Lowdermilk Makes the Case


Sometimes a book can have an unexpected impact on history. So it was that in 1944 a soil conservationist named Walter Clay Lowdermilk published a book called Palestine, Land of Promise. Surprisingly, the little book became a best-seller and had a significant impact on the debate in America over the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine.

In 1938 Lowdermilk had been sent by the United States Department of Agriculture to survey the use of land in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. He hoped to gather information that would help to understand the factors that had led to the devastating Dust Bowl that hit the American Southwest in the 1930’s. Lowdermilk’s special interest was how land was used by different populations throughout the centuries and what the results of those practices had been. He was especially excited to travel to Palestine because there he would have the Bible as his historical roadmap—“the most authentic and longest written record of any nation except China.”

But when he arrived in Palestine, he was dismayed to find that because of the “poor stewardship of the land” since the breakdown of terrace agriculture, the once fertile Holy Land had been replaced by “denuded slopes” and “sandy wadis.” During many centuries of abuse, he estimated over three feet of soil had been swept away. When he took an 18,000-mile car trip through Arab lands he found more neglected and desolate wasteland.

On the other hand, Lowdermilk was impressed by what the Jews “who fled to Palestine from the hatreds and persecutions of Europe” had accomplished in a short period of time. He was astonished to find 300 colonies “defying great hardships and applying the principles of co-operation and soil conservation.” They have, he continued, “demonstrated the finest reclamation of old lands that I have seen in three continents.” And “they have done this by the application of science, industry and devotion to the problems of reclaiming lands, draining swamps, improving agriculture and livestock and creating new industries.” All this was done against “great odds and with sacrificial devotion to the ideal of redeeming the Promised Land.”

Lowdermilk argued that engineering miracles like the TVA demonstrated that wild waters could be harnessed to produce cheap power for industry and agriculture that would transform waste lands into fields, orchards, and gardens. This would enable the area to support a much larger population. He believed the Jordan Valley would be viable for such a reclamation project and that it would even surpass what the TVA had done in the Tennessee Valley. As he put it:

The Holy Land can be reclaimed from the desolation of long neglect and wastage and provide farms, industry and security for possibly five million Jewish refugees from the persecutions and hatreds of Europe in addition to the 1,800,000 Arabs and Jews already in Palestine and Trans-Jordan.

While Lowdermilk did not call for the creation of a Jewish State, his implication was clear. Settling millions of Jewish refugees in Palestine, he concluded, “would erect an eternal memorial to our victory in this world struggle for democracy and world freedom.” “Some place must be found,” he emphasized, to “re-instate the Jews long without a country among the peoples of the earth.” And that place could only be Palestine. “They have nowhere else to go.”

Lowdermilk’s conclusions delighted the Zionists. While Zionism’s opponents argued that Palestine was simply too small and the land too primitive and undeveloped to support a large population, here was a scientific study that offered evidence that Palestine could support a much larger population.

When Lowdermilk returned home and presented his report to FDR’s Vice-President , Henry A. Wallace, Wallace read it and was amazed that the Methodist Lowdermilk “had become the most complete Zionist convert anyone could ask for.” Indeed, Lowdermilk, a Christian Zionist, relied in part, on the Bible for his understanding of ancient history in Palestine. The movement for “a Jewish homeland in Palestine,” he wrote, had begun four thousand years earlier, “when Abraham, prompted by divine inspiration, left the plains of Mesopotamia to establish a new people on the land of Canaan.”It continued through several centuries, when “the Jewish people were driven into exile by the conquests of Assyria and Babylon…On the rivers of Babylon,” he wrote, “the exiled Jews continued to dream of returning to their devastated National Home.”

On March 28, 1944, the junior senator from Missouri, Bennett C. Clark, (Harry Truman was the senior senator from the state) a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, gave a rousing speech denouncing FDR and his administration for opposing a resolution on behalf of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the abolishment of the 1939 British White paper which limited Jewish immigration. Clark told his Senate colleagues that for the past few nights he had been up reading Dr. Lowdermilk’s book Palestine, Land of Promise, and he urged them all to do the same. In Palestine, Clark told them, the soil was being reclaimed and “an ancient land is being returned to the fruitfulness which the Creator intended.”

When he became President after FDR’s death, Harry S. Truman also shared Lowdermilk’s belief that Palestine could be reclaimed and that the Jews could help in the endeavor so that all the people of the Middle East would prosper. Eliahu Elath, Israel’s first Ambassador to the United States and later President of Hebrew University, quoted Truman’s Farewell Address as President given on January 15, 1953, Elath singled out a passage that revealed Truman’s hopes for the Holy Land. Truman had said: “The Tigris and the Euphrates Valley can be made to bloom as it did in the time of Babylon and Ninevah. Israel can be made into the country of milk and honey as it was in the time of Joshua.” This passage, Elath thought, was not inserted “by mere chance.” Walter Lowdermilk would have agreed.

After he retired from the Soil Conservation Service, Lowdermilk worked with Israelis to implement some of the measures outlined in his book. Many Israelis, at that time, favored technical assistance for agricultural development, over direct food aid. That sentiment was summed up when Minister of Development, Mordecai Bentov, coined the saying, "We don't need powdered milk; we need Lowdermilk."

This essay is based on material in Allis and Ronald Radsoh's A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.