The Frightening History of Eugenics in America

Yesterday I wrote about an American breakfast cereal magnate who was a prominent eugenicist around the turn of the last century. After I posted it, I wanted to know more about the eugenics movement, and what I found was really disturbing. It seems that there's quite a bit of evidence that the Nazis got their ideas about the "science" of racial purity from the American eugenics movement. Much of this can be found in a horrifying little tome called War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black.

This is incendiary stuff, I know, and since this is a blog post and not a journal article, I'll stick to a few basic facts. It may all have started, strangely enough, with Charles Darwin's cousin Sir Francis Galton, who in 1863 theorized that "if talented people only married other talented people, the result would be measurably better offspring." Over the ensuing decades, a loose confederation of "race scientists" in America adopted and expanded upon these ideas, arguing that the opposite was also true -- that by identifying and removing "defective" family trees, the gene pool could be improved. A 1911 study funded by the prestigious Carnegie Institute outlined possible "solutions" -- it was titled "Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder's Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population." There were eighteen so-called "solutions" outlined therein, including geographical isolation, forced sterilization, and euthanasia. (The Rockefeller Foundation also funded eugenics research.) A popular college textbook published in 1918, Applied Euguenics, writes that "From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution… Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated."

There followed, in the 1920s and 30s, a number of state laws banning interracial marriage and state-legislated policies of compulsory sterilization. Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act" mandated the sterilization of persons deemed to be "feebleminded," including the "insane, idiotic, imbecile, or epileptic." By 1956, twenty-four states had laws providing for involuntary sterilization on their books. These states collectively reported having forcibly sterilized 59,000 people over the preceding 50 years. Virginia's law was finally repealed in 1979, and in 2001 Virginia governor Mark Warner issued an apology expressing "profound regret for the Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement." The Supreme Court ruled a portion of Virginia's law unconstitutional in 1967. Just forty years earlier the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for laws like Virginia's in a decision in which, infamously, none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough." During the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis quoted Holmes and cited numerous American eugenics laws and policies in their own defense, to no avail.


Above: a eugenics exhibit from 1926. Similar exhibits found space at prestigious institutions around the country, including the L.A. County Museum -- my city's biggest.)

It's pretty clear that Hitler studied the American eugenics movement, and co-opted a number of its most pernicious ideas. To quote Edwin Black's book:

During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany's fascist eugenicists. In Mein Kampf, published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. "There is today one state," wrote Hitler, "in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States."

Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed the progress of the American eugenics movement. "I have studied with great interest," he told a fellow Nazi, "the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock."

Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant calling his race-based eugenics book, The Passing of the Great Race, his "bible."

Of course, other nations practiced their own brands of eugenics. Australia stole thousands of mixed-race children from their Aboriginal parents so that they might be "assimilated" into the society of whites. In Canada, both Alberta and British Columbia had forced sterilization statues on the books, and made some new immigrants to the country undergo IQ tests to determine whether they should be allowed to procreate. Sweden had a sterilization program from the 1930s until the 1970s, which targeted the "deficient" and the "deviant," though some report it also targeted ethnic minorities. Britain had its share of eugenicists during the time America did, but they never received state funding, nor were their ideas ever enshrined into law, or lauded by war criminals.

For more frightening American history, follow me on Twitter.

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Win a Trip to Any National Park By Instagramming Your Travels
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If you're planning out your summer vacation, make sure to add a few national parks to your itinerary. Every time you share your travels on Instagram, you can increase your chances of winning a VIP trip for two to the national park of your choice.

The National Park Foundation is hosting its "Pic Your Park" sweepstakes now through September 28. To participate, post your selfies from visits to National Park System (NPS) properties on Instagram using the hashtag #PicYourParkContest and a geotag of the location. Making the trek to multiple parks increases your points, with less-visited parks in the system having the highest value. During certain months, the point values of some sites are doubled. You can find a list of participating properties and a schedule of boost periods here.

Following the contest run, the National Park Foundation will decide a winner based on most points earned. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip for the winner and a guest to any NPS property within the contiguous U.S. Round-trip airfare and hotel lodging are included. The reward also comes with a 30-day lease of a car from Subaru, the contest's sponsor.

The contest is already underway, with a leader board on the website keeping track of the competition. If you're looking to catch up, this national parks road trip route isn't a bad place to start.

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15 Dad Facts for Father's Day
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Gather 'round the grill and toast Dad for Father's Day—the national holiday so awesome that Americans have celebrated it for more than a century. Here are 15 Dad facts you can wow him with today.

1. Halsey Taylor invented the drinking fountain in 1912 as a tribute to his father, who succumbed to typhoid fever after drinking from a contaminated public water supply in 1896.

2. George Washington, the celebrated father of our country, had no children of his own. A 2004 study suggested that a type of tuberculosis that Washington contracted in childhood may have rendered him sterile. He did adopt the two children from Martha Custis's first marriage.

3. In Thailand, the king's birthday also serves as National Father's Day. The celebration includes fireworks, speeches, and acts of charity and honor—the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals.

4. In 1950, after a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's concert a negative review, the president came out swinging: "Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

5. A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin. Pooh was based on Robin's teddy bear, Edward, a gift Christopher had received for his first birthday, and on their father/son visits to the London Zoo, where the bear named Winnie was Christopher's favorite. Pooh comes from the name of Christopher's pet swan.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was (for a short time) Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law. Rivera's marriage to Edith Vonnegut ended in 1974 because of his womanizing. Her ever-protective father was quoted as saying, "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face." He also included an unflattering character named Jerry Rivers (a chauffeur) in a few of his books.

7. Andre Agassi's father represented Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as a boxer.

8. Charlemagne, the 8th-century king of the Franks, united much of Western Europe through military campaigns and has been called the "king and father of Europe" [PDF]. Charlemagne was also a devoted dad to about 18 children, and today, most Europeans may be able to claim Charlemagne as their ancestor.

9. The voice of Papa Smurf, Don Messick, also provided the voice of Scooby-Doo, Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, and Astro and RUDI on The Jetsons.

10. In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame from his 12-year-old daughter while in orbit. The gift was made possible by RadioShack, which filmed the presentation of the gift for a TV commercial.

11. The only father-daughter collaboration to hit the top spot on the Billboard pop music chart was the 1967 hit single "Something Stupid" by Frank & Nancy Sinatra.

12. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies.

13. If show creator/producer Sherwood Schwartz had gotten his way, Gene Hackman would have portrayed the role of father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.

14. The Stevie Wonder song "Isn't She Lovely" is about his newborn daughter, Aisha. If you listen closely, you can hear Aisha crying during the song.

15. Dick Hoyt has pushed and pulled his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. Rick cannot speak, but using a custom-designed computer he has been able to communicate. They ran their first five-mile race together when Rick was in high school. When they were done, Rick sent his father this message: "Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn't disabled anymore!"

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