FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from







Ill Bred: The American Eugenics Movement
by Baruch Kimmerling
July 27, 2004

Send this page to a friend! (click here)


In the wake of my review of Samuel P. Huntington's book Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity ("The Crumbling of Apple Pie," Dissident Voice, June 29), several American friends and colleagues, who read it on the Haaretz English Web site, wrote to me to say that there was an important and chilling aspect of American heritage -- and a dismal chapter in United States history -- that I had left out. From then on, I spent days and nights doing some not very light reading, feeling it was my duty to sum up a selection of books and articles on this topic for the benefit of readers.

It turns out that many themes and arguments raised in Huntington's book under the guise of socio-cultural theory, including his phobia about "an influx of Latin American immigrants," were put forward by the American Eugenics Society in the period between the two world wars. The founder of eugenics was the British anthropologist Francis Galton, who preached against interracial marriage (miscegenation) back in 1883, as a means of improving the human race. The American society, however, based itself mainly on the genetic discoveries of Gregor Mendel, who developed mathematical formulas for selective breeding. This society regarded itself as a pioneer in a field of science that would benefit all of humanity, as well as the bearer of a mission and a message that extended beyond the Nordic-American race.

The eugenics movement (derived from the Greek words for "good" and "generation") was not a marginal phenomenon. In the U.S., and to a lesser degree in Britain, eugenics was embraced as a "science" and an ideology. Some of America's leading lights - among them presidents, Supreme Court judges, millionaires, Protestant clergymen and eminent scientists - supported the movement or became active members in it. America was perceived as a "Nordic" race that should not be mixed with inferior blood.

The movement was not just in favor of barring the immigration of inferior races such as Blacks, Latinos, Asians and East Europeans. It roundly supported "improving racial stock" by sterilizing people who were "not useful" to society. Some leaders of the movement even advocated physically eliminating the defectives, "putting them to sleep" as an act of mercy and compassion. On the list were the mentally disabled, people with birth defects or genetic diseases, the physically handicapped, criminals, alcoholics, epileptics, prostitutes, homosexuals or just plain "degenerates." The idea extended to prohibiting these people from marrying, banning interracial unions, and forcing unfit couples who had not undergone sterilization to have abortions. Between the two world wars, some 60,000 persons were forced to undergo sterilization, most of them poor women or native Americans. At the same time, nationwide contests were held for "the fittest couples" (Nordic, of course) and the most fertile men and women.

Local societies for racial betterment began to appear in the early 20th century, merging in 1923 into a national association that was also a powerful political lobby. Respected research institutes and universities allocated huge budgets for eugenics research. There is no question that the masses of immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S. in those years, especially from Eastern Europe, were perceived as a major threat by both the elite and by the working classes, afraid for their jobs. This acted as a further boost for the movement, and especially its efforts to curb immigration.

Nordic ties

This very visible movement, whose members included the owners of some of America's leading newspapers, achieved its immediate political objective. In 1924, after a panel of "experts" appeared before the Congress and the House of Representatives, an immigration law was passed that limited the number of newcomers to 165,000 a year and imposed strict quotas on immigration from various regions in keeping with a scale of presumed blood ties with the Nordic race. "America must remain American," declared U.S. president Calvin Coolidge as he affixed his signature to the new law. The laws of biology prove that Nordic stock declines when it mixes with other races, he said. Thus a quota of 86 percent was established for immigrants from northern and western Europe, as opposed to 9 percent from Eastern Europe. Actually, these quotas remained in force until 1988.

During this period, 30 American states adopted sterilization laws. The first was Indiana, which opted for vasectomies, "so that degenerate genetic traits would not be passed down to the next generation." There were, of course, geneticists, scientists and intellectuals who denounced this American infatuation with eugenics. In fact, the sociopolitical conclusions from the new genetic discoveries should be the very opposite, they said, since crossbreeding helps to reduce hereditary diseases and deformities. But they were not politically organized and their voice remained a cry in the wilderness. And what could they do when the flagship publication, The Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, was almost a mouthpiece for the eugenics movement?

The Catholic Church was also opposed, but its political clout was very limited. On top of that, the eugenics movement was really the sum and substance of American Darwinist Protestantism. Toward the end of World War II, as the horrors of Nazi racism emerged, the eugenics movement faded into oblivion, although some states continued to perform involuntary sterilization until the 1970s, and the immigration laws and quotas changed very little.

The movement itself disappeared, but eugenics in scientific and pseudo-scientific garb still cropped up on occasion, arousing controversy. In 1956, William Shockley received the Nobel Prize for Physics for his invention of the transistor - that little chip, without which all of the modern telecommunications and computer technology we couldn't live without today would not exist. But the eminent Stanford University professor won world acclaim less for his brilliant invention than for his social philosophy.

Taking advantage of his scientific acclaim, he argued that America's social welfare policy was lowering the quality of the human race because people on welfare had a lower IQ, and government support of the feebleminded worked to the detriment of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Moreover, because contributions to humanity rely on a tiny handful of people at the top of the famous Bell Curve, Shockley proposed setting up a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. The sperm would be used to impregnate middle-class (i.e., predominantly white), physically perfect women with IQ scores in the top 2 percentile, in order to increase the number of geniuses contributing to the advancement of the human race. He also proposed the establishment of a federal bureaucratic mechanism to run the project.

In 1979, a millionaire from northern California, Robert K. Graham, announced that in view of the inaction of the government, he would open his own sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. Later, it turned out that very few of the prize laureates met the criteria for donating sperm because they were too old. This was also true for Shockley, who was among the only ones to publicly announce his willingness to be a donor. So Graham's team settled for young, brilliant promising scientists, even if they hadn't won a Nobel yet. He invited eligible women and couples to volunteer for his genetic engineering project, and many candidates were tested for their suitability for vitro fertilization (mainly in cases where the husband was sterile). By the time the sperm bank closed in 1999, 200 babies had been born utilizing the collected sperm, most of them in the U.S. No survey of findings were ever published on the superior intelligence of these children, and the anonymity of the couples and their offspring remained a closely guarded secret.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

In 1978, Arthur Jensen published an article in the prestigious Harvard Educational Review summing up all the research done until then on IQ testing. Blacks, he wrote, scored at least 10-15 points lower than the general population, and this differential was due to genetic make-up. The question was whether it really was genes or an array of social factors. Until today, these findings are pulled out in the debate over affirmative action for Afro-Americans (if the phenomenon is indeed a product of socioeconomic hardship), or referral to scholastic and occupational tracks that are less intellectually demanding. Actually, this was a political issue because declaring the gap environmental (the nature vs. nurture argument) meant that massive resources would have to be channeled into education, housing and welfare in order to correct the problem, in addition to a policy of affirmative action.

Another series of studies and analyses showed that IQ tests, which supposedly predict scholastic success and the ability to carry out tasks requiring intellectual skill, are culture-bound. Hence if Blacks composed the questions, it stands to reason that whites would not do as well. Another interesting study showed that when groups of girls were given an exam in math and told in advance that it would test gender differences in mathematical ability, they scored lower than the boys. But when they were not told the purpose of the exam, there were no differences between girls and boys. In other words, fear of failure was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also fascinating from a sociological perspective is the fact that a study of intelligence as a predictor of social class, published in 1994 by two acclaimed psychologists, Herrnstein and Murray (also from Harvard University), made the New York Times best-seller list. Intelligence is inherited, Herrnstein and Murray write, but Blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than whites, both for genetic reasons and due to poor parental investment. On the other hand, Asians are more intelligent than average whites. Within the racial groups themselves, cognitive skills are graded: Jobless whites have a lower IQ than employed whites. Unemployment is thus the fault of the unemployed and their genes - not the system. White women with a low IQ are less likely to marry, so they have illegitimate children. In the end, the authors reach the inevitable conclusion that immigration decreases the cognitive-intellectual ability of the American people. Hence their recommendation to limit the reproductive capacity of those with low intelligence.

As Charles Lane writes in his review in The New York Review of Books ("The Tainted Source of the Bell Curve"), most of Herrnstein and Murray's source material comes from The Mankind Quarterly -- a periodical published by the Pioneer Fund. This fund, established in 1937 by Wycliffe Draper, a millionaire and gung-ho supporter of Nazi Germany, financed eugenic research, advocated the expulsion of Blacks from the U.S., and provided stipends to researchers and scientists, including Jensen, who toed its line.

Hitler's praise

In his book Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler heaps praise on the American eugenics movement and the American people for knowing how to protect itself racially, confessing that he learned a lot from them. Recently unearthed in archives in the U.S. and Germany is an enthusiastic correspondence between Hitler and the American Eugenics Society. In some of the letters, Hitler singles out "The Passing of the Great Race" by the well-known eugenicist Madison Grant, for special praise. He calls it "his bible." German doctors were sent on study fellowships to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the movement's documentation and research center, which received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institute in Washington. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory recently published Elof Axel Carlson's book to dissociate itself once and for all from its murky past.

Maybe Hitler didn't need the "information" he received from the U.S. to develop his master race theory - or maybe he did - but there is no doubt he derived great encouragement from the very existence of such a movement and its political achievements. We will never know how things might have turned out if the American Eugenics Society had not come into being and enjoyed such success.

Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to look from a slightly different angle at the murder of 6 million Jews, as well as a very large number of gypsies, homosexuals, mental patients, disabled persons and communists (the "morally unfit"), in Nazi death camps. In a sense, there were two nuclei of responsibility for the Holocaust. Not only did the rise of eugenics in the U.S. lead the country to close its doors to immigration, with the main victims of this policy being the Jews of Eastern Europe, who were in the midst of moving en masse to the "goldene medina," but the movement served as a guide and a source of inspiration for the Nazis. Of course, the chief culprit was still Nazi Germany. But think of what might have happened if most of the Jews in Eastern Europe had managed to resettle in North America in 1924-1938. For good or for bad, the Zionists might never have established the State of Israel. Maybe New York would have become a Jewish state.

It is hard for me to accuse Huntington of racism. For me, he is the cultured and courteous scholar, very warm and open (particularly after the third whiskey), with whom I had some fascinating discussions at the mahogany-paneled faculty club at Harvard University. But there is no question that deep inside, he carries that small but important facet of American heritage that is described here.

Book Sources:

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black, (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 179 pages, $27

American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy and the Science of Nationalism by Nancy Ordover, (Minnesota University Press, 2003), 297 pages, $28.95

The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism and German National Socialism by Stefan Khul, (Oxford University Press, 2002), 192 pages, $17.95

Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, edited by G.K. Chesterton and Michael W. Perry, (Inkling Books, 2000), 179 pages, $14.95

The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea by Elof Axel Carlson, (Cold Spring Harbor, Laboratory Press, 2001), 451 pages, $25

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (Free Press, 1994), 912 pages, $16

Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003), Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Alma and Am Oved, Hebrew, 2003), and  The Palestinian People (Harvard University Press, 2003) with Joel S. Migdal.

Other Articles by Baruch Kimmerling


* The Crumbling of Apple Pie
* Sacred Rage: Exploring the Motivations Behind Terrorism
From Barak to the Road Map

* Why is the United States Scaring Me?

* The Politicide of Palestinian People

* The Battle over Jenin as an Inter-ethnic War

* My Holiday, Their Tragedy