Sudan Death Toll Dispute Echoes a Holocaust Controversy

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Controversy has erupted over the State Department’s surprisingly low estimate of the death toll in Sudan.  The dispute is disturbingly reminiscent of a controversy during the Holocaust, when the State Department tried to undercut rescue efforts by fudging statistics about Jewish refugee immigration to the United States.

At a news conference in April, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick said that between 60,000 and 160,000 people had died in Sudan, including blacks massacred by government-backed Arab militias as well as those who have died from disease or malnutrition.  Those figures were subsequently posted on the State Department’s official web site.

The State Department’s estimate “dramatically understates the true scale of the killing,” a Washington Post editorial responded.  The Post cited studies by human rights group which have calculated a death toll of approximately 400,000.  One of those studies, by the Coalition for International Justice, involved seventeen months of interviews with some 6,000 survivors of attacks, as well as data on disease and malnutrition compiled by the World Health Organization.

John Prendergast, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group, has called the State Department’s low casualty estimate “a deliberate effort by the Bush administration to downplay the severity of the crisis in order to reduce the urgency of an additional response.”

Such suspicions about the administration’s motives are fueled by memories of the initially lethargic U.S. response to the Sudan crisis.  Last year, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was agonizingly slow to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Sunday.  Some media reports at the time suggested the delay was due to political considerations–the State Department’s desire to avoid antagonizing the Arab League, of which Sudan is a member.

Political motives were certainly at work in November 1943, when Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long presented Congress with misleading figures on the number of Jewish refugees who had immigrated to the United States.

Long, who was in charge of the Roosevelt administration’s immigration policy, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning a Congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler.  Long, who was privately antisemitic as well bitterly opposed to refugee immigration, sought to undercut the rescue resolution.

Trying to demonstrate that a new rescue agency was unnecessary, Long declared that “we have taken into this country since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.”  Much to Long’s delight, a prominent front-page story in the New York Times announced:  “580,000 Refugees Admitted to United States in Decade.”  (Ironically, it was one of the few instances in which the Times gave prominence to Holocaust-related news.)

But the actual number of immigrants was not more than 250,000, and many of them were not Jews.  Long’s wild exaggeration backfired.  His testimony set off a firestorm of criticism from the media, Jewish organizations, and Members of Congress.

The controversy gave important new momentum to congressional efforts to promote rescue.  The resolution was adopted unanimously by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, giving Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. the leverage he needed to convince President Roosevelt to act.  In January 1944, FDR pre-empted Congress by creating the agency that the resolution had sought–the War Refugee Board.  During the final fifteen months of the war, the Board played a key role in rescuing more than 200,000 refugees, in part by sponsoring and financing the rescue work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Today we know why the State Department, in 1943, presented an implausibly high estimate of Jewish immigration to the United States.  By contrast, we do not know what shaped the State Department’s recent decision to embrace an implausibly low estimate of the Sudan death toll.  All we can say is that today, no less than in 1943, government officials have an obligation to present statistics that are not tainted by political considerations.  Accuracy and a determination to stop genocide should be their only motives.

May 2005