Why did Gallup omit its own Holocaust poll?

Was the persecution of Jews in Europe “their own fault”? Some 65% of Americans said the Jews were partly or entirely to blame. (April 1938)

December 13, 2018 21:08
4 minute read.
YOUNG HOLOCAUST survivors arrive at the Atlit detainee camp, 1945.

YOUNG HOLOCAUST survivors arrive at the Atlit detainee camp, 1945.. (photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)


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Gallup’s editor-in-chief spoke at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on November 28, and described polls his organization took in the 1930s and early 1940s, which showed overwhelming opposition to the admission of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

Yet somehow he forgot to mention the single most important poll that Gallup took during those years – a poll which showed exactly the opposite of all the others. What can account for this peculiar omission?

The event at the museum in Washington, DC featured Gallup’s top editor, Frank Newport, together with Daniel Greene, the lead curator of the museum’s controversial new exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust.”

The not-so-subtle theme of the exhibit is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was virtually helpless to assist Jews fleeing Hitler because American public opinion was so heavily opposed to admitting them. Polls taken by Gallup and others during those years play a major role in the exhibit.

Large, lit-up boxes throughout the exhibit present the questions from the polls, and the results.

Was the persecution of Jews in Europe “their own fault”? Some 65% of Americans said the Jews were partly or entirely to blame. (April 1938)

In the wake of the Nazis’ horrific Kristallnacht pogrom, should America admit more German Jews? 94% disapproved of the pogrom, but 72% were against admitting refugees. (November 1938)

Should the US admit 10,000 children from Germany? 67% said no. (January 1939)

Reproductions of those question boxes appeared on a large screen behind Frank Newport as he discussed the poll results in his remarks at the museum. Clearly, he was intimately familiar with the material. He described founder George Gallup’s work methods in great detail. He shared anecdotes about Gallup and his family. He described Gallup’s impact on American society.

But then something strange happened. After discussing polls from the 1930s and 1940 and 1941, Gallup and curator Greene suddenly leap-frogged over the rest of World War II, and went straight to the postwar period. They claimed that American public opposition to admitting refugees continued throughout the war and afterwards.

But the truth is that there was a very significant shift – according to a poll that Gallup itself took in 1944, in the middle of the war and the middle of the Holocaust.

What happened is that a small US government agency, the War Refugee Board, proposed to President Roosevelt in early 1944 that he should grant temporary haven to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees until the end of the war. To test the waters of public opinion on the proposal, the White House commissioned a Gallup poll in April of 1944.

Gallup found that 70% of the public supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” in the United States to “those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”

How is it that public opinion had changed so much from previous polling? Most Americans felt sympathy for European Jews, but had viewed refugees as a threat to their jobs or to national security. But the shift to a wartime economy completed America’s emergence from the Great Depression. And as the tide of the war turned in 1943 (the liberation of North Africa; the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad; the withdrawal of Italy from the war), the public’s fear of refugees (either as competing workers or disguised as Nazi spies) diminished, and its willingness to make humanitarian gestures increased.

Gallup’s April 1944 poll was taken more than a year before the end of the war. It was late, but it was not too late, to rescue a significant number of Jewish refugees, if only President Roosevelt had shown an interest in doing so – and as the poll showed, he would have enjoyed ample public support for such action. Sadly, he agreed to grant temporary haven to just one token group of 982 refugees.

That crucial poll is omitted from the Holocaust Museum’s new exhibit, which is one of the reasons that many Holocaust scholars have criticized it. Acknowledging the wartime shift of public opinion would upset the exhibit’s underlying theme of minimizing President Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Jews. Visitors would realize that the president’s hands were not completely tied, after all.

It’s bad enough that the museum curators simply omitted the 70% poll from the exhibit. But it adds insult to inaccuracy for Gallup’s editor-in-chief to have done likewise in his remarks at the museum, and on Gallup’s website. An essay by Newport on the site is marred by the same omission. In fact, the essay is accompanied by a chart listing Gallup polls from the 1930s and 1940s about refugees—and once again, the telltale 1944 poll is missing.

Newport did not respond to requests for comment.

Gallup is supposed to be measuring public opinion, not trying to reshape historical perceptions by selectively showcasing only those poll results that support a particular narrative.

The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.

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