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Race Cleansing In America
A nationwide gene-purity movement promoted methods that eventually were adopted by the Third Reich. And everyone from John D. Rockefeller to W. E. B. Du Bois supported it.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
This new immigration act proved a collective triumph for the eugenics movement. It shifted the base year for determining national quotas from 1910 to 1890, cutting allowable immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe by 80 percent. Yet the supporters of eugenic reform weren’t about to rest now; they switched their focus to a state-by-state campaign to institute compulsory sterilization. Virginia provided the decisive battleground. In 1924, the same year as it tightened the state’s antimiscegenation law (Georgia and Alabama soon followed suit), the Virginia legislature enacted a compulsory sterilization statute based on Laughlin’s model law. Three years later, shortly after upholding the constitutionality of Carrie Buck’s sterilization, Justice Holmes said he felt he “was getting near to the first principle of real reform.”
By the end of the 1920s, the imposition of racially based immigration controls, the growing use of compulsory sterilization, and the widespread ban on interracial marriage gave American eugenicists the right to brag that they had made their nation the world’s most advanced eugenic state. German eugenicists in particular had long been aware of the progress of their American counterparts. The National Socialist Physician League head Gerhard Wagner praised America’s eugenic policies and pointed to them as a model for Germany to follow. It wasn’t long in happening. As a first order of business, the new National Socialist regime put in place sweeping eugenic legislation that demonstrated a comprehensive commitment to racial hygiene. Now it was the turn of Americans to look with a mixture of admiration and envy at what was occurring in Germany.
Marie Kopp, an observer for the American Committee on Maternal Health, reported that the Nazi system of Hereditary Health Courts, which were charged with seeking out the unfit and compelling their sterilization, not only was administered “in entire fairness” but was “formulated after careful study of the California experiment.” The ERO’s Eugenical News also commented on the resemblance between the German and American programs, boasting that “the text of the German statute reads almost like the ‘American model sterilization Law.’” In 1936, upon being awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg for his devotion to the cause of racial biology, Harry Laughlin thanked the university for reaffirming the “common understanding of German and American scientists of the nature of eugenics.” In Virginia, Dr. J. H. Bell, superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded and the physician who had severed Carrie Buck’s fallopian tubes, lauded Nazi Germany’s “elimination of the unfit.”
The Nazis went on to compel the sterilization of upward of 375,000 people. Their measures drove some in the United States to reconsider their own support of eugenics, especially its compulsory and racist aspects. But the movement didn’t instantly collapse. As late as 1942, a sterilization bill based on the German law was introduced before the New Jersey legislature.
In October 1939 Hitler gave the order to begin the systematic killing of the retarded and mentally ill, an act of mass murder that proved prelude to a far larger holocaust. As extreme as it was, the theory behind the destruction of the mentally ill was not exclusive to a small band of Nazi fanatics. Eugenic euthanasia had been widely discussed for years, both in and out of Germany. In America, as early as the turn of the century, Dr. William Duncan McKim had suggested a state-run program to weed out the mentally defective by inflicting a “gentle, painless death” with carbonic acid gas. The eminent physician G. Frank Lydston, a professor of surgery at the University of Illinois and of criminal anthropology at the Kent School of Law in Chicago, had advocated use of the gas chamber “to kill properly the convicted murderer and the driveling idiot.”
In the South, where eugenics had often been advanced as part of a progressivist program of reform, the superintendent of the Alabama Insane Hospitals warned his fellow doctors in 1936 that if compulsory sterilization wasn’t employed broadly enough, “euthanasia may become a necessity.” The year before, Alexis Carrel, inventor of the iron lung and winner of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, wrote that the insane should be “humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases.” Even after America entered the war against Nazi Germany, Dr. Foster Kennedy, a professor of neurology at Cornell Medical College, espoused the notion that retarded children age five and older—“Nature’s mistakes”—be put to death. He cited Justice Holmes’s reasoning in Buck v. Bell as providing a legal basis.