1938 Harvard Crimson Poll on 'Jewish Refugees'

Social media users shared a 1938 Harvard Crimson poll about Holocaust refugees, but the newfound article lacked some pertinent historical context.

Published Nov 17, 2015

[green-label]NEWS:[/green-label] A series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris by ISIS militants on 13 November 2015 prompted a number of related debates about an ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and on 16 November 2015 a 1938 Harvard Crimson article titled "POLL SHOWS STUDENTS DON'T WANT REICH REFUGEES HERE" appeared seemingly out of nowhere on social media sites:

The above-reproduced tweet was the first Twitter mention of the piece we were able to locate, published late on 16 November 2015. Prior to then the URL appeared never to have been shared via Twitter, which was curious given its seeming uncanny relevance after the November 2015 Paris attacks. Similar historical claims gained traction on Twitter as well but referenced separate polls undertaken during the 1938-39 Jewish refugee crisis:

The Harvard Crimson piece was dated 14 December 1938 and lacked a byline (listed as "no writer attributed"). The text of the article read, in part:

Jewish refugees should not be admitted to the United States in great numbers, a large majority of college youths in this country believes, according to the first national poll of the Student Opinion Surveys of America.

To the question, "Should the United States offer a haven in this country for Jewish refugees from Central Europe?" 31.2 per cent of undergraduates said 'yes,' whereas 68.8 per cent said 'no'. These figures are the first announced by the newly founded Student Surveys, an organization of campus editors which publish weekly reports on national referenda.

It was clear from the coast-to-coast returns that students as a whole would like to see Uncle Sam come to the aid of oppressed German minorities in some way, perhaps by the offering of homes in United States possessions.

Of further note was the page's URL, which was structured to include the purported date of publication: It's not outside the realm of possibility that archived material was organized that way as it was added to the Harvard Crimson site, but the datestamp in the URL was also clearly not automatically generated on 14 December 1938. All comments appended to the article were left on or after 16 November 2015, which also suggested the article had no online presence prior to then.

A Google search restricted to pages published before 9 November 2015 wasn't particularly illuminating" mentions of the page primarily appeared in separate Harvard Crimson articles and might have been a function of newly updated "related links." In a similar fashion the page's source code was suspiciously vague, but it yielded a few clues as to the possible age of the page in question.

Multiple embedded links were dated on or around 16 November 2015, but a portion of the code indicated the article may have just languished unnoticed:

datetime="1938-12-14" title="Updated January 27, 2014 at 2:59a.m." December 14, 1938

Google's search results suggested the page might have appeared on the web as early as 2010:

harvard crimson reich

Source code for comparably old articles similarly featured an "updated" date of 14 January 2014, and unrelated material dated to 1939 mentioned "Student Opinion Surveys of America." Archived copies of the University of Kentucky's newspaper The Kentucky Kernel dated 13 December 1938 carried a similar article about a Student Opinion Surveys of America poll [PDF]:

harvard poll jewish refugees

The findings of the surveys were not out of line with documented poll results from the era. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, more than 80 percent of Americans opposed loosening of immigration rules for displaced Europeans in 1938 and 1939 (during a time of increased nationalism following the Great Depression):

Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler's policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt's consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.

In November 2015 a number of articles referenced American sentiments captured during polling in 1938-39 but filtered those results through the lens of an ongoing refugee crisis. A 10 April 1999 article published by the Baltimore Sun examined poll data in the context of a different refugee crisis, describing the poll questions as slightly less conclusive regarding Holocaust refugees specifically:

Sherle Schwenninger, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, recently said that the United States bears some responsibility for the refugee crisis and has a "moral responsibility" to open its borders.

That's a very different attitude than the one that met the passengers on the >em>St. Louis. The backdrop to their story began earlier during the winter of 1939, when a bill to admit 20,000 German refugee children was introduced in Congress by Sen. Robert Wagner and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers.

"But they also knew that if the public thought that Jewish children would be those helped — even though it was Jewish children who were in real need of rescue — the bill would be defeated," said The Sun.

"Supporters testified that `children of all faiths' would be included. Wagner declared he would not have introduced the legislation if it had been designed to aid only those of one religion or ethnic group. ... But it was the perception that the bill was designed to help Jews that eventually defeated it." ... The opposition was led by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, who "capitalized on deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment" and suggested that children from slums and U.S. sharecroppers should be placed in the homes that would be used for refugees.

A Fortune magazine poll in April 1939 told a deeper and more shocking story. The poll revealed that 85 percent of the American public was against any change in U.S. immigration laws.

Just as the Syrian refugee crisis colored current views of the sentiments of 1938-39, folks in that era lacked foreknowledge about escalating danger for Jews in Germany:

America's immigration laws placed quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States from other countries. In 1939, the quota allowed for 27,370 German citizens to immigrate to the United States. In 1938, more than 300,000 Germans — mostly Jewish refugees — had applied for U.S. visas (entry permits). A little over 20,000 applications were approved. Beyond the strict national quotas, the United States openly denied visas to any immigrant "likely to become a public charge."

In September 1935, Nazi Germany passed laws that deprived German Jews of their citizenship. Without citizenship, Jews were legally defenseless. Many lost their jobs and property. Hitler also targeted with violence and persecution countless thousands of gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals, and even the physically and mentally impaired. With so many Germans fleeing their homeland, the State Department temporarily eased immigration quotas. In 1936, the State Department approved visas for about 7,000 German refugees. By 1938, that number had increased to more than 20,000. But an opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans still opposed admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees into the United States. Despite pleas by American human-rights organizations, the U.S. State Department refused to increase the German quota any further.

Years would pass before the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust were widely known outside Germany. In 1999 the New York Times published the first chapter of a book titled "The Holocaust in American Life," which posited:

In the course of 1940, 1941, and 1942 reports of atrocities against Jews began to accumulate. But these, like the numbers cited, were often contradictory. In the nature of the situation, there were no firsthand reports from Western journalists. Rather, they came from a handful of Jews who had escaped, from underground sources, from anonymous German informants, and, perhaps most unreliable of all, from the Soviet government.

Per the Holocaust Museum, the U.S. Government received reports of the Holocaust in the summer of 1942 (three to four years after the cited polls), though documented incidental reports had appeared in the news as early as 1941:

In August 1942, the State Department received a report sent by Gerhart Riegner, the Geneva-based representative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). The report revealed that the Germans were implementing a policy to physically annihilate the Jews of Europe. Department officials declined to pass on the report to its intended recipient, American Jewish leader Stephen Wise, who was President of the World Jewish Congress.

Despite the State Department's delay in publicizing the mass murder, that same month Wise received the report via British channels. He sought permission from the State Department to make its contents public.

By contrast, circulating tweets (like the one below) painted a slightly misleading picture of American sentiments regarding displaced Jews in particular:

While it's true the World War II-era United States was loath to accept refugees from war-torn Europe, the polling in question occurred when the events of that international conflict were in its infancy. It's similarly true that The Harvard Crimson likely published a late 1938 survey indicating students largely opposed admitting European refugees, but the 76-year-old article was framed anew due to a 2015 controversy about Syrian refugees. Finally, by 1944, 70 percent of Americans had altered their views to welcome European refugees fleeing the horrors of the war.


Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.