- Historic Sites
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
Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which Hitler is said to have read and admired, called for putting aside a “sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life.” Grant envisioned a massive eugenic cleansing that would solve once and for all the problem of the unfit and their offspring: “In mankind it would not be a matter of great difficulty to secure a general consensus of public opinion as to the least desirable, let us say, ten per cent of the community. When this unemployed and unemployable human residuum has been eliminated together with the great mass of crime, poverty, alcoholism and feeblemindedness associated therewith it would be easy to consider the advisability of further restricting perpetuation of the then remaining least valuable types. By this method mankind might ultimately become sufficiently intelligent to choose deliberately the most vital and intellectual strains to carry on the race.”
During World War II, the number of compulsory sterilizations in the United States dropped significantly. The cause was not so much revulsion at Nazi medical practices as a shortage of civilian doctors. The immigration quotas stayed in place. Joining the chorus of those who opposed any exemptions was the Chamber of Commerce of New York State, which had issued a report in 1934 demanding “no exceptional admission for Jews who are refugees from persecution in Germany.” The report had been written by Harry Laughlin. In the scientific community, however, the currents of genetic research and medical advances were sweeping away the crude presumptions of eugenics.
Dr. Abraham Myerson, a tireless campaigner against eugenic sterilization, published a study showing that cases in which mental disabilities had a genetic component tended to occur proportionally in all socio-economic groups. In 1934 he chaired a committee of the American Neurological Association that attacked the whole notion of “racial degeneracy.” Hereditary feeble-mindedness was shown in many instances to be the incidental result of birth trauma, inadequate nutrition, untreated learning disabilities, infant neglect, or abuse, often enough the consequences of poverty rather than the cause. In 1938 the Carnegie Institute expressed grave doubts to Harry Laughlin about the scientific worth of the ERO. Laughlin resigned the next year. The ERO closed its doors on the last day of 1939.
The eventual unwinding of America’s eugenics experiment came too late for Carrie Buck. In 1979 the director of the hospital in which she had been sterilized more than half a century earlier searched her out. He was led to Buck by her sister, who had also been sterilized. (As with many other victims of compulsory sterilization, Buck’s sister had been told at the time that the procedure was an appendectomy). It was transparently clear that neither Buck nor her sister was feeble-minded or imbecilic. Further investigation showed that the baby Carrie Buck had given birth to—Justice Holmes’s third-generation imbecile—had been a child of normal intelligence. Like thousands of women and men involuntarily stripped of their capacity to have children, Carrie Buck had not committed any offense against the laws of nature. Her crime was for the ancient one of being poor and powerless.