Most American Jews remember Harry Truman as the president who recognized the fledgling state of Israel in 1948.
But historian Frank Kofsky has another image of the former U.S. commander in chief. He recalls Truman as the president who let Nazi war criminals escape justice as part of his efforts to combat the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"The government wanted dedicated anti-communists, and in many cases, dedicated anti-communists were dedicated Jew-killers," said Kofsky, a history professor at Cal State Sacramento since 1969 and an authority on the Truman administration.
The assertion is part of a lecture titled "The Origin of the Cold War, Contemporary Implications," which Kofsky will give Sunday, Nov. 5 at Castro Valley's Congregation Shir Ami.
Though the information about Truman is "not all that secret" among historians, Kofsky said, Jews apparently don't want to hear it.
When he gave a talk on the subject in December to a Sacramento-area congregation, the professor recalled, audience members just wouldn't believe him.
"I was so dismayed," he said. But Kofsky said he believes other Jewish audiences would react the same way.
"All they really care about is that Truman is the president who recognized the state of Israel," he said. "Many Jews tend to be narrow in their focus. They have a protective feeling about Israel that overrides anything else…Israelphilia, the love of Israel and focus on Israel, has swamped everything else."
Kofsky, who is Jewish and lost distant relatives in Poland during the Holocaust, scoffs at such blind veneration for Truman and believes that the late president's quick recognition of Israel likely stemmed from nothing but a desire to win the Jewish vote.
"I've not a great respect for the man," Kofsky said, adding that his feelings come from what he considers Truman's overall "amorality" and not from the Nazi connections alone.
Working on his second book about Truman, Kofsky has twice been awarded grants to research the 32nd president at the Harry S. Truman Library Institute in Independence, Mo.
His knowledge about Truman and the Nazis, however, doesn't come from first-hand research. Most of it is based on case histories found in a 1988 book by Christopher Simpson called "Blowback: America's Recruitment of the Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War."
The book asserts that Truman, who served as president from Franklin Roosevelt's death in April 1945 until 1952, authorized giving scores of Nazi war criminals new identities or revised histories.
The Nazis included a top-ranking intelligence officer and others who participated directly in the round-up and slaughter of European Jews, according to the book.
"These are people who had blood up to their elbows when it comes to Jews," Kofsky said.
Some of the recruits stayed in Europe, running covert paramilitary operations or gathering information against communists. Others, such as German rocket scientists, were brought to the United States to work as aerospace or thermonuclear weapons experts.
Why would the United States turn to its enemies for help? Kofsky said these Nazis were already trained to fight communists or had information the U.S. government deemed vital to gain an advantage over the Soviets.
"They essentially worked out a trade," he said.
In some cases, the book maintains, Truman authorized the deals himself. In others, he set the climate that allowed his subordinates to make the decisions.
Despite these contentions, Kofsky said that Truman didn't turn to Nazis for any reason other than expediency.
"I don't think he was a Jew-hater," Kofsky said.
But Kofsky's version of events isn't entirely uncontested.
Ken Hechler, who served as a special assistant in the White House during the Truman administration and is now West Virginia's secretary of state, said he doesn't believe the president authorized anything immoral or unethical.
It's true that the U.S. government recruited German scientists, Hechler said. But he believes that most of the scientists had no direct association with Nazi atrocities. And although Nazis who remained in Europe after the war were also recruited by the United States, Hechler blames this on "short-sighted" military commanders who were working "without any authorization from Truman."
"They're the ones who should be censured," Hechler said in a telephone interview. "Truman was never involved in the type of thing that Frank is talking about."
Kofsky's view of Truman is part of his rather unorthodox belief regarding the inception of the Cold War. He asserts that the Soviet Union was no threat immediately following World War II. He believes that the U.S. government purposely demonized the Soviet Union in an attempt to politically and militarily control Western Europe and Japan.
Before jumping to any conclusions regarding his thesis, however, Kofsky wishes that average Americans — including Jews — spent more time studying history.
"The ordinary member of the public is as out of touch with the history of the past 25 years as they are with the latest developments in nuclear physics," he said. "The gap between what historians know to be the truth and what the public thinks is the truth is enormous."