The Frightening History of Eugenics in America

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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.

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February 2, 2011 - 7:54am
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