“Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a so-called Master Race… the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race didn''t originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States… decades before Hitler came to power.”
“I have studied with great interest 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.” (A Hitler)
"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution": Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921, depicting Eugenics as a tree which unites a variety of different fields (Wikipedia)
Introduction: While I will be drawing on multiple sources for this article, I recommend Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak to the reader interested in a single source for the topic of America’s pursuit of it’s own Aryan racial population. I will allow Mr. Black to provide the introduction:
“Eugenics was the racist pseudoscience determined to wipe away all human beings deemed "unfit," preserving only those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype. Elements of the philosophy were enshrined as national policy by forced sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage restrictions, enacted in twenty-seven states. In 1909, California became the third state to adopt such laws [the first was Indiana, 1907]. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in "colonies [concentration camps]," and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning.”
Eugenics was not an “invention” of the United States, but it was enthusiastically embraced by America. Politicians, educators, social scientists of all stripes saw in genetic engineering and the resulting American racial ideal a strategic national imperative, a goal of the highest order. The following are drawn from the book, The Nazi Connection, by Stefan Kuhl: In his inaugural address, Woodrow Wilson said:
“[T]he whole nation has awakened to and recognizes the extraordinary importance of the science of human heredity [eugenics], as well as its application to the ennoblement of the human family… Theodore Roosevelt expressed the fear that “inferior” segments of the population were gaining power.”
Steps taken to control the danger to humanity’s “ennoblement,” to ensure that the “inferior” would not “gain power”, at least in the early years included legalization of the involuntary sterilization of the “unfit,” and laws,
“that prohibited marriage and sexual intercourse between blacks and whites... The Commission of the American Genetic Association… proposed that the lowest 10% of the population be sterilized. [The measure] was intended to “eradicate” the “inferior” members of the society over a time period spanning two generations.”
Without American leadership, training and support, German National Socialism would likely have still pursued the Final Solution to the West’s Jewish Problem, but the effort would have lacked the credibility of a “scientific” justification, the enthusiastic moral support of American pioneering efforts, and backing of its elite. It was American industrial wealth that funded Germany’s institutions of eugenics research which would, when Auschwitz provided a ready supply of “specimens,” provide eugenics the benefit gained from Mengele’s “twins studies.”
“The Immigration Restriction League (founded in 1894) was the first American entity associated officially with eugenics. The League sought to bar what it considered dysgenic members of certain races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock through procreation.”
Although “eugenic ideas” were already “in the air” among America’s best and brightest in the 19th century, America’s movement to genetically engineer its ideal racial stock gained general popularity only in the early 20th century. Alexander Graham Bell, for example, married to a deaf woman, proposed sterilization as a way to eliminate “deafness” from America’s gene pool.
Contestants get ready for the Better Baby Contest at the 1931 Indiana State Fair (Wikipedia)
In 1904 the Carnegie Institution created a laboratory complex on Long Island dedicated to eugenics research. Carnegie generosity was soon matched by other far-sighted philanthropies such as the Harriman railroad fortune.
“The Rockefeller Foundation helped found the German eugenics program and even funded the program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz.”
But this is getting ahead of our story.
Before describing how American eugenics was applied as social engineering in the years before Nazism it is instructive to acknowledge some of its more prominent supporters.
A short list of the founders of the American Eugenics Society (established in 1922) includes: J. P. Morgan, Jr. of U. S. Steel; Miss E. B. Scripps of Scripps-Howard and United Press International; John H. Kellogg of cereal fame; and Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.
Prominent politicians and other notables included: President Theodore Roosevelt; President Woodrow Wilson; Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; legendary inventor Alexander Graham Bell; and, as noted, the generous wealth of the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies.
Nearly all educational institutions from Ivy League to local collages promoted eugenics as the model to improve the national gene pool. Positive change was anticipated by encouraging, “the higher classes of society to reproduce offspring.” Those outside that model, the “unfit,” would be eliminated “humanely” by forced sterilization.
The “Unfit” defined: Among the “genetic traits” to be eliminated from America’s national gene pool included, deafness, blindness, insanity, criminal tendencies and laziness; schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression: mental illness in general was slated for elimination. Some “races” would be allowed to survive in segregated reservations, but sexual intercourse or intermarriage was proscribed by law.
“In 1907 Indiana became the first of more than thirty states to adopt legislation aimed at compulsory sterilization of certain individuals. Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia law allowing for the compulsory sterilization of patients of state mental institutions in 1927.”
Eventually thirty-three states would adopt laws backed by the U.S. Supreme Court providing for involuntary sterilization. This resulted in more than 60,000 victims by mid-century.
Miscegenation carried severe penalties in courts, when not dealt “justice” by a lynch-mob. Intended to protect the “white race,” such laws forbade any sexual contact, including marriage, between whites and non-whites, in many states. At mid-20th century approximately 30 states still had miscegenation laws. The Virginia Integrity Act of 1924, for example, prohibited marriage between a white person and anyone with a trace of blood other than Caucasian. Only in 1967, when President Obama was a child of six, did the United States Supreme Court rule anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Alabama only accepted the decision in November, 2000.
Eugenicide: The “first method” for cleaning the gene pool, according to an Army physician and co-author of the popular 1918 text, Applied Eugenics, is lethal selection, the “destruction of the individual by some adverse feature of the environment, such as excessive cold, or bacteria, or by bodily deficiency [starvation].” Although euthanasia never achieved the popularity of forced sterilization in American eugenics march towards racial purity, it was practiced by some physicians, and medical administrators of hospitals and nursing homes:
“Eugenic breeders believed American society was not ready to implement an organized lethal solution. But many mental institutions and doctors practiced improvised medical lethality and passive euthanasia on their own. One institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk from tubercular cows believing a eugenically strong individual would be immune. Thirty to forty percent annual death rates resulted at Lincoln. Some doctors practiced passive eugenicide one newborn infant at a time. Other doctors at mental institutions engaged in lethal neglect“ (Edwin Black, ibid).
Recall that this was happening more than a decade before Hitler. The gas chamber become a standard for capital punishment was one offshoot of eugenicide; another, still commonly in use today, is the method of “humanely” disposing of stray and abandoned household dogs and cats.
American eugenics ambition for a nation “racially pure” would be finally find expression as policy by the US Congress. In 1924 Congress overwhelmingly adopted its notorious antisemitic legislation slamming shut the doors to Jewish immigrants. It passed,
the Johnson-Reed bill… with only six dissenting votes. Antisemitism in America, its groundbreaking models for race improvement, miscegenation, sterilization and, in the end, eugenicide by gas chamber would, with the rise of National Socialism in 1933, be adopted imported wholesale by Germany.
Recent writings in this Series: