Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and
the Science of Nationalism
University of Minnesota Press: 240 pp., $18.95 paper
Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's
Campaign to Create a Master Race
Four Walls Eight Windows: 550 pp., $27
How is it that the once obscure history of eugenics—the
pseudoscientific belief in the biological origins of social
success and failure—has become a hot topic for academics,
reporters and investigative journalists? Any story that involves
a combustible mix of reproduction, race and class is bound to
spark attention, but there's more going on here than intellectual
First, there's the specter of reparations looming over recent
grass-roots efforts to wring public apologies from various state
governments for their role in compelling patients and the "socially
unfit" to undergo forced sterilization during the first
half of the 20th century. "Our hearts are heavy for the
pain caused by eugenics," noted Gov. Gray Davis in March,
acknowledging that the victimization of some 20,000 people in
state hospitals marked "a sad and regrettable chapter"
in California's history. In the 1920s, the Golden State's leading
civic reformers—including Sacramento banker Charles M.
Goethe, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan and real
estate tycoon Ezra S. Gosney—lobbied nationwide for the
eugenics agenda. And in the 1930s, as board members of Pasadena's
Human Betterment Foundation, they enjoyed a mutually appreciative
relationship with the advocates of "race hygiene"
in Nazi Germany.
Then there are the cautionary lessons the past offers about
the unregulated use of genetic engineering and reproductive
technology. Such contemporary issues as pre-implantation genetic
diagnosis, gene therapy and reproductive and research cloning
promise the same kind of moral and political quagmires as sterilization,
birth control and immigrant screening did in the United States
between the world wars. Similarly, our current interest in the
biological roots of cognitive ability echoes early 20th century
debates about IQ tests.
Public concern today is directed not only at the reliability
of research and the dangers posed by scientists going into the
business of social engineering but also at how market forces
drive the new genetics. As biotech companies take the initiative
in research and development, who will get to decide, for example,
whether prospective parents can customize their babies or whose
identities should be maintained in DNA databanks?
In the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s, enterprising
academics and professionals, backed by government support and
corporate philanthropy (W. Averell Harriman, Andrew Carnegie,
John D. Rockefeller Jr.), led the campaign for "human betterment"
through applied biology. Their expertise determined, for example,
which unmarried, sexually active women and "feebleminded"
adolescents should be sterilized. But, as demonstrated in these
two very different books—Nancy Ordover's theoretical monograph
American Eugenics and Edwin Black's War Against the
Weak, a muckraking history—eugenics was much more than
a short-lived, crackpot crusade.
Ten years ago the historical literature on eugenics was sparse,
with the foundational studies of Mark Haller's Eugenics
(1963) and Daniel Kevles' In the Name of Eugenics (1985)
providing our basic knowledge of its rise and fall. More recently,
feminist historians—including Laura Briggs, Angela Davis,
Linda Gordon, Wendy Kline, Regina Kunzel and Alexandra Minna
Stern—have deepened our understanding about the scope and
cultural significance of eugenics as a site of struggle over
the politics of reproduction and race. As a contribution to
this genre, American Eugenics explores governmental attempts
to use eugenics to impose "technological fixes" on
the underclass "in lieu of meaningful correctives to economic
Ordover, who is a Rockefeller fellow in the Program for the
Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health and Human Rights at Columbia
University, is less interested in eugenics as public policy
or science than in its "extremely nimble ideology."
In this compact, far-ranging cultural critique, she invites
us to make connections between anti-immigrant panics, sterilization
campaigns and the search for the genetic roots of sexual desire.
Eugenics, she argues, is like a "scavenger" that collects
and exploits anxieties about national identity, consigning the
politically disenfranchised to the garbage dump. It uses the
value-free language of "science" and "public
health" to mask its political agenda: "[W]herever
biologism and public policy have intersected, they have extracted
a terrible price from the poor, physically and politically."
Ordover's conclusion is certainly true for the hundreds of thousands
of mostly poor women who, before World War II, were required
to acquiesce to sterilization to gain release from mental hospitals,
homes for the feebleminded and other such institutions, and
who in the 1950s and '60s were tricked or coerced by social
and public health workers into sterilization or untested birth
control regimens as a condition for receiving public assistance.
Missing from Ordover's study is any sense of what this experience
was like for its victims. The problem for historians is getting
around the reluctance of public bureaucrats to open their files
to scrutiny, especially given their concern about the slippery
slope from symbolic contrition to compensatory lawsuits. In
Canada, the government of Alberta recently settled for $55 million
with mentally ill patients who had been sterilized between 1928
and 1972; in Sweden, the government paid $21,250 to each person
unlawfully sterilized between 1941 and 1975.
So we should be grateful to the authors of Against Their
Will: North Carolina's Sterilization Program—Kevin
Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey, Ted Richardson and Scott
Sexton—writing in the Winston-Salem Journal, for achieving
what has eluded academics: giving voice to those who have been
hidden from history. In a model of investigative journalism,
Against Their Will (available through the newspaper's
Web site, againsttheirwill.journalnow.com,
or by mail for $2) brings us heartbreaking stories from some
of the 7,600 mostly African American women in North Carolina
whose forced sterilization left enduring emotional scars. "Why
didn't they just sew me up, just sew me up period," asks
one woman, 35 years after she was sterilized at age 14. "Contrary
to common belief," writes Begos, "many of the thousands
marked for sterilization were ordinary citizens, many of them
young women guilty of nothing worse than engaging in premarital
sex." In addition to personal testimony, the Journal's
hard-hitting five-day series names those responsible for this
gross misuse of state power, including the state's medical school,
political and philanthropic leaders—and even the newspaper
itself (known then as the Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel),
which endorsed and promoted North Carolina's eugenics program.
"The danger is in the moron group," one 1948 story
warned. "Among other things, they breed like mink."
War Against the Weak is a much more ambitious undertaking.
Edwin Black is on a mission to disclose "many explosive
revelations and embarrassing episodes about some of our society's
most honored individuals and institutions" His pitch may
be sensational and the prose occasionally purple, but he's written
a serious, thoroughly documented study. The scope of the book
is impressive—it spans 150 years and reaches into the archives
of four countries—and it contains some remarkable new
data and sharp insights. But War Against the Weak promises
more than it delivers and has a tendency to exaggerate its own
Black has the right credentials to "tear away the thickets
of mystery surrounding the eugenics movement around the world."
An experienced Holocaust investigator and journalist, he has
written two books on related topics: The Transfer Agreement
(1984), which explored the pact between the Third Reich and
Jewish Palestine, and IBM and the Holocaust (2001), an
exposé of how the corporate pioneer in data processing
helped Hitler's Germany run its trains on time. The author brings
a critical sensibility to his work, morally anchored in his
parents' harrowing escape from the Nazis.
As with his previous books, Black recruited a large team of
researchers and consultants, mostly volunteers, who assembled
roughly 50,000 documents. "I functioned as a traffic cop,
managing editor and travel coordinator," he writes of the
logistical complexities of the project. As a result, the book
is richly detailed, with examples of eugenic initiatives from
all over the United States. Black has surprisingly little to
say about California, despite acknowledging that it "led
the nation in sterilization and provided the most scientific
support for Hitler's regime."
Black imposes a strong point of view on his chronological narrative,
which is driven by two major arguments. First, he proposes that
eugenics in the United States was a prestigious enterprise—bankrolled
by big business, studied in the finest universities and embraced
by the professions. He aims his populist fire at the "alliance
between biological racism and mighty American power, position
and wealth," which he sees as having been united for one
purpose: the creation of "a superior Nordic race."
This is not an original argument—for example, see Elof
Axel Carlson's The Unfit (2001)—but Black provides
new kinds of damning evidence about "corporate philanthropy
gone wild." He shows how the eugenics movement of the 1920s
and '30s actively lobbied for "overseas eugenic screening,"
anti-miscegenation legislation, and the sterilization of people
suffering from a variety of physical disabilities, not all of
them heritable, including blindness. Moreover, as Black notes,
"the idea of sending the unfit into lethal chambers was
regularly bandied about" in American eugenic circles long
before the Nazis murdered 100,000 mental patients.
Black's second argument is that "[i]n eugenics, the United
States led and Germany followed." We know from previous
studies—in particular, Stefan Kühl's The Nazi Connection
(1994) and Benno Müller-Hill's Murderous Science
(1998)—that there was a great deal of collaboration between
Nazi and American "racial scientists." But Black goes
further, asserting that the "scientific rationales that
drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted at the
Carnegie Institution's eugenic enterprise" at Cold Spring
Harbor, Long Island. Eugenics, claims Black, "infected
our society and then reached across the world and right into
Nazi Germany." Later he backtracks, observing that Hitler
did not develop his racist and anti-Semitic views "from
anything he read or heard from America."
War Against the Weak also asserts that until the United
States entered the war, the Nazi regime's "eugenical courts,
mass sterilization mills, concentration camps, and virulent
biological anti-Semitism enjoyed the open approval of leading
American eugenicists and their institutions." This may
have been true, but Black doesn't have the evidence to back
up his claim. Moreover, he doesn't need to pile on the hyperbole
when he's dug up so many compelling examples of the love affair
between American eugenicists and German race scientists: for
example, that Corporal Hitler read his favorite American eugenicists
while in jail in 1924 and later sent a fan letter to Madison
Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race; or the
strange case of Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, a Jewish psychiatrist,
eugenicist and naturalized American citizen, who was found guilty
by the Nuremberg tribunal for committing war crimes in Buchenwald.
Black's relentless focus on the Nazi connection means that
he pays little attention to other thorny issues, such as why
important segments of the left (Fabian socialists, Progressive
reformers and feminist activists, for example) from time to
time joined forces with right-wing moralists on matters relating
to eugenic reproduction. Witness, for example, the successful
courting of Margaret Sanger by leading eugenics groups in the
1930s. Black minimizes the extent to which the battle between
leftists, moderates and rightists has often been fought within
as well as over eugenics.
War Against the Weak might as well end in 1945, because
it skips over the last half century in about 20 pages. After
World War II and the demise of the Nazi regime, Black loses
interest. This leads to some lazy, facile predictions of the
withering away of "racist ideology and group prejudice"
and an assertion that from the 1960s to the 1980s "the
racist old guard of eugenics and human genetics died out, bequeathing
its science to a new and enlightened generation of men and women."
He concludes on an appropriate note of caution, warning of the
dangers that lurk in our "precocious new genetic age,"
when "people are once again defined and divided by their
genetic identities." But, again, he's too quick to reduce
complex issues to one root cause. Next time around, he says,
"[i]f there is a new war against the weak it will not be
about color, but about money." Can't we expect, though,
that existing social inequalities will figure prominently in
decisions about who will be able to pay for the genetic enhancement
of future generations? And isn't "The Bell Curve"
(1994)—Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's influential,
pseudoscientific search for genetic explanations of racial inequality—essentially a eugenics tract?
As Nancy Ordover suggests, issues of race and gender, operating
within and not apart from economics, were very much evident
after World War II, when eugenics reinvented itself, first in
population control and later in sociobiology. Now, with muscular
conservatives throwing their weight around in Washington, D.C.,
and economic inequality returning to levels reminiscent of the
Gilded Age, it is not surprising that restricting the birthrate
of the poor is a mainstay of the administration's welfare policy.
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