by Dusty Sklar
THE AMERICAN EUGENICS movement aimed at improving the human race through ethnic cleansing well before the Nazis did. The pseudo-science became popular here in the late 19th century. The emancipation of black slaves, their increased mobility, and widespread immigration of Jews, southern and eastern Europeans, Hispanics, and Asians prompted a good many white Americans to yearn to rid themselves of all those who were not their own kind. Prevailing racial theories associated social problems, poverty, illness and infirmity with “inferior” racial status. Eugenics proposed eliminating such problems through sterilization and other “breeding” techniques.
It was quite a well-funded movement, supported by major political, scientific and intellectual leaders. It captured the hearts and minds of social scientists, philanthropists, judges, educators, and clergy — progressive as well as conservative — and was taught at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In 1904, the Carnegie Institute formed a laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. In 1911, they issued the “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” — which turned out to be euthanasia. The most commonly suggested method to achieve it? The gas chamber.
Social workers scoured the towns, tallying the qualities of folks they deemed undesirable. Children were removed from families. Criminals were castrated. By the late 1920s, more than half the states in America had laws to eliminate “undesirables.”
AMERICA WAS THE FIRST country to implement compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of improving the species. The intellectually disabled and the mentally ill were the first victims, but deaf, blind, epileptic, and physically deformed people were also included. Ultimately, over 65,000 people — mostly women of ethnic minorities — were sterilized, often without their knowledge. Before World War II, California was responsible for nearly half such coercive sterilizations. The state was still responsible for a third of such practices after the war. North Carolina actually expanded its sterilization program after the war, with about 70 percent of the state’s 7,600 sterilizations occurring during the 1950s and ’60s, with the great majority of victims poor black women.
In one famous Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote for the majority in favor of compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled “for the protection and health of the state.” Holmes argued:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes… three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Years later, the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials quoted the words of Justice Holmes in their own defense.
Indeed, American ideas about racial hygiene were greeted with great admiration in Germany. German eugenicists had high praise for American policies, research, and writings, and included accounts of these in their own works. Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf, expressed appreciation for American sterilization laws and the immigration restriction act, and tried giving his anti-Semitism credulity by marrying it to the pseudo-scientific study of eugenics. Hitler also wrote a fan letter to Madison Grant, American eugenicist and author of The Passing of the Great Race, which extolled Nordic superiority; Hitler declared it his “bible.”
Starting in the 1920s, until well into the Nazi regime, the Rockefeller Foundation gave sizable donations for research to three eugenically-focused institutes in Germany. During the early years of Nazism, American eugenicists viewed Hitler’s proposals as the rational extensions of their own years of labor, and the eugenicists of California reprinted Nazi propaganda for American readers. In 1934, they arranged for Nazi scientific exhibits to be shown at the Los Angeles County Museum. That same year, as German sterilizations surpassed five thousand a month, California eugenicist leader C. M. Goethe, back from Germany, gushed to an associate: “You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in its epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought…. you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.”
Also that same year, ten years after Virginia passed its sterilization act, Joseph DeJarnette, Superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, observed: “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” And Leon Whitney, executive secretary of the American Eugenics Society, said of Nazism: “While we were pussy-footing around… the Germans were calling a spade a spade.”
The inspiration for the Final Solution owed a great deal to American eugenicists. Only after the war was eugenics deemed a crime against humanity — a policy of genocide.
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent article for us dealt with American corporate collaboration with Nazism.