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American Opinion Toward Jews During the Nazi Era: Results from Quota Sample Polling During the 1930s and 1940s



Objective We investigate Americans’ opinions about European and American Jews between 1938 and 1945, the period from the height of Nazi domestic power to the end of the war in Europe. Methods Several surveys of U.S. public opinion between 1938 and 1945, reweighted to reflect national population parameters, were examined to uncover both aggregate patterns of responses and predictors of pro- and anti-Jewish sentiment. ResultsWe find that individuals’ social status, gender, partisan learning, and, to some extent, region affected their views on Jewish Americans and on European Jews. Conclusion Roosevelt's policies of speaking out against Hitler's atrocities, but yet doing nothing to facilitate more Jews to enter the United States as refugees, reflected the complexities of Americans’ opinions about Jews here and abroad but led to failure to provide a safe haven for those thousands of Jewish refugees who might have fled before the war.
American Opinion toward Jews during the Nazi Era:
Results from Quota Sample Polling during the 1930s and 1940s
Susan Welch
The Pennsylvania State University
109 Sparks Building
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania 16802
Direct all correspondence to Susan Welch. Professor Welch will share all data and coding for
replication purposes. The original surveys and weights are located in the Roper Center’s data
archives with the survey numbers given in the paper.
*For his considerable help with data management, I thank Adam Berinsky, MIT, who facilitated my
acquisition from the Roper Organization of the weighted data sets analyzed here. I also thank
Rebekah Young for her help with data analysis and Ron Filippelli, Alan Booth, and two SSQ
reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft. Keith Gaddie was very helpful and encouraging.
Objectives: We investigate Americans’ opinions about European and American Jews between 1938
and 1945, the period from the height of Nazi domestic power to the end of the war in Europe.
Methods: Several surveys of U.S. public opinion between 1938 and 1945, reweighted to reflect
national population parameters, were examined to uncover both aggregate patterns of responses and
predictors of pro-and anti-Jewish sentiment.
Results: We find that individuals’ social status, gender, partisan learning, and to some extent region
affected their views on Jewish Americans and on European Jews.
Conclusions: Roosevelt’s policies of speaking out against Hitler’s atrocities, but yet doing nothing
to facilitate more Jews to enter the U.S. as refugees, reflected the complexities of Americans’
opinions about Jews here and abroad but led to failure to provide a safe haven for those thousands of
Jewish refugees who might have fled before the war.
American Public Opinion about Jews during the Nazi Period
Passionate debate continues whether the U.S. should or could have done more to save
European Jews from the Nazi murderers in World War II (recent publications on the topic include
Beir with Josepher, 2013; Breitman and Lichtman, 2013; Medoff, 2013; Plaud, 2007; Rosen, 2006;
Leff, 2005). That debate largely focuses on the beliefs and actions of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
key members of Congress and the State Department, the press, and important lobby groups and other
opinion leaders, from Father Coughlin and the America First Committee to the American Jewish
Analysis of public attitudes of the time has been based on inference from the views of these
elite groups and on diaries, letters, and newspaper articles. And yet, scientific survey research in the
U.S. began in 1935, alongside the debate over how to deal with Nazi Germany and the Nazi victims.1
Beginning in 1938, a few of these surveys asked Americans about the treatment of Jews in Germany
and opinions about fellow Americans of Jewish descent.
These opinions have received very little systematic attention even though they are crucial to
understanding the American public during the Nazi period.2 Longitudinal studies of American public
opinion usually start in the 1950s. Analysts rejected earlier surveys because of flaws in sampling
design and question wording (for a review see Berinsky, 2006, esp. pp. 500-505; 508-509).
Using these surveys with new weights that allow a much more accurate reflection of
population paramenters (see Berinsky, et al, 2011), this paper investigates Americans’ opinions about
Jews asked in seven national surveys between 1938 and 1945, the period when the Nazis were at the
height of their domestic power to their time of defeat. We will examine whether elite opinion about
Jews, as measured by public debates, reflect the views of the public. And, we are interested in how
socio-demographic patterns of tolerance and intolerance map to those that we have seen in the post-
war era.
Americans’ Attitudes toward Jews
It was not until after the war, when the horrors of the Nazis were more fully revealed and
digested, that research on anti-Semitism began in earnest. Indeed, the interest in the part that
“average” people played in the Holocaust has stimulated decades of significant research on anti-
Semitism and its relationship to other forms of intolerance. Questions raised in the post-war period
still influence the work of social scientists who study intolerance and prejudice. Adorno and his
colleagues’ classic work, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), using the now famous F scale
(Fascism scale) linked anti-Semitism to education, personality types, and a variety of intolerant
attitudes toward other out groups and nonconformists. A few years later, another classic,
Communism, Conformity and Civil Liberties: A Cross Section of the Nation Speaks its Mind
(Stauffer, 1955) showed again that social and psychological factors helped explain intolerance for
non-mainstream ideas. Generations of social scientists since then have examined and re-examined
factors that these seminal works discovered. The link among anti-Semitism, education, and other
forms of out-group prejudice has held up well (see Raden, 1999).
Specialized studies of Americans’ opinions about Jewish Americans are fewer. The author of
an early compilation of survey results from dozens of survey questions about attitudes toward Jews
before 1966 predicted that anti-Semitism would disappear as a problem (Stember, 1966). Later
studies were not so sanguine, noting the persistence of anti-Jewish stereotypes (Selznick and
Steinberg, 1969; Rosenfield, 1982; Wilson, 1996). Where predictors of these attitudes were
examined, analysts found that anti-Jewish attitudes were most prevalent among those who were less
educated and older and had lower incomes (Rosenfield, 1982) and, in more recent findings, were
male or African American (Sigelman, 1995).
Jews in the Nazi Era
World War II and the Holocaust are still much in the news as we honor the disappearing “Greatest
Generation,” including survivors of Holocaust horrors. A brief review of Nazi and U.S. policies will
help situate our discussion of Americans’ attitudes during this time (the literature on World War II is
voluminous, and so is the subset on the Holocaust. For more details on the latter see classics:
Dawidowicz, 1975; Gilbert, 1985; Yahil, 1990; Mazower, 2008, Synder, 2010).
Nazi persecution of the Jews, begun with the Nazi control of the state in 1933, was codified in
the Nuremburg laws of 1935 defining what a Jew was and prohibiting intermarriage of Jews and
others. Beginning in 1933, German laws gradually excluded Jews from every aspect of economic
and community life in Germany and from any legal protections, what Kaplan (1998) calls a “social
death” (see the remarkable diaries of Klemperer, 1998). In 1938, Germany imposed similar anti-
Semitic policies and actions when they annexed Austria (the Anschluss) and the Sudetenland.
With a few exceptions, the U.S. media only infrequently covered escalating Nazi outrages
against Jews (Seelye, 2006; Leff, 2005; Lipstadt, 1995). 3 Though the New York Times published
more than 1100 articles on some aspect of the Holocaust between 1939 and 1945, only six were on
the front page, and many did not focus on the destruction of the Jews as a special target (Leff, 2005).
Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Nazi destruction of thousands of Jewish businesses, homes,
schools, and synagogues, murder of nearly 100 Jews, and arrest of 30,000, was the one instance of
extensive media coverage of Nazi persecution of Jews (Friedlander, 1997: 270). Kristallnacht was
extensively covered by the press and brought condemnation in many parts of the world, including
from President Roosevelt and many U.S. Christian as well as Jewish congregations. These and
other acts led Time magazine to choose Hitler as 1938’s “Man of the Year,” because he was “the
greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today4.” The story
included only two sentences about torture, robbery, economic dispossession, and street violence
against Jews, and these sentences were in the context of persecutions of other groups. Hollywood,
too, down played Nazi terrorism in this period (Kafka, 2013; Doherty, 2013; Urwand, forthcoming).
Though Hitler was increasingly frightening to many Americans, anti- Semitism, in the State
Department, Congress, and among elements of the vocal public, played an important role in pre-War
American foreign policy (see Wyman, 1984, and Rosen, 2004 for a taste of the anguished debate over
why America did not do more for European Jews during this period; for a treatment of the issue in
popular culture, see America and the Holocaust, 1992; United States Holocaust Museum, undated).
America had a number of prominent home grown Nazis and anti-Semites, including the radio
personality, Father Charles Coughlin, whose show reached millions of listeners (Stember, 1966: 111
States Holocaust Museum, undated). 5
Many members of Congress expressed strong isolationist views and wanted nothing to do
with Europe’s conflicts. Massive unemployment during the Depression and then later fear of spies
and saboteurs partly shaped anti immigrant views. Some elected officials and other public officials
held anti-British or pro-German sentiments, but many expressed anti-Semitic views. Some
prominent figures, like Charles Lindbergh and Joseph P. Kennedy, accused American Jews of
pushing the U.S. toward war.6 These views insured that quotas for German immigrants, mostly used
by Jews escaping from increased terrorism there, would not be raised. In 1939 Congress defeated a
bill to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the country above the national quotas then in place, partly
because of isolationist and anti-immigrant sentiment generally but also anti-Jewish sentiment
particularly (Stember, 1966: 149). Indeed, observed one commentator, “Anti-Semitism was no
stranger on Capitol was, in fact, an important ingredient in the sharp hostility to refugee
immigration that existed in Congress.... (Wyman, 1985: 14-15; see also Breitman and Kraut, 1987)
Anti semitic views were also rife in the higher levels of the State Department (see for example
Larson, 2011; Dodd and Dodd, 1941).The State Department constructed numerous roadblocks to
potential immigrants fleeing from Nazi persecution (such as requiring a certificate of good conduct
from the German police before processing visa applications from German Jews), and tightened
requirements as time went on.
The minimal attention to the status of Europe’s Jews continued after the war began and
throughout the conflict (Leff, 2005; Seelye, 2006; Novick, 1999; Lipstadt, 1995). War conditions,
especially in the East, gave Germany free rein to pursue their extermination policies and made it
difficult to detect even mass murders. Following the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939,
squads of troopers whose mission was to kill Communists, Polish nationalists, and Jews followed the
army through the countryside (Browning, 1992). After the German invasion of Russia in 1941, this
slaughter culminated in the establishment of death camps whose sole purpose was to murder as many
Jews as possible in the quickest time possible. The “social death” of Germany’s Jewish population
turned into physical annihilation when Germany’s remaining Jewish population was sent to the
camps in late 1941 and early 1942 (see Kaplan, 1942), followed by the Jewish populations of
Holland, France, and Poland and its neighbors in 1942 and 1943, and ending with the deportation of
most Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Though the full horror of the death camps was not revealed until after the end of the war,
throughout 1942 increasing numbers of accounts of murder and deportation found their way to the
U.S (see Wyman, Chapters 2 and 3; American Jewish Committee, 1942; 1943). In November 1942,
a compelling account, finally accepted as true by the State Department and released to several major
news outlets , confirmed that deportations were culminating in mass murder. Even the estimation
that two million Jews had been killed already was reported only in small stories on the inside page
(cf. Washington Post, November 25, 1942). In 1943 advocates for the potential victims still alive
purchased advertisements in newspapers and gave pageants at several locations to publicize the
murders and the need for action. Most Americans said that reports of mass killings of Jews did not
cause any change in their own attitudes, but of the 15-20% who said it did, most were more
sympathetic to the Jews (Stember, 1966: 143).
The murder of European Jews reached its peak in 1942 and early 1943 but continued to the
last days of the war. Knowledgeable scholars believe that “In mid-March 1942, some 75 or 80 per
cent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 or 25 per cent had perished. A mere
eleven months later…, the percentages were exactly the reverse (Webber, 2009: 71).”
Data and Methods
Were Americans outraged by what they knew of the acts of the Nazis, did they agree, or did they not
care? Did views change once the war began? To help answer these questions we examined the seven
surveys tapping American’s attitudes toward Jews, a small subset of the more than 400 surveys
conducted between 1936 and 1945 by the Gallup Polls (American Institute of Public Opinion), the
Roper polling firm, the Office of Public Opinion Research run by Hadley Cantril, and the National
Opinion Research Council (NORC).7 These first surveys were conducted using quota-controlled
sampling. Rather than drawing a random sample from a carefully delineated population, quota
sample designers decided a priori how many interviews they would obtain from different groups of
people (men or younger people, for example) and then the interviewers could choose whom to
interview as long as met their category quotas (see Berinsky, 2006 for a thorough analysis of this
methodology). Quota sampling yielded an imperfect representation of the population from which the
sample was drawn because it was impossible to adequately represent many groups and subgroups in
this way (for example, the sample would include men in proportions reflecting their population, but
this technique could not ensure appropriate representation of old men, or black men, or married men,
or any other categories not part of the defined quota.)
In addition to errors introduced by quotas, the survey design introduced further errors by
letting the pollsters choose whom to interview. Together, these methods led to a bias toward
inclusion of more educated and better off individuals who were more willing to be interviewed or
with whom the pollsters felt more comfortable. Gallup’s polls introduced a further bias because they
sought to reflect not the adult population but the population of voters, thereby seriously
underrepresenting women, southerners, and blacks, who voted at lower rates than others of that era.
Because of these sampling issues, most subsequent scholars have ignored these surveys
despite their historical importance. But recently analysts (Berinsky, 2006; Berinsky and Schickler,
2011) have demonstrated the utility of these surveys if properly weighted to achieve an accurate
reflection of population parameters. The polls used in their survey employ the weights developed to
reflect the national population (Berinsky, 2006; Berinsky and Schickler, 2011). The cell weighting
factors vary from survey to survey, depending on what variables are available. 8
These weights increased the proportion of women in the early samples from the low 30
percent to around 50 percent; decreased the representation of people owning phones from around 50
percent to 40 percent, and increased the proportion in the sample who were pro-Roosevelt by 3 to 5
percent. The reweighting also reduced anti-Jewish proportions by 3 to 5 percent. These changes
were consistent in direction over all the samples examined here. Though the changes in distribution
of the dependent variables were not large, in combination with the changes in the distribution of the
independent variables, they did produce some differences in findings between the weighted and
unweighted data. The greatest advantage in using these weights is that we can be confident that the
findings better reflect population parameters.
The Suvey Questions about Jews In these early surveys, pollsters asked about opinions on
Jews in America and in Europe only infrequently, and only two questions were repeated in more than
one survey. We examine both pre-war questions, the first asked in 1938, (tables 1and 2) and those
during the war (tables 3 and 4).
Though obviously we cannot go back to change the question wording in any secondary
analysis, by contemporary standards these questions are flawed. For example, modern survey
researchers who are trying to elicit rather than influence opinion balance both question stem options
and answer options. So, for example, question C in Table 1 offers an unbalanced question stem:
“Would you support a widespread campaign against Jews in this country?” Scientific polling would
offer alternatives in the question, perhaps rephrasing as “Would you support or not support a
widespread campaign against Jews in this country?
These questions also do not measure up to modern standards because there is little attempt to
understand what the respondent knows before asking for an opinion about it. Questions A and B in
Table 1 and question A in Table 3 illustrate this problem. Respondents are asked to evaluate policies
of which most people probably know very little (persecution of Jews in Europe, Nazi treatment of
Jews in Germany, and Hitler’s taking away power from the Jews). News coverage of what was going
on was sparse, so most individuals’ knowledge was probably also very limited. Without attempts to
measure knowledge, responses to questions like these probably measure overall sentiment toward
Jews as well as opinions about policy.
Question C in Table 1 poses a similar problem. Each person interviewed probably has a
different view of what a “widespread campaign against Jews in this country” means. Would the ends
be further discrimination, segregation, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, exile, or
murder? Would supporting such a campaign, however defined, mean being sympathetic to it, giving
money to a group organizing it, participating in rallies, burning down synagogues, or participating in
violence and murder? Question D also reflects this problem in that there is no attempt to ask whether
the respondent has any idea of how many Jewish exiles were currently entering the United States.
A third limitation is that the questions lack baselines against which to measure opinions about
Jews. For example, in question B in Table 3, what does it mean that 45 percent of the sample think
that Jews have too much power? Would views of other religious groups be similar? Other
nationalities? Other races? We can only guess. Modern survey research would ask about a few other
religious groups, mainstream and minority, perhaps about immigrants, and about racial groups, all to
provide a context for views on any one group.
Despite these limitations, these questions are worthy of study because they tap important
historical attitudes not accessible any other way. For the first time, researchers used scientific
methods to learn what average Americans thought. Moreover, President Roosevelt himself followed
the findings of the Gallup and Roper polls as one of the ways to learn what Americans were thinking,
and, an advisor reports, used them to develop his own persuasive arguments (Gelderman, 1997).
Predicting Opinions about Jews In addition to examining overall responses to the questions about
Jews, we want to see who is likely to be more and less sympathetic. Are those individuals who are
part of the Democratic coalition (urbanites, Southerners, working people) more or less sympathetic?
How do findings about attitudes during the Nazi years comport with post-war findings about anti-
semitism that showed that education is associated with tolerance?
We have relegated details of our methods to the appendix, but here provide the outlines of our
approach. We use probit, a technique allowing us to look at the simultaneous impact of a number of
factors on an attitude. In terms of the factors we could examine, we ran into limitations in these early
surveys just as there are limitations in the items used to tap views about Jews. By contemporary
standards, these were very short survey instruments omitting much of what we now consider standard
background information.
For example, although “party identification” questions are a staple of modern polling, in the
1930s this was not a meaningful concept to survey researchers. Surveys did ask about past
presidential votes and in some cases projected presidential choice. However, these voting items
resulted in many missing cases from those who did not vote, could not remember their vote, or were
ineligible. In the pre-war years, a measure of support for Roosevelt was included, and we used that in
our analyses. Unfortunately, the question was not asked in the wartime surveys we used.
And, in reverse, education was not asked about in any of the pre-war surveys used here,
though it was assessed in the wartime surveys. Time and again, education has been found to be the
key to more tolerant attitudes (cf. Smith, 1993; Schuman et al, 1992; Sullivan, et al, 1981; Stouffer,
1955), and we expect it to be related to sympathetic attitudes toward Jews here.
More professional occupations and higher income also are related to tolerance. Income was
not included in any survey, but we were able to assess whether the head of household was in a
professional or semi-professional occupation (the latter was used but not well defined). We also used
the presence of a telephone in the home as another measure of economic status. The rate of phone
ownership increased during this period, but even in 1945 fewer than half of households owned a
phone (Fischer, 1992: 93; 107; 112). Phone ownership was, then, an indicator of economic status and
nonfarm residence and perhaps is also a measure of social integration.
We expected that men would be more anti- Semitic than women. Though Stouffer showed
that women are more intolerant of Communists and atheists, later research has found women to be
more tolerant of other kinds of groups, including minorities, homosexuals, and those in need (Herek,
2002; Welch, et al, 2001; Wilson, 1996;Sigelman, 1995).
We also expected younger people to be less anti-semitic than older ones. Younger adults are
more open to change on most social issues and are more tolerant than older people (see longitudinal
research on changing attitudes on race, for example Hyman and Sheatsley, 1956; 1964; Welch and
Sigelman, 2011; or contemporary polls on attitudes toward gays and gay rights such as
We also created a measure designed to tap possible familiarity with Jews and Jewish issues.
In the absence of questions focusing on that knowledge, our measure distinguished those individuals
who lived in a community of 500,000 in one of the six states with a significant proportion of Jews
(Linfield, 1941).9 The size of community variable, along with that of telephone ownership, might
also be thought of as crude indicators of exposure to news.
Regional differences are endemic to understanding many political and cultural attitudes. We
examined differences among three regions, broadly defined: the south, the non-Pacific north, and the
Pacific coast. We were interested in the latter because of special hostility to Japanese Americans
there that culminated with the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. We expected
southerners and Pacific Coast residents to be less supportive of Jewish immigrants and southerners to
be less sympathetic to Jews in general.
Opinion before World War II Table 1 displays several questions that reveal Americans’
opinions about Jews in 1938 and 1939. Two of these questions focused on opinions about Jews in
In late April and early May 1938, (before Kristallnacht) over half of Americans blamed
European Jews wholly or in part for their own persecution (item A). As we noted above, this
question has limits. There is no context in the survey for this question, so we do not know for sure
what kinds of persecution the respondents had in mind, whom they thought were doing the
persecuting, or where it was happening. Yet, the survey question clearly asked about “persecution,”
an evocative word even if not described.
Later in 1938, just two weeks after Kristallnacht, public opinion was solidly against the
Nazi’s treatment of the Jews, with only 5% approving. Given that we have no parallel before and
after questions, it is impossible to say definitively whether this reflected a change in opinion brought
about by Kristallnacht. However, given the widespread publicity given Kristallnacht compared to
earlier acts of discrimination and terrorism, it is likely that increased knowledge made a difference.
Most of the public did not approve of the violent persecutions characterizing this event.
At the same time, same survey, only a minority of Americans, 23%, supported allowing more
Jewish immigrants to come to the United States. U.S. government policy reflected this anti-Jewish
immigrant sentiment, as well as a more generalized anti-immigrant feeling, in refusing to raise quotas
for refugee immigrants from Europe. Note that the correlation between support for Nazi treatment of
Jews and opposition to letting more Jewish exiles into the U.S. in November 1938 was near zero
(.04). Most Americans who disapproved on Nazi treatment of Jews also opposed allowing them to
immigrate to the U.S.
At three times in 1938 and 1939 pollsters asked respondents whether they would support a
widespread campaign against Jews in this country. Only around 10 percent said they would, with a
similar proportion having no opinion. Again, there was no survey context for these questions about a
campaign against the Jews; in some people’s minds it could have meant further segregation and
discrimination, in other people’s minds it could have been violence and deportation. This survey
cannot tell us. But since the level of support remained constant throughout the pre-and post
Kristallnacht media coverage, it appears that the attitudes were less shaped by events than they were
by more basic attitudes toward Jews. In the April-May 1938 survey we find that this sentiment was
moderately positively correlated with opinions on persecution of Jews in Europe (.40), again
suggesting the underlying link.
Table 1 about here
A July 1939 Roper survey (question D) sheds more light on the question of what people might
be thinking of in terms of a campaign against Jews. It did not ask about a campaign, but rather
elicited general opinion about the “Jewish question.” The survey offered alternatives melding
opinions and policy preferences. A plurality, about forty percent agreed that Jews were just like other
Americans and should be treated as such. The next largest group (31%) agreed that “some measures
should be taken to prevent Jews from getting too much power in the business world,” while a further
10% said they were distinct, but “respected and useful” as long as “they don’t try to mingle socially
where they are not wanted.” Ten percent of Americans thought Jews should be deported, though
“humanely.” A final ten percent had no opinion. A majority, then, evidenced anti-Semitic attitudes
at some level of intensity, though only a small minority favored the extreme position of deportation.
Were the people expressing anti-Semitic beliefs a distinctive subset or a random group of
Americans? Table 2 describes the significant relationships (The full analysis is in the appendix).
There were a few consistent patterns. Women were clearly less anti-Semitic than men, less likely to
blame the Jews for their persecution and more likely to disapprove Nazi actions toward them.
Differences between men and women were about seven percent.10 And supporters of Roosevelt were
also significantly more likely to express pro-Jewish attitudes than were others after taking into
account other characteristics of those interviewed. Roosevelt supporters were less likely to blame
Jews for their own persecution, less likely to support Nazi action against Jews, and more likely to
approve allowing Jewish refugees to enter the United States. Differences between Roosevelts
supporters and others were about ten percent. Though U.S. immigration policy was not sympathetic
to the plight of European Jews, Roosevelt himself had spoken out against their persecution. These
differences among population groups were not large but are unlikely to be due to random chance.
Table 2 about here
Except for phone ownership, measures of socio-economic status do not predict these attitudes.
Those who owned phones were less likely to blame Jews for their own persecution and less likely to
approve of Nazi treatment, though the latter was not significant. It is likely that, in the absence of a
measure of education and income, the phone ownership variable is partly a surrogate for both. The
third measure of social status used here, a professional occupation, had no relationship with either of
the attitudes. Nor was age related to the attitudes.11
Regional differences did not meet our expectations. In three of the six items examined,
northerners, not southerners, were less supportive of Jews. They were more likely to think that Jews
brought on their own persecution, less likely to support bringing Jewish exiles into the United States,
and in early 1938, more likely to support a campaign against Jews. In the other three items,
northerners and southerners did not differ. In interpreting this finding, it is important to note that we
have also controlled for those living in large cities in the states with the most Jews (California,
Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania). Thus, the northern and Pacific Coast samples are
also disproprotionately rural samples. Pacific Coast residents were more likely to say that Jewish
persecution is their own fault and that they would support a campaign against Jews in early 1938. But
there were no differences from others on the question of Jewish immigration and the other items.
Table 2 also suggests that patterns of opinions about supporting a campaign against Jews in
the U.S. are no more robust than attitudes about European Jews. Again, women, Roosevelt
supporters, and those with phones were less anti-Semitic than others, though the relationships were
not always statistically significant. By 1939, younger people were also less anti-Semitic. Just as in
predicting attitudes toward European Jews, however, these relationships were small and overall the
models did a poor job of predicting the attitudes. 12
In sum, before the war, American public opinion toward the status of European Jews and
toward Jewish Americans was tapped infrequently, was very inconsistent, and was weakly related to
gender, support for Roosevelt, and some indicators of socio-economic status. These contours of
public opinion illustrate the opinion context within which Roosevelt, Congress, and the
administration were working in the pre-war years. Most Americans held some anti-semitic views,
largely focused on the beliefs that Jews should not have so much power in business and shouldn’t
expect to mingle socially. Relatively few supported the Nazi campaign against Jews and even fewer
approved of starting a campaign against Jews here. But most did not want to bring Jewish refugees
to the U.S.
Opinions toward Jews during the War
By mid-1942, the U.S. was at war with Germany and Hitler was portrayed as the arch-villain
in American propaganda (Rhodes, 1976). Nonetheless, nearly fifteen percent of survey respondents
thought it was a good idea for Hitler to take away the power of Jews in Germany, and another quarter
weren’t sure or had no opinion, striking figures given the wartime context (Table 3). The context of
“take away the power of Jews in Germany” is unclear. The wording of that item played on anti-
Semitic stereotypes of Jews having too much power. But the item did not mention that, in practice,
taking away power meant removing all legal rights from Jews and deporting and murdering them.
But by mid-1942 many reports of large scale murders and violence against Jews in Germany, Poland,
and Russia had appeared, even though news of the mass murders in death camps in the Poland that
began a few months earlier would not reach the United States more formally until later that year.13
Table 3 about here
In that same survey, pollsters asked whether Jews in the U.S. have too much power. Over
one-half of those with opinions responded that they did. The moderately strong relationship (.39)
between support for Hitler’s policies and the belief that American Jews have too much power
supports the conclusion that basic attitudes about Jews were an important determinant of both
attitudes. This correlation was similar to that that existed before the war between support for a
campaign against Jews and a belief that Jews brought about their own persecution.
The “too much power” question was repeated in 1944 and 1945, with growing proportions
answering in the affirmative, by March, 1945 reaching two thirds of all those with opinions, and over
half of the entire sample (Table3). 14 A December 1944 question asking whether American Jews had
too much power in the business world yielded similar results with nearly two-thirds of those with
opinions responding yes (NORC, December, 1944).
Why would increasing proportions of Americans think that Jews had too much power in the
U.S.? Roosevelt did appoint many Jewish Americans to high level positions, and some of them
gained increasing visibility as the war went on. Approximately 15% of FDR’s appointments were
Jewish at the time when Jews were about 3 percent of the population (Goodwin, 1994).15 Secretary
of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, himself Jewish, was quite active in developing proposals to try
to save some of Europe’s Jewish population, including creating a War Refuge Board in 1944, after
most of Europe’s Jewish population was dead.16 The debate over refugees brought the issue of Jews
to the public agenda and may have, in some people’s minds, led to a belief that Jews were powerful,
when, in fact, this issue illustrated just the reverse.
We examined patterns of wartime support and hostility to Jews, using most of the same
predictors as in table 2. Education, which had not been assessed in the pre-war surveys examined
here, began to appear in the surveys of the 1940s and became a key predictor of post-war studies of
tolerance. Differences among the more and less educated were about twelve percent in 1942 and
increased to sixteen percent in 1945, foreshadowing post war patterns in tolerance. The question
about Roosevelt was not asked in these wartime surveys.17
Table 4 here
Gender was the only other significant predictor of support for Hitler’s policy. Women, as
before the war, were more positive to Jews and less favorable to Hitler’s policies. Living in a large
city in a state with more Jews had no effect on attitudes about Hitler’s policies, nor did education.
Women were more likely than men to say “no,” that Jews do not have too much power, but
only in 1944 were the differences significant. More education corresponded with a significantly
higher likelihood of saying no in each of the surveys. Phone owners were more likely than those
without phones to say “yes,” and these differences were also significant every year. This was a
change from pre-war years where phone owners appeared somewhat more tolerant; however, in these
analyses education is taken into account, so phone ownership does not reflect that. It may be that
phone owners, probably those of higher incomes, felt more real or potential competition from Jewish
businessmen. In both 1944 and 1945, those living in a large city in a state with more Jews were
much less likely to say that Jews have too much power. Perhaps they were more likely to be able to
assess first-hand the power that Jews did and did not have in 1940s’ America.
The influence of region again proved erratic. Northerners were more likely to say that Jews
had too much power in 1942 but not in 1944 and 1945. Pacific Coast residents were less likely to
say that Jews had too much power in 1945.
The 1930s and 1940s were crucial years in American history and modern world history.
Popular attitudes during this time are of immense interest and value to history and social science. Yet
until recently, social scientists have shied away from examining surveys done in this era because of
the quota-controlled sampling done then. We have examined Americans’ attitudes toward Jewish
Americans and European Jews using seven newly weighted surveys (Berinsky and Schickler, 2011)
from that era. Because of these improved methodologies, we can be reasonably confident that our
findings reflect the attitudes of the overall population of the time.
Americans were divided in their opinions about both European and fellow American Jews,
from 1938, when the first questions were asked, through 1945. Most Americans were not inclined to
support pre-war U.S. campaigns against the Jews and large majorities were opposed to German
actions against the Jews taken in 1938 after the widely publicized Kristallnacht. On the other hand,
majorities opposed admitting more Jewish refugees to the United States in these pre-war years.
Media treatment of Nazi actions was not plentiful after Kristallnacht, but some news of deportations
and brutality leaked out in 1941 and 1942. About 60 percent of Americans said they opposed Hitler’s
treatment of the Jews in 1942 and another 25 percent were unsure or had no opinion. During the war
years, however, an increasing majority believed that Jews had too much power.
The late 1930s were the first era in the U.S. when survey data were available to assess public
opinion. Though the unscientific reputation of the polls minimized their usage and serious
exploration, a few historians have taken note, writing that public opinion confirmed widespread anti-
Semitism (cf. Wyman, 1985: 15) Our more thorough assessment of these data, reweighted to better
reflect the population, do suggest that the balancing act of the Roosevelt administration reflected the
main currents of public opinion. There was a virulent strain of extreme anti-Semitism among a
minority, and a belief that Jews were not like other Americans among many more, but in general the
polls do not show a unified or constant view.18
Roosevelt’s policies of speaking out against Hitler’s atrocities, but yet doing nothing to
facilitate more Jews to enter the U.S. as refugees, while responsive to public opinion led to failure to
provide a safe haven for those thousands of Jewish refugees who might have fled before the war. We
know that the American political system, with its checks and balances, makes it more difficult to
initiate new policies than to maintain the status quo. Even strong majorities cannot always and
immediately overcome the drag of the status quo, and in the pre-war years, public opinion was not in
favor of changing the status quo for refugees. Though Roosevelt supporters were more favorable to
Jews and open to immigration than others, even among those, only a minority supported letting more
Jewish exiles into the U.S.
A few other differences in opinion among significant population groups were consistent, with
women and the more educated displaying fewer anti-Semitic attitudes. There is also some evidence
that during the war, wealthier Americans were more anti-Semitic, though the measure of wealth,
phone ownership, is far from perfect. Regional differences were inconsistently related to opinions on
Jews but during the war
Both the virulent anti-Semitism and the more genteel variety call to mind American’s
attitudes toward black Americans at the time. Racial and ethnic stereotypes were prevalent; in some
parts of the country, and at some times in many parts of the country, casual violence and even murder
were considered legitimate. Most people seemed to take for granted that a person’s intelligence,
moral worth, and diligence could be assessed by such stereotypes. And while one might think that
reports of mass murders of Jews in Europe might prompt serious reflection about those stereotypes, it
was not until the post-war and later America’s civil rights revolution that public opinion moved away
from both anti-Semitic and anti-black intolerance. Our own war propaganda rallying Americans
against the anti-Semitism and violations of basic human rights of the Nazi regime strengthened
arguments for civil rights that gained increased traction in the 1950s and culminated in the Civil
Rights movement’s legislative successes in the 1960s. In turn, Jewish leaders active in the fight
against anti-Semitism played important roles in the national civil rights movements. Just as opinions
toward black Americans shifted dramatically in the 1940s and 1950s (Hyman and Sheatsley, 1956,
1964), so too did opinions toward Jewish Americans. The belief that Jews had too much power, held
by two-thirds in 1945, plummeted to only about a tenth by 1964 and, with some modest variations,
continued to be a small minority opinion (Rosenfield, 1985). It was not the Holocaust that changed
American’s minds about Jews, but rather the events of the next two decades.
Table 1
Americans’ Opinions in the Pre-War Years, 1938 and 1939*
A. Do you think the persecution of the Jews in Europe has been their own fault? (April-May 1938)
Entirely: 9%
Partly 46%
Not at all: 33%
No opinion or don’t know: 12%
B. Do you approve or disapprove of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany? (November 1938)
Approve 5%
Disapprove 88%
No opinion or don’t know: 7%
C. Would you support a widespread campaign against Jews in this country?
Yes No No opinion or don’t know
April-May 1938 10% 82% 8%
March 1939 12% 88% Missing*
May 1939 11% 79% 10%
*The percentages for March 1939 are based on those with an opinion
D. Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to
live? (November, 1938)
Yes 23%
No 69%
No opinion or don’t know 9%
E. Which of the following statements most nearly represents your general opinion on the Jewish question
(July, 1939):
a) In the United States the Jews have the same standing as any
other people, and they should be treated in all ways
exactly as any other Americans; 39%
b) Jews are in some ways distinct from other Americans,
but they make respected and useful citizens so long as they
don’t try to mingle socially where they are not wanted; 10%
c) Jews have somewhat different business methods and
Therefore some measures should be taken to prevent Jews 31%
from getting too much power in the business world;
d) We should make it a policy to deport Jews from this country 10%
to some new homeland as fast as it can be done without inhumanity.
e) No opinion, don’t know 10%
*The questions are from Gallup Poll, April-May 1938 (0121); Gallup Poll November 24-29, 1938 (0139);
Roper Fortune Survey, July 1939 (7); Gallup Poll March 10-15, 1939 (151); and Gallup Poll May 4-9, 1939
(156). Weights were not available for the July 1939 Roper study. All are available (with weights) from the
Roper Center.
Table 2
Predictors of Attitudes toward Jews in 1938
A. 1938-1939
Variables with a significant relationship with negative attitudes toward Jews:
Jews Persecution Approve Nazi Do Not Allow
Their Own Fault Treatment of Jews More German
Jews in U.S.
Being a man Yes Yes --
Not in a professional occupation --- -- Yes
No home phone Yes -- --
Not supporting Roosevelt Yes Yes Yes
Northerner, not from Pacific Coast Yes -- Yes
From Pacific Coast Yes -- --
Supporting Campaigns against U.S. Jews
April-May 1938 March 1939 May 1939
Being a man Yes Yes Yes
Older than 40 -- -- Yes
Not in a professional occupation -- Yes --
No home phone Yes -- Yes
Not supporting Roosevelt Yes -- --
From Pacific coast Yes -- --
Only those variables with significant relationships in any category are listed. -- indicates no relationship. See
the full equations in the appendix. Significance defined at the .05 level with a one tailed
Table 3
Wartime Attitudes toward Jews *
A. **Do you think it was a good idea for him (Hitler) to take away the power of the Jews in Germany?
(July 1942)
Yes 15%
Unsure 5%
No 59%
No opinion 20%
B. Do you think the Jews have too much power and influence in this country?
Date Yes No No Opinion
July 1942 45% 39% 16%
October 1944 50% 33% 17%
March 1945 56% 29% 14%
*Data from OPOR surveys 819 (July 1942), 033 (October 1944), and 041 (March 1945).
**We have combined the responses to two similar questions asked on different versions of the survey but with
similar response patterns. One refers to Hitler doing “the right thing. When he took away the power of the
Jews in Germany?” The other asked whether it was “a good idea for Hitler to do this.” The “this” referent was
the previous question asking why Hitler took away the power of the Jews in Germany, a question that raised
issues about Hitler’s own psychology as well as the alleged misdeeds of the Jews. The proportion answering
that it wasn’t a good idea was identical, but slightly more people opted for the qualified answer when the list
of reasons was present.
Table 4
Predictors of Wartime Attitudes toward Jews
Hitler Had Good Idea to Jews Too Much Power in US
Take Power from Jews in Germany
1942 1942 1944 1945
Men Yes -- Yes --
More than 40 -- -- Yes --
Less education -- Yes Yes Yes
Has a phone -- -- Yes Yes
Not in large city, large state -- Yes Yes Yes
Northerner, not from Pacific Yes Yes -- --
Not from Pacific Coast -- -- -- Yes
Only those variables with significant relationships in any category are listed. -- indicates no relationship. See
the full equations in the appendix. Significance defined at the .05 level with a one tailed test.
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End Notes
1 For a critique of the “scientific” nature of some early polls, see Hogan, 1997.
2 Some univariate results on attitudes toward Jews were published many years later in Stembler, 1966; Plaud, 2007,
reviews some questions in brief; see also Cantril, 1948, who reviews pre war US and wartime opinions about the war
and America’s role in it.
3 For example, a March 16, 1938 New York Times story headlined “Jews Humiliated by Vienna Crowds,” reported Jews
forced to wash anti Hitler slogans off the sidewalks at the direction of the SS and with their protection from hostile
crowds was found on page 8.
4 The story noted prophetically that “he strode over a cringing Europe.” (January 2, 1939;,9171,760539-2,00.html).
5; even today, web versions of some of
his speeches appear on a David Duke web site.
6 See Charles Lindbergh’s statement, for example, that Jews were one of three groups pressing us toward war through
their control of the press, movies, and government. See
7 For more information on these surveys see Berinsky, et al, 2011; Berinsky, 2006.
8 Weights used in tables 1, 2, and 3 include the following variables that are part of the data sets that Roper releases:
phoneBlack (1938 Gallup 0121; 1938 Gallup 139); and profBlackGender (1939 March Gallup 1051; May USAIPO
0156). The Roper 1939 survey has no weights. Weights used in tables 4 and 5 include eduBlackGender in the 1942
survey and eduNoRace in 1944 and 1945 surveys. The analyses are calculated on Stata 11.1.
9In our earlier analyses, we also just looked at individuals living in large cities (in these surveys, the largest city size
category was 500,000 and over) with no different results. As reported in Linfield, according to the 1937 Census of
Religion, done in conjunction with the U.S. Census but funded and organized privately, 46% of the U.S. Jewish
population lived in New York. Five other states also had more than 3% of the Jewish population, including
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, and California.
10 Though probit coefficients cannot be directly translated into proportional differences like standard regression
coefficients, we can estimate differences among salient groups assuming particular values on all other variables in the
model (for a simple explanation, see Welch and Comer, 2001, and sources cited there). Almost no women say they
approve of Nazi treatment of Jews compared to 7% of men.
11 Though a dichotomous age variable was used in this equation, other formulations also showed null findings.
12 The equations explain between 1 and 2 percent of the sample variance.
13 The Nazis began shipping Jews to the death camp in Chelmno in December 1941; Belzac in March 1942; Sobibor in
May 1942; and Treblinka in July 1942; Auschwitz was established in 1940 as a concentration camp and execution site
but it became a death camp in February 1942. In August 1942, news began to reach of U.S. of these mass murders; in
November 1942, the news was confirmed and published. (cf. Snyder, 2011; Gilbert, 1985). The American Jewish
Yearbook, published in 1942, documents murders of “tens of thousands” of Jews in Poland, for example, and reports
deportations and terrorism. By 1943,
their Polish section leads with a reference to the “most horrible campaign of mass extermination known to modern
history,” though they do not try to estimate numbers of deaths. They reference several underground reports
in 1942.
14 By 1962 when this question was next asked, less than 20% said yes (Stember, 1966: 121).
15 Anti-Semites (including Hitler) called Roosevelt Rosenfeld and anti-Semite Americans referred to the “Jew Deal”
(Gellman, 1995).
16 Though the Board had limited powers, it is credited with saving 200,000 Jews during 1944 and 1945 by helping
smuggle them out of occupied countries, buying visas, and providing other aid where possible.
17 When we examined responses to the question about Hitler’s policy of taking away power from the Jews, we
constructed an index of knowledge, the only survey in which there were any knowledge items. The questions focused
on knowledge of Nazi leaders. We anticipated that respondents with more knowledge would be more tolerant. The score
on the scale had a moderately strong relationship (r=.39) with education.
Counter to expectations, increasing knowledge in this particular domain led to more support for Hitler’s policies against
the Jews. It may be that those who had learned about the Gestapo were more likely to be sympathetic in general with
Nazis. Addition of this variable did not affect the overall findings and is not included here.
18 The movie, Gentleman’s Agreement, released in 1947, is a popular cultural portrayal of American anti-Semitism in
the immediate postwar era.
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