In the Diaspora: The 'sound practice' of eugenic sterilization

'Better for all the World' - A mythological vision of preserving America's racial stock.

burning cross 88 (photo credit: )
burning cross 88
(photo credit: )
When Nazi officers stood accused of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials of the late 1940s, their attorneys turned to a cunning defense. How was it possible to condemn the Germans for lethally pursuing a vision of racial purity, the lawyers argued, when America had done the very same thing? The attorneys provided the court with the details of laws in California, Maryland and Alabama, among other states, outlawing marriage between whites and blacks. Then the advocates entered into the trial record a Supreme Court decision in 1927 upholding a Virginia statute allowing the forced sterilization of the "feeble-minded," as the term of art went. "It is better for all the world," the distinguished jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in representing the court's 8-1 majority, "if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their for the imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
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Sadly but truly, the Nazis' apologists had their facts exactly right. As the author Harry Bruinius makes remorselessly clear in his new book Better For All The World, Adolf Hitler had prominent American accomplices in his quest for a racially pure Nordic volk. One of his first acts as chancellor, a 1933 law permitting involuntary sterilization, was modeled on legislation in the United States. At the behest of the Reich, the University of Heidelberg awarded an honorary doctorate in 1936 to Harry Laughlin, a leading American eugenicist. "He may be too impulsive in some matters," George Dock, an adviser to California's creepily named Human Betterment Commission, wrote of Hitler in 1934, "but he is sound on the theory and practice of eugenic sterilization." PRAISED IN The New York Times and the New Yorker since its publication earlier this month, Better For All The World deserves to be closely read in Jewish homes in both the United States and Israel. It takes nothing away from the correct, accurate understanding of America as the most tolerant country that Jews have experienced in two millennia of Diaspora to squarely face the historical moments when the US was tempted to surrender to its own grimmer impulses. In the imaginary history of The Plot Against America, Philip Roth instructed a contemporary generation of readers about the anti-Semitic isolationism of Charles Lindbergh. Better For All The World restores to ignominy Laughlin, Dock, and their fellow pseudo-scientists. It does something more important, too, demonstrating just how malleable the categories of liberal and conservative were in the eugenics movement, just how much Nazism (like Stalinism) was an extreme extension of the rationalist world view. Besides Justice Holmes, progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger supported the goal of improving humankind by denying the putatively deficient from procreating. While Americans inflicted this vision of perfectibility on blacks, Indians and poor whites, especially those known or thought to be sexually active while unmarried, the Germans applied the doctrine most enthusiastically to Jews. Over the course of the 20th century the US forcibly sterilized 65,000 lesser beings. The Germans did the same to 150,000 within two years of passing its law, and followed the force of genocidal logic to the extermination of six million. And who stood in opposition? In the US, the defenders of human freedom included the supposedly retrograde figures of the Catholic Church. Certainly, in the decades before World War II, the church spoke on behalf of its constituency, heavily populated with the immigrant rabble of Ireland, Italy and Poland. Beyond serving such immediate needs, however, the Catholic leadership turned a theological premise - that humans are made in the divine image, that all life has something sacred about it - into a bracingly radical proposition. ONE HEARD the echoes of such a stance last week, when Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles announced that if America began a crackdown on illegal immigration he would instruct all priests, churches, and congregations to refuse to comply. This prince of the church addressed not only his own flock. Now, as in the 1920s, the campaign against mass immigration proceeded under the banner of preserving some mythological vision of America's racial stock or national character. That impulse led to the immigration restriction law of 1924, which in turn barred the Golden Door to the multitude of European Jews with nowhere to flee. Cardinal Mahony's words, like Harry Bruinius's eloquent and troubling book, should rouse the collective memory of Jews who know only too well the consequences of what Hitler, inspired by America's nativists, called "purified democracy." The writer, a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His is the author most recently of Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life and Letters to a Young Journalist.