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December 13, 2003
Opinion: Sunday Reader
Unmasking a dark chapter in U.S. history


In his new book, War Against the Weak (Four Walls Eight Windows, 549 pages, $27), five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Edwin Black links Hitler's quest for a master race, and the horrific experimentation that resulted, to the American eugenics movement. Mr. Black argues that eugenics – the idea that heredity could be manipulated through selective breeding to improve the human race – was embraced by the best and brightest of scientists, social visionaries and business leaders in the United States in the decades before World War II.

Best known for his previous book, IBM and the Holocaust, Mr. Black used extensive primary research to document the story. He spoke recently at Congregation Shearith Israel and talked with special contributor Mary A. Jacobs. Here are excerpts:

Question: What is the link you describe in your book between Hitler and the American eugenics movement?

Answer: Everybody knows what Hitler's quest for a master race was, but very few people know that it began in the United States. Two to three decades before Hitler ever came to power, America went on a crusade to create a white master Nordic race, blond-haired and blue-eyed.

First, you had ideas about "eugenics" – which means "good genes" – along with Mendel's principle of heredity – imported into the United States at the turn of the 20th century in the United States. At the same time, you had millions of Jews coming into the U.S. from eastern Europe. In the Southwest, you had multitudes of Mexicans. Asians were being brought in by en masse in the west. Blacks and native Americans were becoming integrated into society.

So there were these elite members of society – presidents of universities, presidents of banks – and they wanted it the way it was. They wanted all these ethnically, racially unacceptable people to disappear. It was their idea that you could breed a better society the same way you could breed a better herd of cattle. They thought that if they eliminated all the unacceptable people, they wouldn't be here after 15 or 40 generations. These people considered themselves reformers, progressives, liberals, utopians. Their idea of utopia was a place where no one would exist except people like themselves, or people who looked like themselves.

Question: America went on a crusade? Isn't that overstating a bit?

Answer: Laws were passed in 27 states enshrining eugenics as policy. The eugenic network worked in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Department and numerous state governmental bodies throughout the country. Ultimately, some 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. One case of forced sterilization, involving a woman named Carrie Buck and her mother and daughter, was ruled upon by the Supreme Court in 1927. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough. It is better for all the world to sterilize these three generations."

Question: What was the tie between American eugenics and Nazi Germany?

Answer: The Carnegie Institute funded research fellowships to purvey these ideas overseas. Ultimately we were able to transplant them into Canada, Belgium, Scandinavia – but the special project was Germany. Rockefeller spent millions to advance German eugenics. Adolf Hitler studied and even wrote fan mail to the greatest American eugenicist, Madison Grant. Hitler wrote to him, "Your book is my bible." And Mein Kampf, if you read it carefully, credits the U.S. for showing him the way to eugenics and racial superiority.

Question: What led you personally to research this particular piece of history?

Answer: As the child of Holocaust survivors, my life is dominated by the injustices heaped upon the Jews. But genocide is everybody's business. I'm very gratified that this particular book has resonated not only with core readership in the Jewish community but with many blacks and Hispanics, and with the genetic and scientific communities – which seeks to understand its predicates. Because it's everybody's business. Once you're willing to see one racial or ethnic or religious group disappear, there's no stopping it.

Question: How did this manage to escape public scrutiny for so long?

Answer: In the shadow of the Holocaust, America went into denial. We did not want to be associated with anything that Hitler did because it was such a black period of history. I think it took an investigative reporter to look at the government collusion and malfeasance that took place. Historians don't do that. The definition of investigative reporter, by the way, is someone who thinks like a criminal and acts like a cop. That's what I do.

Question: All this happened 60 or more years ago. What's the lesson now?

Answer: First, it's important to understand that the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institute and Planned Parenthood were completely cooperative. We should not judge these organizations today by how they were 50 or 90 years ago. These organizations publicly regret the involvement of their originators.

The "take away" is how easy it is to mask racism and prejudice in science. How easy it is to be deluded by credentials and academic titles. Remember, eugenics in the U.S. and in Nazi Germany was based on "settled science." The eugenicists all agreed on it.

Question: You mentioned that, universally, the Catholic Church spoke against eugenics. Why didn't it work? Is there a lesson there for organized religion, in terms of preventing something like this in the future?

Answer: But it did work. Where the Catholic Church was strong – parts of Illinois or Massachusetts, for instance – eugenics measures were not enacted. The problem was that organized religion failed to project itself beyond its small sphere of influence. If there had been a more universal approach, had the Catholic Church and other churches ... been far more aggressive in defending human rights during the 12-year Hitler era, things might have been different. But, you have to understand, eugenics never acted in the name of an organized religion. Eugenics held itself out to be its own religion.

Question: Is there a religious issue here?

Answer: Sanctity of life is a religious issue. The devaluation of human life is a religious issue. Once you say, "I want to improve society by doing away with someone else, or someone else's family," you're into genocide. No matter how pure your heart is.

Mary A. Jacobs is a Dallas freelance writer.