said he felt shocked and crushed.
“Harry, all your life, you have had a hero,” he said. “You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. Well, Harry, I too have a hero—a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived … Chaim Weizmann. He is a very sick man … but he traveled thousands of miles just to see you … Now you refuse to see him just because you are insulted by some of our American Jewish leaders—even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with these insults … It doesn’t sound like you, Harry … I thought you could take this stuff they have been handing out.”
Truman gave in.
“You win, you bald-headed son of a bitch!” Truman cried. “I will see him.”
The president went on to support the creation of Israel in 1948. He wrote to his brother about the “striped-pants boys” at the U.S. State Department who were trying to thwart him, declaring that he would “do what I think is right and let them all go to hell.”
Lesson: Pick your battles.
—Adapted from Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, Michael Beschloss, Simon & Schuster.