We’ve Sorta Been Here Before

I understand why Kevin Drum is warning liberals not to mock the American public for its fears about Syrian refugees. It’s always better to understand, express sympathy torwards, and then gently argue against the tendency to panic over scary foreigners. But let’s remember some historical context that shows the politics of this isn’t all that matters.

WAPo’s Ishaan Tharoor looks at some Gallup data on the willingness of Americans to relax draconian national-origin limits when Jews from Germany and Austria were seeking a new home under the active threat of severe persecution. The most interesting numbers are from January 20, 1939, after the officially sponsored Kristallnacht pogroms that removed any doubt that Hitler’s eliminationist anti-semitism had just gone away: The polling question was:

It has been proposed to bring to this country 10,000 refugee children from Germany–most of them Jewish–to be taken care of in American homes. Should the government permit these children to come in?

61% said “no;” 30% said “yes.” Americans were hardly unique in this hard-heartedness–nobody else wanted Jews, either–but it was a pretty clear indication that absent war many Americans may well have shrugged at the Holocaust. It’s another indication of divine intervention in Hitler’s incredibly stupid decision to declare war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor (the Germans never insisted on Japan declaring war on the USSR); there would have almost certainly have been a powerful lobby in the U.S. to stay out of Europe with it’s lethal racial and ethnic conflicts altogether.

Sometimes you do need to push back at public indifference to terrible developments involving foreigners, even if it’s politically risky.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.