Here’s Fortune’s Survey on How Americans Viewed Jewish Refugees in 1938

November 18, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
Caption:A group of 7,000 Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November 1938. More than a thousand are staying in a stable and others are in huts provided by the authorities. The German action is in response to the Polish government�s removal of the Polish citizenship of Jews living outside the country. A total of 17,000 German Jews were expelled from Germany over this issue. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Photograph by by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the July 1938 issue of Fortune. To see the data on attitudes towards Jewish refugees, click here.

Three years ago this month Fortune experimentally pioneered in the nearly unexplored field of Public Opinion when it announced its first Survey as “A New Technique In Journalism.” Experiment has brought improvement in that technique, and the historical confirmation of the Survey’s findings has endowed it with a measure of authority.

The improvement has been not so much in accuracy as in weaving the results of the field work into more meaningful patterns of Public Opinion. What began as a quantitative measure of what people think has evolved into more of a qualitative analysis of why people think that way—which is a vastly more useful field of investigation.

A milestone in this evolution is marked by the charts below. For on it are encompassed some 300 news facts, each having its own peculiar import, adding up to a significant inventory of national opinion. Untouched by an editorial pencil, uncolored by an individual point of view, these virgin facts were developed by asking a balanced cross section of the U.S. public a few simple questions, tabulating the answers, summarizing them in visual form. Thus, by a method as impersonal as the reading of a slide rule, some clear new light is projected beyond the surfaces of Public Opinion into the inner workings of the democratic process. Compared with the first installment, this issue represents three years’ advancement of what is still a new technique.*

*So rich in material is the field report for this quarter’s Survey, double the allotted editorial space would be required to do it justice. Consequently, only those findings with the most pressing timeliness are in this issue. The remainder, comprising news that does not demand immediate release, was published as an additional Survey in Fortune for August 1938.

I: Roosevelt’s Balance Sheet

Political retrospection, prognostication, and analysis take all kinds of forms. Last April Fortune dissected Roosevelt I and found startling parallels between the first trust buster and his cousin. Eighteen months earlier the Fortune Survey predicted, on a statistical and not a theoretical basis, the popular majority by which Roosevelt II was to be reëlected. And last month Fortune published an analysis of the political realities that may govern the destinies of Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal for as long as six years to come.

It remained for the Fortune Survey to attempt something that had never been done before—to resolve the popularity of a President into its constituent elements, just as unemotionally as school children used to parse the parts of speech in a compound sentence and define their relationships to each other. Fortune began by asking these three questions:

I: Is your present feeling toward President Roosevelt one of general approval—general disapproval?

II: On the whole, do you like or dislike—
His general economic objectives
The methods by which he seeks to achieve them
His personality
His advisers and political associates

III: On the whole, do you approve or disapprove of President Roosevelt’s—
International policy
Rearmament policy
Attitude toward TVA
Reorganization bill
Attitude toward labor unions
Attitude toward big business
Wages and hours legislation

Chart I gives striking evidence of Roosevelt’s strength, with 54.8 per cent of the national population having decided that they approve of the President, and only 33.9 per cent having made up their minds that they don’t. Politically, however, the size of this margin should be discounted, for he is by a small majority actually in the disfavor of the powerful Northeast and the Northwest Plains, having between them 191 of the 523 electoral votes. And even supposing that the franchise of the poor whites and the Negroes were more effective than it is, the bulge of his overwhelming popularity in the Southeast and Southwest would be a useless surplus in national politics. Even so, with the upper crust of the South losing its dominance of the ballot box (see Fortune for June, 1938), the President’s popularity with the southern masses may give him the confidence to quell the revolt of the southern conservatives. The victory of New Dealer Senator Pepper in the Florida primaries is a straw in the wind.

Now looking down the twelve left-hand ledger columns, showing the classified majorities that the President may account as assets, it is noteworthy that, besides the devoted Southwest and Southeast, six groups stand stanchly with Roosevelt on practically every question. These are farm, factory, and miscellaneous labor, the Negroes, the poor, and the unemployed—with the interesting exception of the last two, who, by small majorities of those with opinions, disliked the reorganization bill. Against these, on the liability side, generally stand the prosperous, the executives, the professional people, and the two dissenting geographical sections. (The few retired individuals and the students make a strange team standing together against Roosevelt on most questions, but they are not statistically important. It is curious, though, that the students, usually champions of liberal causes, seem to have gone so completely over to the conservative camp.) Interesting are ledger accounts II, III, and IV, in which it appears that no single group, however conservative, dislikes Roosevelt’s personality, or his rearmament program, or his foreign policy. These give the lie to the image of a nation dotted with knots of diehards hating Roosevelt with a whole-souled hatred, finding in him nothing but evil, and passing the time of day swapping “Wall Street stories.” The sharp mass-class cleavage on Roosevelt seems to be confined mainly to his methods and policies of internal economy.

But the tabulated columns of group opinions, from which all of the uncertainties have been eliminated, speak for themselves, suggesting obvious interpretations. It is the eleven pie charts in which Mr. Roosevelt’s grand national total of popularity is parsed that contain the deeper meanings. To the eye measuring the approving black segments against the disapproving red springs, first, the fact that the more or less nonpolitical virtues with which Mr. Roosevelt is credited—his own personality and the current policy of armed security—are actually more popular than is President Roosevelt. But—perhaps only partly because of his personality, and not at all because of rearmament—the President is more popular than his objectives or domestic policies on which opinion was measured. As for his advisers and his methods (of which the original reorganization bill was presumably one)—they are not popular. So it seems that the nation’s public likes Mr. Roosevelt very much, approves his purposes well enough, but does not like his ways of achieving those purposes or the people who advise him upon them. Nor does the public (in answer to another question, see below) look with favor upon the power it believes now concentrated in the President’s hands. All of this bears out the observation made in an earlier installment of the Survey (October, 1937) that there is doubt whether Mr. Roosevelt’s public mandate “covers not only all he wishes to do, but whatever way he wishes to do it,” and further doubt that any means of his choosing may be used to fulfill Roosevelt’s conception of “democracy, and more democracy.” The pie charts indeed indicate strong popular agreement with those “conservative” liberals who, approving Roosevelt’s principal economic reforms, have turned heaven and earth to discredit the unofficial cabinet of the “Third New Deal” and to defeat its two recent sorties in search of greater executive power—the plan to pack the Supreme Court and the original reorganization bill. For three years the Survey has mirrored the unequivocal popular approval of the New Deal’s main objectives. But as far back as April, 1936, it discovered and declared that “there is political dynamite in appealing to the nation to curtail the powers of the [Supreme] Court.” The methods that attempt, or have the appearance of attempting, to disturb the balance of power between the three branches of the government have probably done more than anything else to thwart both the President’s purposes and the majority will of the nation. The charts on page 37 prove this freshly and conclusively.

Another striking observation to be made from the charts is that the white segments, representing the percentages of people who confess to indecision or to ignorance, average much more than a ten-cent piece of pie. If all of the eleven charts were combined into one, the approving black portions would come to 44 per cent, the unfavorable red to 26 per cent, and the undecided white to 30 per cent. In seven instances—notably the reorganization bill and TVA—the numbers of people who express disapproval of something attributed to Mr. Roosevelt are outnumbered by those who don’t know what to think. Under ten out of twelve national topics the proportion of people having no definite opinion ranges from nearly one-quarter to nearly one-half; the other two subjects, upon which uncertainty is less, are Mr. Roosevelt in general and his personality in particular. This augurs ill for any opposition—be it Republican or third party-seeking popular issues that will put the President’s influence on the skids: Mr. Roosevelt, for all his mistakes, apparently remains the issue triumphant, and the people who approve of him in general are for the most part in considerably more doubt about the merits of his policies than those who do not. With many of them it is, “Roosevelt, right or wrong—policies and methods be damned.” The support of such an unquestioning Light Brigade as this might encourage a man on horseback to ride too confidently into the valley of Balaklava. But in the nation’s deep-seated mistrust of men on horseback rests a strong security against such disastrous adventures.

So much for the combined unweighted answers to Fortune’s three questions. Now to determine which of these opinions tend most to make the 54.8 per cent approve of him and the 33.9 per cent dislike him (read down):

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Personality may probably be written off as a determining factor in Roosevelt’s popularity, since even most of his opponents are self-confessed victims of his charm. It is his methods they suspect the most. His supporters, on the other hand, are the most heavily in favor of his objectives, and apparently are disposed to heap upon his advisers the blame for such blunders as he has made in seeking his ends.

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Leaving aside Roosevelt’s popular arms and foreign policies, it seems that his greatest strength among the enemy forces is legislation for regulating hours and wages, and the weakest spots within his own lines are TVA and the reorganization bill. The next most vulnerable policy is his attitude toward big business, because so many fewer friends praise it than enemies blame it.

II: Power in the White House

Do you think that President Roosevelt has concentrated too much power in his own hands?

In the foregoing section Mr. Roosevelt and his objectives have been found to be popular, some of his specific domestic policies less popular, and his methods and advisers not popular, majoritywise. For better or for worse, each of these things is his own. As for Mr. Roosevelt’s present personal power in the affairs of the nation, it might conceivably be approved as the best means to achieve his popular objectives, or it might be condemned along with his methods of pursuing them. This question was asked to find out which was the case, and the answers show that neither one is clearly true:


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Opinion is nearly equally divided, with a shade on the affirmative side. As a whole the nation likes Mr. Roosevelt, but it does not take at face value his disclaimer of any intention to use his power for dictatorial purposes. It doesn’t want him to have that power. Evidently it feels, paradoxically, that he has power enough—perhaps too much—to do what he and the nation want done. The majorities who do not agree are the same that predominantly think that the king can do no wrong—the poor and the Negroes, the Southwest and the Southeast. Moreover, by other cross tabulations it appears that one-fifth of the people who approve of Roosevelt and as many as a quarter of those who approve of his economic objectives believe he has too much power.

III: Congress and the White House

Would you like to see the next Congress work more closely with Roosevelt? Or would you rather have it assert its independence of him?

During its special session last fall and the regular session this year, Congress made headlines by checking further extensions of executive power. Democratically that was right, according to the nation’s answers in this Survey and the previous one on the Supreme Court. But the other side of the coin is that during those two sessions Congress did relatively little to advance the President’s agenda of economic-reform legislation. Democratically that was wrong. Some mitigation was the authorization of the popular rearmament program, and before this article appears some wages and hours law may have been enacted. So in principle, at least, the election next fall should turn upon the relative weights of a right and a wrong, the negative virtue of having balked the undesirable, and the negative vice of having done little toward the desirable. The question above was asked to find out which way the balance lies, and the replies were these by extremes of income level and geographical opinion:


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Any other total answer would have put the nation in the impossible position of approving both the President and what he wants to do but denying him both the coöperation of Congress and the power to do it without that coöperation. In fact the logic of each income and geographical group in answering all of these questions is flawless. By sections two interesting contrasts become apparent. The Southwest and Southeast are wholeheartedly for Roosevelt, for whatever he wants to do, and for whatever way he chooses to do it. To help him on his way they would give him both more personal power and a more compliant Congress. (Let the rebellious southern conservatives beware.) The Northeast and Northwest Plains, on the other hand, like Mr. Roosevelt’s economic objectives, but not Mr. Roosevelt in general. They are jealous of his power and would prefer an independent Congress to take the lead in enacting part of what is generally understood to mean the New Deal. But if the national average of opinion were to prevail in each congressional district next November, its ideal candidate for reëlection would be a man who had voted with the New Deal on all economic measures, had fought the Supreme Court and reorganization bills, had castigated such renowned White House advisers as Messrs. Corcoran and Cohen—or possibly Secretary Farley—but had sworn ever to “uphold the hand of our great President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt!” Such a candidate would be more likely to meet the approval of General Hugh Johnson, however, than of Mr. Roosevelt himself.

IV: Sovereign States vs. the Nation

In the division of government power between the federal and the state governments, do you think the federal should have more power and the state less, or the state more and the federal less?

Everything that New Dealism represents spells a greater concentration of power in the federal government, to which end the Constitution’s interstate-commerce clause has been worked to death. The old horse-and-buggy doctrine of states’ rights, once the defense of the old Democratic South against encroachments by a federal government controlled by Northerners, has been left in limbo for many a year. Now it seems to remain only in vestigial form, apparently not as a political doctrine so much as a convenience for the party out of federal power. Republicans invoke it now in futile attempts to restrain a Democratic Administration. When the tables are turned, states’ rights as an issue may easily change hands again and serve the other outs. But how far has the average citizen accepted the fact that if he wants his New Deal to become a working reality, he must permit Washington to take still more power away from his state? This much:


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Thus about one-fifth of the public has no opinion, another fifth is satisfied with the status quo between state and federal power, and of the remaining three-fifths a good majority would reverse the trend toward the federalization of power. At first glance this might seem like popular contradiction. People can’t demand more local autonomy, and in the next breath ask for federal regulation of wages and hours of labor, and of business and industry. But note that the status quo plus the federal-power vote add up to a total that almost equals the New Deal public. And note also that the states’-rights group numerically nearly matches the Roosevelt opposition. The illogic in the returns lies in the Southeast, which apparently is unwilling to surrender its traditional stand, yet plumps immense majorities for Mr. Roosevelt on every count, and especially for federal regulation of wages and hours. But the Southeast is nevertheless in a median position. It is the anti-Roosevelt Northwest Plains that stand conservatively upon their local rights of self-government. And from the Pacific Coast comes the greatest demand for still more federalization of government. Here are the answers broken down another way (read down):

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So apparently today’s advocates of states’ rights not only want to reverse the trend toward centralization, but specifically want to take power away from Roosevelt. How much of this springs from political partisanship, how much from doctrine, is anyone’s guess. But even a lot of people who approve a stronger federal government do not want the strength to be Roosevelt’s and presumably prefer to have it rest with Congress.

V: Depression’s Progress

Do you think that economic conditions in this country are better or worse now than they were a year ago? Regardless of general economic conditions, do you personally feel more or less secure than you did a year ago?

During two years Fortune traced, with the answers to these and similar questions, prosperity’s progress as its benefits seeped down from the upper economic brackets to the lower. In the last installment the answers showed the impact of the depression, which was most clearly perceived at the top of the income scale. Here is the change after three more months:

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Here is an increase of pessimism during three months of about 9 per cent, both as to economic conditions and personal security. Serious as this is, it is not in the least surprising to anyone who follows the business, employment, and payroll indexes. In fact it is surprising that as many as 34.4 per cent of the population still believe that times are better, or at least haven’t changed, since the flourishing second quarter of 1937, and that 54.4 per cent still do not feel less secure than they were then. Another cheerful fact is to be found in the analysis of returns by economic levels. The downturn is accounted for mostly by the lower income groups, who are always the last to register economic change, whether good or bad. While the poor are more than 10 per cent gloomier than they were three months before, the prosperous are only 5 per cent more pessimistic about general conditions and hardly more fearful of their own personal plight than they were three months ago. The contrast spells more misery for the poor than for the prosperous, but if the prosperous may be taken as a more sensitive barometer of economic realities, it may mean that fear is leveling out now instead of accelerating.

The tide of pessimism has risen to various new levels in each section of the country, but most spectacular have been the freshets in the Southwest and the Mountain States. In the former there were 53.9 per cent who, three months earlier, thought times were actually better than in 1937; today these have shrunk to 27.1. And in the Mountain States, dependent to a degree upon metal prices high enough to make high-cost mines workable, the percentage of gloom has leaped to about 75 per cent of the population.

Do you think better times are coming soon—perhaps within the next twelve months?

Although the public seems to take a realistically dark view of the economic present, it casts a moderately hopeful but far from fatuous eye upon the immediate future, as follows:

Yes: 36.6%
Depends: 19.6
No: 24.3
Don’t know: 19.5

These answers come in almost equal proportions from old and young alike, and from each income group. But by occupations there is one notable exception to the even spread of hope. It is the executives, the people whose state of mind may have more influence upon recovery than any other, who have the greatest confidence in the course of the next twelve months. Although 70.7 per cent of them realize times are worse, 47.5 per cent believe unconditionally in improvement, and 25.2 per cent answered “depends”—a total of 72.7 per cent giving quick recovery a chance during the next twelve months.

(If yes, or depends) What do you think will brine it about?


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It is noteworthy that both the executives and the factory labor who expect sure or possible economic improvement believe it will come more from industrial activity than from government stimulation. In fact the only occupational groups that reverse this order of curative expectations are farm and miscellaneous labor, and the unemployed, of course.

VI: Wage Cuts for Recovery

Would it improve the general situation if labor accepted a wage cut?

One theory of recovery from the present depression is that if labor accepted lower wages more goods could be produced, more jobs created, and the general buying power might rise instead of fall. Within the ranks of labor there has been bitter dissension recently upon the question of accepting wage cuts demanded by manufacturers. Some reductions of from 6 to 12.5 per cent, notably in the textile industry, have been “temporarily” accepted by the unions. In the case of the proposed 15 per cent cut of railway wages, however, the union has threatened to strike if it is applied, declaring that “if the railroads cannot be convinced that a wage reduction is not only unjustified, but is absolutely dangerous to the economic structure of this nation, it will be necessary for the railroad employees to use their economic strength to save the railroad industry from committing social suicide and dragging other industries along with it.” So the controversy stands, and Fortune asked the question above to find out how the general public looks upon the problem. The answers are decisive:

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Thus not a majority of the prosperous or even of executives (with opinions) favors any wage reductions at all. Those answering “some labor, but not most” may have in mind especially building labor, of which Roosevelt has said: “There may be a special hourly wage situation in some building trades which … may call for different treatment … but even there our primary purpose is to increase and not decrease the total of the annual pay of the workers.” (For an analysis of the problem of building labor, see Fortune, June, 1938.) As for white-collar workers, factory labor, and the unemployed, they are quite naturally emphatically opposed to wage cuts. Yet there are nearly one-fifth of these who apparently think that at least in some instances half a loaf may be better than none. Geographically it is the Southwest, having a relatively small percentage of industrial population, that is the most decidedly opposed to wage cuts. One reason for this may be the fact that the depression has not yet struck there with full force.

VII: Government Ownership of the Railroads

Do you think the government should take over the railroads?

With the percentage of railroad mileage operated by receivers skyrocketing, Fortune first asked this question two and one-half years ago. It was then a timely question because on every hand there were advocates of government ownership. It is even more timely now, because with declining revenues the plight of the railroads has become progressively even worse, and the sentiment for nationalization has spread to railway bondholders. Only last April the President told Congress that “the troubles of the railroads … have been getting steadily more difficult …” and that it is “important for all of us to cooperate in preventing serious bankruptcies …” among them. Thirty months ago the public was firmly opposed to government ownership. Today, with the situation considerably worse, the public is no less opposed:

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Now, as before, sentiment against government ownership runs through every economic level with decisive majorities of those having opinions. And by geography there is only one part of the country that favors it—the Pacific Coast, which also was found (page 76) to be the most in favor of greater power for the federal government as against state government.

This inflexible determination to keep the railroads in private hands seems strange, at first blush, in a public that has declared itself in favor of the public ownership of such other utilities as power companies and city transportation (see Fortune Survey, July, 1936). It may stem from the unhappy memory of the nationalized railroads during the War years. Or it may arise from the fact that while domestic utilities have been the footballs of local politics, the railroads, streaking far beyond parochial boundaries, have been quite immune from the fulminations of local municipal ownership advocates. Or it may be that the man on the street, not at all concerned in his own pocket with the financial troubles of the companies or the losses of the security holders, simply thinks the lines are rendering him good and steadily improving service, and prefers to leave well enough alone. Opinions on the subject do not stand alone, however, as cross tabulations show them to be laced together with other points of view on other subjects. The people who favor public ownership, for example, are heavily pro-Roosevelt, those who oppose it are not; those who want nationalization believe in an aggrandizement of federal power at the expense of the states, those who disagree want the contrary. At any rate, the total answers indicate that so far as the nation is concerned, some other solution should be found.

VIII: Foreign Aggressions and the Refugees

Which of the recent foreign military aggressions disturbed you most? Would you favor allowing political refugees to come into the U.S.?

The mixture of isolationism, moral indignation, sentimental humanitarianism, and intellectual indifference with which the average American regards world affairs generally baffles the foreigner trying to understand the role of the U.S. as a great power. Consider, for example, the fact that in a nation beset by its own economic difficulties the most popular thing its President has done is to call for a record arms establishment. Yet the nation emphatically declares that it would be willing to fight only if invaded (Fortune Survey, January, 1936), and, directly after the sinking of the Panay, showed very little interest in taking steps to make our rights respected. On the other hand, the nation generally favors joining in economic sanctions against aggressor nations (January, 1936) and votes 57.5 per cent for boycotting Japanese goods (April, 1938). And yet again, it is impossible to persuade anything like a majority to express anything but complete indifference toward any foreign nation, bandit or victim.

So what, precisely, has been the public reaction to the scandalous behavior of outlanders during the past year, which has been well publicized by press and radio? Surface indications have been fashionable teas to raise money for the Spanish Loyalists, dewy-eyed ladies standing on street corners shaking coin boxes in behalf of Chinese babies, a rash of cockaded Tyrolean hats, and quips to the effect that Russian generals don’t die in bed. Fortune tried to measure the actual indignation thus:

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Attitude Toward Allowing German, Austrian, and Other Political Refugees Into the U.S.

Japan’s invasion of China was the favorite indignation of every part of the country, although this, as the bomber flies, was the most remote of the international violences, and although the sinking of the Panay was already nearly forgotten and the incidents in Europe had crowded the Eighteenth Route Army off the front pages. (Outstanding exception to this, not unnaturally, were the 58.2 per cent of the Jews who were most disturbed by the seizure of Austria.) But the fascinating figure in the replies is the large percentage of people who, although they were specifically invited to vent indignation, which is easy to do without great intellectual effort, simply denied all interest. It is our statesmen and columnists, and not the man on the street, who do most of the moralizing at which Europeans wonder. The average American may be a pretty calloused cynic after all. So then, cynics though we may be, are we, with our pennies for the orphans of war, humanitarians just the same? Are we humanitarians to the point of giving asylum to the oppressed in the old U.S. tradition that prevailed before the present immigration laws? Here was the second question, asked shortly before the Department of State suggested conference among the democratic nations to arrange ways and means for giving the refugees sanctuary:


So much, then, for the hospitality of our melting pot. (Again the Jews make a logical exception—only 18.4 per cent of them are for exclusion of the refugees, and the heaviest weight of their vote is for encouraging them to come here.) By geography it is the Pacific Coast, three thousand miles from the ports of entry from Europe, that is least exclusionist; but even those who dwell there are 60.9 per cent opposed to letting the fleeing foreigners in.

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