1938 refugees



The results of the poll illustrated above by the useful Twitter account @HistOpinion were published in the pages of Fortune magazine in July 1938. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans surveyed at the time believed that the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing fascist states in Europe — the vast majority of whom were Jewish — to voyage across the Atlantic. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out.”

To be sure, the United States was emerging from the Great Depression, hardly a climate in which ordinary folks would welcome immigrants and economic competition. The events of Kristallnacht — a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in areas controlled by the Nazis — had yet to take place. And the poll’s use of the term “political refugees” could have conjured in the minds of the American public images of communists, anarchists and other perceived ideological threats.

But look at the next chart, also tweeted by @HistOpinion. Two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion in January 1939 — well after the events of Kristallnacht — said they would not take in 10,000 German Jewish refugee children.

1939 refugees

[A couple of caveats: Polling in this period, including Gallup surveys, was not as scientifically rigorous as it later became. Also, respondents may not necessarily have had a particular bias against Jewish refugees. A separate portion of Gallup respondents were asked a nearly identical question which did not describe refugees as Jewish. Support for accepting refugees was slightly lower than when they were described as mostly Jewish.]

As WorldViews detailed earlier this year, most Western countries regarded the plight of Jewish refugees with skepticism or unveiled bigotry (and sympathy followed only wider knowledge of the monstrous slaughters of the Holocaust):

No matter the alarming rhetoric of [Adolf] Hitler’s fascist state — and the growing acts of violence against Jews and others — popular sentiment in Western Europe and the United States was largely indifferent to the plight of German Jews.

“Of all the groups in the 20th century,” write the authors of the 1999 book “Refugees in an Age of Genocide,” “refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as ‘genuine,’ but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy.”

It’s worth remembering this mood when thinking about the current moment, in which the United States is once more in the throes of a debate over letting in refugees. Ever since Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, the Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, have sounded the alarm over the threat of jihadist infiltration from Syria — even though it now appears that every single identified assailant in the Paris siege was a European national.

Hindsight is generally 20/20.  As long as we see all Muslims as “other” these similar types of opinions will be held.  Today, Jews seem unremarkable, routine, and non-“other.”  What made us change over 70 years?  TV, movies, assimilation?  Probably all of the above.  When I was a young adult there was a country club over in Loudoun County that wouldn’t allow blacks or Jews.  When I was growing up in Albemarle County, Catholics were seen as semi-“other.”

How will the world judge us when the Syrian Civil War is over?    I believe we will be judged by our degree of compassion and humanitarianism.   When people say, “it isn’t worth the risk,” we have to remember that we aren’t the only ones taking a risk.  those refugees have been homeless and fleeing, some for as long as 5 years, when the conflict began.  there are close to 8 million displaced persons, at least half the Syrian population.

Yes, there is a risk that a terrorist or two might infiltrate and gain entrance to this country by posing as a refugee.  There is also the possibility that a terrorist might over-stay a visa or slip across the Canadian border.  One could also swim across from Mexico or get smuggled in by a coyote.  One could wash ashore and disguise himself as a Cuban refugee.

We need to remain vigilant.  We know the danger is out there.  Becoming isolationist or quaking in fear over refugees doesn’t make us a stronger nation.  We need to find a way to shelter the refugees and at the same time beef up our own security.

Only in America….


82 Thoughts to “The Refugee situation: Changes in Attitude…Changes in Lattitude”

  1. Watching

    Yes to be clear ii think it was wrong. Two men died. Yes. That is a fact. I realize you find that abhorrent but what exactly is wrong with the deaths? That they were committed by “foreigners” or that anyone died that day by murder? Is it the fact they were somehow avoidable or the reason behinds the deaths? What is it exactly because I find all murder abhorrent. What I don’t understand is why you aren’t outraged at the 31 murders committed every day with guns in the US. WHY DONT WE TRY TO GET THE MOST BANG FOR OUR BUDK AND FOCUS ON AVOIDING THOSE???? No let’s spend our time on shutting our borders because of these two. Yes, statically speaking I think that is a knee jerk reaction.

    This isn’t about guns it’s about my not understanding the outrage at foreigners. Like they are somehow scary and different from us and we should keep them out. There is so much in the world we could help and focus on to make it a better place but you choose to be outraged over stuff like this and get upset. Are you outraged at people who don’t vaccinate their child and threaten us all? Are you outraged at the state of our education and how it’s failing our country? Are you outraged at poverty and people starving within our borders? Why are you not outraged at all the other bad things happening but foreigners somehow set you off? Use your outrage wisely. I’m sure you and I agree on very little.

  2. Wolve

    One of the few times Obama has been right. When you find a leak in the ship, you stop operations and repair it. That’s not knee jerk. That is the appropriate reaction. It also gives you the opportunity to discover if the leak you found is the only one. And it gives you the chance to protect as best you can against future leaks. Nothing wrong with that plan.

  3. Wolve

    I am outraged about a lot of things in this country. However, I might not be outraged very long if I neglected to protect my back from someone who has vowed to lay as many of us as possible in the grave or make us bend a knee and has demonstrated that they may well have the capability and the determination to achieve that goal. That is not outrage at foreigners or a fear of foreigners. It is a desire for vigilance against and maximum self-protection from a known and aggressive enemy. And that is not something to be disparaged.

    1. How about those within your country who wish us harm? There are plenty of those running about.

  4. Steve Thomas

    Deflection and projected guilt, assumptions and gratuitous assertions, emotion without logic. That about sums up your statement.

    And furthermore, you should trust others to protect you, because you have demonstrated no knowledge of the need to protect yourself, or others.

    1. I am not following the argument but suggestion: point/counterpoint.

      Sometimes acting on emotion rather than logic isn’t a bad thing. It is what makes us human rather than robotic.

      Back to my obsession….

  5. Wolve

    Moon-howler :
    How about those within your country who wish us harm? There are plenty of those running about.

    That too. Hence the arguments over the 2nd Amendment and suggestions for better attention to and action on mental illness. Did you hear about that guy in Midland, Texas, who was arrested for beating up his girlfriend because she refused to smell his arm pit? That was on CBS News in Houston today, so I don’t think it was one of those bizarro things from The Onion. On the other hand, I wish it was.

    1. No, I didn’t hear about that. but I have been binge watching.
      Sometimes fantasy is better than reality.

      The good thing about watching The Man in the Golden Castle is that it makes one contemplate freedom and what freedom really means.

      My brothers and I laughed at my mother once because she told us that people in Charlottesville were convinced that Hitler would invade and come to Charlottesville. We whooped and howled at her comments and asked her why on earth would Hitler want to come to Charlottesville. It has very little industry. Then we made the mistake of asking “what’s he going to do, storm Monticello?”

      She was outraged and said yes, it was the seat of democracy. What more symbolic take over. She then informed us that we simply had no idea how “nip and tuck” that war had been and that they (the United States) didn’t know for sure that they were going to win until right before they did win it.

      She lived through it and worked for the Dept of the Army so I guess maybe she knew more than we kids about what was what.

  6. Watching

    I am not suggesting we not fight people who are trying to harm us, this is all about how to do this and whether blocking an entire refugee population from entering our borders and is an effective way to fight. I say it is not. You seem to think that I know nothing about combatting terrorism and that this is the only way. I disagree and I do not believe every single military person would say you need to block them all. I think it’s a knee jerk reaction on the part of the population because you are scared and feel out of control. All the refugees are not terrorists and they have a process in place to screen them, from what I have read. They have been doing it for years. I trust the people in charge to protect me. (I do not mean the politicians to be clear) I get emotional when the groupthink turns on others. That’s is how all kinds of people come to power.

    And I have no problem with Obama plugging the hole. I just don’t think he needed to dry dock the boat to do it.

    1. I got emotional after I heard the hearing on CSPAN. I was enraged over the ignorance of the callers and the basic nastiness of the politicians.

      This country, despite all its bullshit and blather and flag-waving, really isn’t very hospitable to newcomers, historically.

      I hardly think we are being asked to do all the heavy lifting on this one.

  7. Steve Thomas

    Yes, I do believe that you know nothing about this subject, because nothing you have written would indicate that you do. When I pointed to a previous failure of a refugee program to identify terrorists during vetting, you launched into some rambling screed about “two men being murdered” and then went off on some tangent about outrage over social ills that have plagued society since the dawn of man. This demonstrates a total lack of understanding regarding the issue being discussed.

    1. Perhaps you both lack the same understanding. I believe watching is on one plane and you are on another and the two planes will never intersect.

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