Eugenics in the USA

Eugenics is no longer the household word it once was; however, its ideas are rapidly infiltrating modern society under new guises.

What is eugenics?

Although the Greek philosopher, Plato, had never heard of it, he was an early instigator of its key ideas in his book, The Republic, which portrays his vision of an ideal society. This book promised that encouraging “superior” people to multiply at the expense of their “inferiors” would result in improved human stock. The barbaric Spartans actually put eugenic principles into practice by leaving newborn babies outside for a specified time in order to kill off runts and weaklings.

Eugenics became a “science” during the nineteenth century. Its prophet was Sir Francis Galton (5582/1822- 5671/1911), a brilliant Englishman reputed to have an I. Q. of 200 and distinguished in many fields of science, including exploration, meteorology and statistics. He focused his interests after his half-cousin, Charles Darwin, published his own theories in 5619/1859. Galton proposed that these ideas could be an effective tool to improve people, just as farmers breed the perfect sheep and cow. He also complained that the religious and moral ideals of charity and chessed were at odds with nature’s world of sharp tooth and ruthless claw.

Like German scientists who later followed his lead, Galton began collecting statistics of human variation in height, facial appearance and suchlike, to determine the human ideal. After ten laborious years, he printed the work, Hereditary Genius, in which he wrote:

“Consequently, as it is easy… to obtain, by careful selection, a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”

Not all scientists agreed with Galton’s ideas. The unending “nature versus nurture” debate was now ignited – why assume that man’s characteristics come more from his innate nature than from the nurture of his environment?

Galton’s investigations preceded and were paralleled by Nazi science. He conducted an extensive study of twins that resulted in his 5635/1875 paper, entitled “The History of Twins.” In addition, he invented what he called “composite photography” to determine the essential features of ethnic groups. For example, he would superimpose photos of many Jews on top of each other, resulting in a fuzzy composite image of them all. This, he claimed, was the prototype Jew. However, his attempts to prove that criminal tendencies are stamped on a person’s face at birth ended in failure. A number of prominent Englishmen admired his ideas and carried them further. Even Winston Churchill was impressed.

The word “eugenics” had not existed before 5643/1883 when Galton coined it from Greek, explaining that he derived from “what is termed in Greek eugenes, namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities.”

Over the decades, people began putting Galton’s theories into practice, resulting in discrimination and the Nazi genocide. Surprisingly, except for Nazi Germany, Galton’s work wreaked its greatest havoc in the United States, probably contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. How did this happen?

Engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty is “The New Colossus,” a poem composed by a Jewess, Emma Lazarus, which proclaims: “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch… and her name Mother of Exiles… ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempesttost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

Lazarus wrote these words in 5643/1883 when immigration was just starting its rampant acceleration. New Americans were pouring in. The trickle of less than 150,000 a year in the 5630s/1870s turned into a fl ood of 800,000 by the turn of the century and a deluge of 1¼ million a year by 5667/1907. America was a magnet for millions of people striving to better their lives. Veteran Americans, fearful that newcomers might snatch up their jobs and create over-urbanization, began thinking that this was too much of a good thing.

Americans had long been concerned that their generosity might create a giant welfare state. A 5642/1882 law excluded “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge,” and a 5677/1917 ruling barred immigrants mentally incapable of reading English or other languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish.

Unlike the early immigrants, who were predominantly Nordic and Anglo-Saxon, the new immigrants were mainly from southern and eastern Europe. Over four million Italians poured in from 5640/1880 to 5680/1920 while, between 5650/1890 and 5684/1924, America’s Jewish population tripled from one million to about three million. Elitists complained that this would lower the country’s cultural level and most historians believe that eugenics played a giant role in rousing anti-immigrant neurosis.

Eugenics enthusiasts tried to improve the nation’s genetic stock by discriminating against the mentally ill. Alabama paved the way in 5667/1907 by outlawing marriage between the mentally ill, and over half the other states drafted similar laws that persisted for decades. Indeed, Virginia had eugenic laws on the books until the late 5730s/1970s.

Back in 5670/1910, Charles Benedict Davenport opened the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, directed by the infamous Harry H. Laughlin, who became a major driving force in putting the brakes on immigration. By 5674/1914, even the Surgeon-General as well as other senior public health fi gures were discouraging unchecked immigration.

The argument was that Italians, East Europeans and other undesirable strains were polluting the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon gene pool and that the Anglo-American race must be kept pure.

In 5680/1920, Laughlin warned a Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the House of Representatives that the “American gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants – primarily from eastern and western Europe.”

He was appointed as an “expert eugenics agent” and spent ten years traveling through Europe, at the government’s expense, collecting data to back up his claims, taking off time in 5684/1924 to urge Congress to restrict immigration.

School textbooks began devoting chapters to these ideas and country fairs began granting awards not only to prize cows and giant cantaloupes but also to healthy babies and glowing mothers.

There were people who blamed everything on bad eugenics. In 5682/1922, a book, entitled The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man, claimed that “The revolutionary unrest which today afflicts the entire world goes far deeper than is generally supposed. Its root-cause is not Russian Bolshevik propaganda, nor the late war, nor the French Revolution, but a process of racial impoverishment, which destroyed the great civilizations of the past and which threatens to destroy our own.”


The eugenics’ cause scored a giant success in May 5684/1924 when President Calvin Coolidge signed the drastic new Immigration Act that brought down the curtain on East European immigration by cunningly establishing the proportion of ethnic groups for the next few years as 2 percent of their number living in the continental United States in 5650/1890, before the Jewish and Italian immigration became uncontrollable. And this was out of a new total annual immigrant quota of 164,667. Famed Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, justified the trend in 5686/1926, explaining, “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.”

Although the law added that from 5687/1927 (this was later delayed to 5689/1929), the proportion of immigrants would be measured according to how many lived in America in the year 5680/1920, this did not help much as the lid on total immigration had been restricted to 150,000 immigrants a year.

From now on, prospective immigrants were instructed to obtain their visas overseas since there was a high probability that they might be prevented from disembarking in America. The famous Ellis Island immigration center closed down overnight.

Coolidge insisted that this was a vital necessity. As he said, while still Vice-President, “America must remain America… Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races!”

In America, the popularity of eugenics began waning due to a variety of causes by the end of the 5690s/1930s. Scientists began streaming to the ranks of behaviorists who hold that positive qualities are engendered as much by the environment and self-improvement as by a person’s innate nature.

However, it was too late. The 5684/1924 anti-immigration legislation had slammed the door against the myriad Jews who later tried to flee the Nazi menace.

Ironically, the New England Journal of Medicine admiringly noted in 5694/1934 that “Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting fecundity among the unfit.”

True enough, the Nazis were honing eugenics into a tool of utmost evil.

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