The War Against The Weak - Eugenics and America's Campaign To Create A Master Race
by Edwin Black
is the author of the just-released War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows). The American Society of Journalists and Authors awarded his previous book, IBM and the Holocaust, best book of 2001.
How American corporate philanthropies launched a national campaign of ethnic cleansing in the United States, helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele — and then created the modern movement of "human genetics."
In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy combined with prestigious academic fraud to create the pseudoscience eugenics that institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal: create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate the viability of everyone else.
How? By identifying so-called "defective" family trees and subjecting them to legislated segregation and sterilization programs. The victims: poor people, brown-haired white people, African Americans, immigrants, Indians, Eastern European Jews, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the superior genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists. The main culprits were the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, in league with America's most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, operating out of a complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. The eugenic network worked in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department and numerous state governmental bodies and legislatures throughout the country, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. They were all bent on breeding a eugenically superior race, just as agronomists would breed better strains of corn. The plan was to wipe away the reproductive capability of the weak and inferior.
Ultimately, 60,000 Americans were coercively sterilized — legally and extra-legally. Many never discovered the truth until decades later. Those who actively supported eugenics include America's most progressive figures: Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
American eugenic crusades proliferated into a worldwide campaign, and in the 1920s came to the attention of Adolf Hitler. Under the Nazis, American eugenic principles were applied without restraint, careening out of control into the Reich's infamous genocide. During the pre-War years, American eugenicists openly supported Germany's program. The Rockefeller Foundation financed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and the work of its central racial scientists. Once WWII began, Nazi eugenics turned from mass sterilization and euthanasia to genocidal murder. One of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute doctors in the program financed by the Rockefeller Foundation was Josef Mengele who continued his research in Auschwitz, making daily eugenic reports on twins. After the world recoiled from Nazi atrocities, the American eugenics movement — its institutions and leading scientists — renamed and regrouped under the banner of an enlightened science called human genetics
THIS IS THE INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK:
Voices haunt the pages of every book.
This particular book, however, speaks for the never-born, for those whose questions have never been heard—for those who never existed.
Throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Americans and untold numbers of others were not permitted to continue their families by reproducing. Selected because of their ancestry, national origin, race or religion, they were forcibly sterilized, wrongly committed to mental institutions where they died in great numbers, prohibited from marrying, and sometimes even unmarried by state bureaucrats. In America, this battle to wipe out whole ethnic groups was fought not by armies with guns nor by hate sects at the margins. Rather, this pernicious white-gloved war was prosecuted by esteemed professors, elite universities, wealthy industrialists and government officials colluding in a racist, pseudoscientific movement called eugenics. The purpose: create a superior Nordic race.
To perpetuate the campaign, widespread academic fraud combined with almost unlimited corporate philanthropy to establish the biological rationales for persecution. Employing a hazy amalgam of guesswork, gossip, falsified information and polysyllabic academic arrogance, the eugenics movement slowly constructed a national bureaucratic and juridical infrastructure to cleanse America of its “unfit.” Specious intelligence tests, colloquially known as IQ tests, were invented to justify incarceration of a group labeled “feebleminded.” Often the so-called feebleminded were just shy, too good-natured to be taken seriously, or simply spoke the wrong language or were the wrong color. Mandatory sterilization laws were enacted in some twenty-seven states to prevent targeted individuals from reproducing more of their kind. Marriage prohibition laws proliferated throughout the country to stop race mixing. Collusive litigation was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sanctified eugenics and its tactics.
The goal was to immediately sterilize fourteen million people in the United States and millions more worldwide—the “lower tenth”—and then continuously eradicate the remaining lowest tenth until only a pure Nordic super race remained. Ultimately, some 60,000 Americans were coercively sterilized and the total is probably much higher. No one knows how many marriages were thwarted by state felony statutes. Although much of the persecution was simply racism, ethnic hatred and academic elitism, eugenics wore the mantle of respectable science to mask its true character.
The victims of eugenics were poor urban dwellers and rural “white trash” from New England to California, immigrants from across Europe, Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Native Americans, epileptics, alcoholics, petty criminals, the mentally ill and anyone else who did not resemble the blond and blue-eyed Nordic ideal the eugenics movement glorified. Eugenics contaminated many otherwise worthy social, medical and educational causes from the birth control movement to the development of psychology to urban sanitation. Psychologists persecuted their patients. Teachers stigmatized their students. Charitable associations clamored to send those in need of help to lethal chambers they hoped would be constructed. Immigration assistance bureaus connived to send the most needy to sterilization mills. Leaders of the ophthalmology profession conducted a long and chilling political campaign to round up and coercively sterilize every relative of every American with a vision problem. All of this churned throughout America years before the Third Reich rose in Germany.
Eugenics targeted all mankind, so of course its scope was global. American eugenic evangelists spawned similar movements and practices throughout Europe, Latin America and Asia. Forced sterilization laws and regimens took root on every continent. Each local American eugenic ordinance or statute—from Virginia to Oregon—was promoted internationally as yet another precedent to be emulated by the international movement. A tightly-knit network of mainstream medical and eugenical journals, international meetings and conferences kept the generals and soldiers of eugenics up to date and armed for their nation’s next legislative opportunity.
Eventually, America’s eugenic movement spread to Germany as well, where it caught the fascination of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. Under Hitler, eugenics careened beyond any American eugenicist’s dream. National Socialism transduced America’s quest for a “superior Nordic race” into Hitler’s drive for an “Aryan master race.” The Nazis were fond of saying “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology,” and in 1934 the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted a prominent American eugenicist as saying, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.”
Nazi eugenics quickly outpaced American eugenics in both velocity and ferocity. In the 1930s, Germany assumed the lead in the international movement. Hitler’s eugenics was backed by brutal decrees, custom-designed IBM data processing machines, eugenical courts, mass sterilization mills, concentration camps, and virulent biological anti-Semitism—all of which enjoyed the open approval of leading American eugenicists and their institutions. The cheering quieted, but only reluctantly, when the United States entered the war in December of 1941. Then, out of sight of the world, Germany’s eugenic warriors operated extermination centers. Eventually, Germany’s eugenic madness led to the Holocaust, the destruction of the Gypsies, the rape of Poland and the decimation of all Europe.
But none of America’s far-reaching scientific racism would have risen above ignorant rants without the backing of corporate philanthropic largess.
Within these pages you will discover the sad truth of how the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted on Long Island at the Carnegie Institution’s eugenic enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor. You will see that during the prewar Hitler regime, the Carnegie Institution, through its Cold Spring Harbor complex, enthusiastically propagandized for the Nazi regime and even distributed anti-Semitic Nazi Party films to American high schools. And you will see the links between the Rockefeller Foundation’s massive financial grants and the German scientific establishment that began the eugenic programs that were finished by Mengele at Auschwitz.
Only after the truth about Nazi extermination became known did the American eugenics movement fade. American eugenic institutions rushed to change their names from eugenics to genetics. With its new identity, the remnant eugenics movement reinvented itself and helped establish the modern, enlightened human genetic revolution. Although the rhetoric and the organizational names had changed, the laws and mindsets were left in place. So for decades after Nuremberg labeled eugenic methods genocide and crimes against humanity, America continued to forcibly sterilize and prohibit eugenically undesirable marriages.
I began by saying this book speaks for the never-born. It also speaks for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who attempted to flee the Hitler regime only to be denied visas to enter the United States because of the Carnegie Institution’s openly racist anti-immigrant activism. Moreover, these pages demonstrate how millions were murdered in Europe precisely because they found themselves labeled lesser forms of life, unworthy of existence—a classification created in the publications and academic research rooms of the Carnegie Institution, verified by the research grants of the Rockefeller Foundation, validated by leading scholars from the best Ivy League universities, and financed by the special efforts of the Harriman railroad fortune. Eugenics was nothing less than corporate philanthropy gone wild.
Today we are faced with a potential return to eugenic discrimination, not under national flags or political credos, but as a function of human genomic science and corporate globalization. Shrill declarations of racial dominance are being replaced by polished PR campaigns and patent protections. What eugenics was unable to accomplish in a century, newgenics may engineer in a generation. The almighty dollar may soon decide who stands on which side of a new genetic divide already being demarcated by the wealthy and powerful. As we speed toward a new biological horizon, confronting our eugenic past will help us confront the bewildering newgenic future that awaits.
I first became interested in eugenics while researching my previous books, The Transfer Agreement and IBM and the Holocaust. The Transfer Agreement, published in 1984, documented the tempestuous worldwide anti-Nazi boycott, which included vigorous efforts to stop American organizations from funding medical research. At the time I could not understand why Nazi medical research was so important to American corporate philanthropists. The scope of eugenics escaped me. Then in 2000, while researching IBM and the Holocaust—which revealed IBM’s role in automating Germany’s eugenic institutions—I finally came to see that eugenics was a life and death proposition for Europe’s Jews. Yet I still didn’t realize that this bizarre cult of Nazi race science was organically linked to America.
As I explored the history of eugenics, however, I soon discovered that the Nazi principle of Nordic superiority was not hatched in the Third Reich but on Long Island decades earlier—and then actively transplanted to Germany. How did it happen? Who was involved? To uncover the story I did as I have done before and launched an international investigation. This time, a network of dozens of researchers, mostly volunteers, working in the United States, England, Germany and Canada unearthed some 50,000 documents and period publications from more than forty archives, dozens of library special collections and other repositories (see Major Sources). But unlike the Holocaust field, in which the documentation is centralized in a number of key archives, the information on eugenics is exceedingly decentralized and buried deep within numerous local and niche repositories.
In the United States alone, the investigation brought my team to the archival holdings of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, to Truman State University in northeastern Missouri, to numerous obscure community colleges in the Appalachian states, and a long list of state archives, county historical files and institutional archives where personal papers and period materials are stored. I also spent much time in many small, private libraries and archives, such as the one maintained by Planned Parenthood. We examined records at the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution. There are probably two hundred important repositories in America, many of them special collections and manuscript departments of local libraries or universities. Because eugenics was administered on the local level, every state probably possesses three to five sites hosting important eugenic documentation. I only accessed a few dozen of these across America. Much more needs to be done, and American researchers will surely be kept busy for a decade mining the information
In England I visited the British Library, the Wellcome Library, the University College of London, the Public Record Office and other key archives. These not only provided the information on Britain’s eugenic campaigns, but also yielded copies of correspondence with American eugenic organizations that are simply not available in the American holdings. For example, strident propaganda pamphlets long cleansed from American files are still stored in the British records.
Because the German and American wings collaborated so closely, the German archives clearly traced the development of German race hygiene as it emulated the American program. More importantly, because the American and German movements functioned as a binary, their leaders bragged to one another and exchanged information constantly. Therefore I learned much about America’s record by examining Reich-era files. For instance, although the number of individuals sterilized in Vermont has eluded researchers in that state, the information is readily available in the files of Nazi organizations. Moreover, obscure Nazi medical literature reveals the Nazis’ understanding of their American partners. Probing the prodigious files of Nazi eugenics took my project to the Bundesarchiv in Berlin and Koblenz, the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Heidelberg University and many other repositories in Germany.
When it was finished, the journey to discover America’s eugenic history had taken me from an austere highway warehouse in Vermont, where the state’s official files are stacked right next to automotive supplies and retrieved by forklift, to the architectonic British Library, to the massive Bundesarchiv in Berlin—and every type of research environment in between. Sometimes I sat on a chair in a reading room. Sometimes I poked through boxes in a basement.
Even still, I was not prepared for the many profound built-in challenges to eugenic research. My experiences are rooted in Holocaust investigation, where a well-developed infrastructure is in place. Not so with eugenics. In Holocaust research, archives facilitate unlimited speedy photocopying of documents. The Public Record Office in London produces copies within hours. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., allows self-service photocopying. But the most important eugenic archive in Britain, storing thousands of important documents, limits users to just one hundred copies per year. America’s largest eugenic archive, housing vast numbers of papers in numerous collections, limits researchers to just four hundred copies per year. Often the beleaguered and understaffed copy departments in these archives needed between three and four weeks to produce the copies. One archive asked for three months to copy a ten-page document. Fortunately, I was able to circumvent these restrictions by deploying teams of five and ten researchers at these archives, and by virtue of the gracious and indispensable flexibility of archivists who continuously assisted me in this massive project (see Acknowledgments). Only by their special efforts and indulgence was I able to secure as many as five thousand copies from a single archive, and reasonably quickly—thus allowing me to gain a comprehensive view of the topic and shorten my work by years.
Another profound obstacle has been the fallacious claim by many document custodians, in both state and private archives, that the records of those sterilized, incarcerated and otherwise manipulated by the eugenics movement are somehow protected under doctor-patient confidentiality stretching back fifty to one hundred years. This notion is a sham which only dignifies the crime. Legislation is needed to dismantle such restrictions. No researcher should ever accept assertions by any document custodian that such records are covered by confidentiality protections accorded to medical procedures—whether in Nazi Germany or the United States. The people persecuted by eugenics were not patients, they were victims. No doctor-patient relationship was established. Most of the unfortunate souls snared by eugenics were deceived and seized upon by animal breeders, biologists, anthropologists, raceologists and bureaucrats masquerading as medical men. Mengele’s victims were not patients. Nor were those in America who were caught up in the fraudulent science of eugenics.
In some instances, records were initially denied to me on this basis. Fortunately, the investigative reporter only gets started when he hears the word no. I demanded full access and was grateful when I received it. I applaud the State of Virginia for allowing me to be the first to receive files on the infamous sterilization of Carrie Buck; copies of those files are now in my office.
The international scope of the endeavor created a logistical nightmare that depended on devoted researchers scouring files in many cities. For months, I functioned as a traffic cop, managing editor and travel coordinator while simultaneously dispatching researchers to follow leads on both sides of the Atlantic. On the same day that one group might be interviewing mountain people in the hills of Virginia, another might be examining the personal papers of a police chief in California, while another in Berlin scanned the financial records of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to identify American financial assistance, while still others reviewed the pamphlets of the Eugenics Society in London.
We were as likely to scrutinize the visitor registers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s guest facility, Harnack House, to see which Americans visited Berlin, as we were to review the mailing lists of Carnegie scientists to see who in Germany was receiving their reports. Progress among my researchers was exchanged by continuous use of the Internet and by the extensive use of faxed and scanned documents. Eventually all of the documents came together in my office in Washington. They were then copied and arranged in chronological folders—one folder for every month of the twentieth century. The materials were then cross-filed to trace certain trends, and then juxtaposed against articles published month-by-month in journals such as Eugenical News, Journal of Heredity and Eugenics Review, as well as numerous race science publications in Nazi Germany. By pulling any one monthly folder I could assemble a snapshot of what was occurring worldwide during that month.
When we were done, we had assembled a mountain of documentation that clearly chronicled a century of eugenic crusading by America’s finest universities, most reputable scientists, most trusted professional and charitable organizations, and most revered corporate foundations. They had collaborated with the Department of Agriculture and numerous state agencies in an attempt to breed a new race of Nordic humans, applying the same principles used to breed cattle and corn. The names define power and prestige in America: the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Harriman railroad fortune, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Stanford University, the American Medical Association, Margaret Sanger, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Yerkes, Woodrow Wilson, the American Museum of Natural History, the American Genetic Association and a sweeping array of government agencies from the obscure Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics to the U.S. State Department.
Next came an obsessive documentation process. Every fact and fragment and its context was supported with black and white documents, then double-checked and separately triple-checked in a rigorous multistage verification regimen by a team of argumentative, hairsplitting fact-checkers. Only then was the manuscript draft submitted to a panel of known experts in the field from the United States, Germany, England and Poland, for a line-by-line review. The result: behind each of the hundreds of footnotes, there is a folder that contains the supporting documentation.
To ensure that all of our information was accurate, we also set about verifying the work of numerous other scholars by checking their documentation. We often asked them to provide documents from their files. In other words, we not only documented my book, we verified other works as well. Most of the authors graciously complied, readily faxing copies of their documents or explaining precisely where the information could be found. During this process, however, we discovered numerous errors in many prior works.
For example, in one book an important speech on the value of heredity is attributed to Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States—the speech was actually given by Jim Wilson, president of the American Breeders Association. I can understand how errors like this occur. Many scholars rely on other scholars’ works. Summaries of summaries of summaries yield a lesser truth with every iteration. Except for the work of a few brilliant world-class documenters, such as Daniel J. Kevles, Benno Müller-Hill, Paul Weindling and Martin Pernick, I largely considered published works as little more than leads. What’s more, there is boundless information on eugenics accumulating on the Internet, some of it very prettily presented, much of it hysterical, and unfortunately, most of it filled with profound errors. Hence whenever possible, I acquired primary source material so I could determine the provable facts for myself.
When the research phase was over, I realized that less than half the information I had assembled would even make it into the book. Frankly, I had amassed enough information to write a freestanding book for each of the twenty-one chapters in this volume. It was painful to pick and choose which information would be included, but I am confident that with so many journalists throughout America now aggressively delving into eugenics, the field will soon be as broad and diversified as the investigations of the Holocaust and American slavery. At least one book could be written for each state, starting with California, which was America’s most energetic eugenic state. Critical biographies are needed for the key players. In-depth examinations of the links between Germany and the Pioneer Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution as well as numerous state officials would be welcome. The role of the Chicago Municipal Court must be further explored.
When I began this project in 2001, many in the public were not even aware of eugenics. Indeed, for a while my publisher did not even want me to include the word eugenics in the title of this book. In reality, however, the topic has been continuously explored over the past decades by several extremely talented academics and students hailing from a range of disciplines from biology to education. Although most were gracious and supportive, I was surprised to find that many tended to guard their information closely. One such author told me she didn’t believe another book on eugenics was necessary. (“It depends on how nuanced,” she said with some discomfort.) Another professor astonished me by asking for money to answer some questions within his expertise—the first time I had encountered such a request in thirty-five years of historical research. When I contacted a Virginia professor who had written a dissertation decades earlier, she actually told me she didn’t think a member of the media was “qualified” to read her dissertation. One collaborative scholarly eugenic website, ironically funded by a federal grant, restricts media usage while permitting unrestricted scholarly usage.
As I was completing my work, the public was beginning to discover the outlines of eugenics. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Winston-Salem Journal, and several other publications and radio stations, as well as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and American Heritage magazine, all produced exemplary articles on various aspects of eugenics. The Winston-Salem Journal series was a feat of investigative journalism. As the manuscript was being typed, the governors of Virginia, Oregon, California, North Carolina and South Carolina all publicly apologized to the victims of their states’ official persecution. Others will follow. The topic is now where it belongs, in the hands of hard-driving journalists and historians who will not stop until they have uncovered all the facts.
Now that newspaper and magazine articles have placed the crime of eugenics on the front burner, my book explains in depth exactly how this fraudulent science infected our society and then reached across the world and right into Nazi Germany. I want the full story to be understood in context. Skipping around in the book will only lead to flawed and erroneous conclusions. So if you intend to skim, or to rely on selected sections, please do not read the book at all. This is the saga of a century and can easily be misunderstood. The realities of the twenties, thirties and forties were very different from each other. I have made this request of my readers on prior books and I repeat it for this volume as well.
Although this book contains many explosive revelations and embarrassing episodes about some of our society’s most honored individuals and institutions, I hope its contents will not be misused or quoted out of context by special interests. Opponents of a woman’s right to choose could easily seize upon Margaret Sanger’s eugenic rhetoric to discredit the admirable work of Planned Parenthood today; I oppose such misuse. Detractors of today’s Rockefeller Foundation could easily apply the facts of their Nazi connections to their current programs; I reject the linkage. Those frightened by the prospect of human engineering could invoke the science’s eugenic foundations to condemn all genomic research; that would be a mistake. While I am as anxious as the next person about the prospect of out-of-control genomics under the thumb of big business, I hope every genetic advance that helps humanity fight disease will continue as fast and as furiously as possible.
This is the right place to note that virtually all the organizations I investigated cooperated with unprecedented rigor, because they want the history illuminated as much as anyone. This includes the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the Max Planck Institute, successor to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. All gave me unlimited access and unstinting assistance. These organizations have all worked hard to help the world discover their pasts and must be commended. Planned Parenthood worked with me closely day after day, searching for and faxing documents, continually demonstrating their interest in the unvarnished truth. The same can be said for numerous other corporations and organizations. This is a book of history, and corporate and philanthropic America must be commended when they cooperate in an investigation as aggressive and demanding as mine.
Indeed, of the scores of societies, corporations, organizations and governmental agencies I contacted around the world, only one obstructed my work: IBM refused me access to its files. Despite this obstruction, I was able to demonstrate that the race-defining punch card used by the SS in Nazi Germany was actually derived from one developed for the Carnegie Institution years before Hitler came to power.
This project has been a long, exhausting, exhilarating odyssey for me, one that has taken me to the darkest side of the brightest minds and revealed to me one reason why America has been struggling so long to become the country it still wants to be. We have a distance to go. Again, I ask how did this happen in a progressive society? After reviewing thousands upon thousands of pages of documentation, and pondering the question day and night for nearly two years, I realize it comes down to just one word. It was more than the self-validation and self-certification of the elite, more than just power and influence joining forces with prejudice. It was the corrupter of us all: it was arrogance.
March 15, 2003