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15 April 2002

Thumbs up for the bright, white folks

Eugenics has a loyal and respectable following in the US - especially on the right. Hywel Probertrev

By Hywel Probert

“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 . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Mr Justice Holmes’s closing remark contained no consolatory words for Carrie Buck, the 20-year-old unmarried mother sitting abjectly in the US Supreme Court.

Three years before, officials at the Virginia Colony had concluded that Carrie and her mother, then a resident in an asylum, shared hereditary traits of “feeble-mindedness and sexual promiscuity”. As such, Carrie perfectly fitted the law’s description of a “probable parent of socially inadequate offspring”. The facts told a different story: Carrie Buck had been raped by a friend of her foster parents, and Vivian, the resulting illegitimate daughter, was on the honours roll in her elementary school class. But these things didn’t matter: now that the highest court in the land shared the opinion of the Virginia Colony, Carrie Buck would be forcibly sterilised.

This is not a vignette from the Salem witch trials, but rather from the America of the late 1920s. Industrial unrest, economic depression and overcrowding in the United States of the early 1900s had sparked a resentment of anyone regarded as hindering society’s progress. The fashionable “progressivism” of the time aimed to solve social problems by scientific means; certain scientists suggested that conditions could be eased by curbing the birth of defective individuals who would have to be cared for by the state.

In 1907, the world’s first law allowing compulsory sterilisation was passed in the state of Indiana. By 1924, around 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilised in the US, amid paranoia that southern and eastern European nations were deliberately sending to the US genetic defectives who had disproportionately high rates of mental illness, criminal behaviour and social dependency. Thus began a chapter in American history that most would like to forget.

Eugenics was a term coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, nephew of Charles Darwin. He perceived it as a moral obligation to improve humanity by encouraging the ablest and the healthiest to have more children – what is now described, rather glibly, as “positive” eugenics. The more sinister and virulent strain of the philosophy, “negative” eugenics, was ultimately to find its most nourishing home on the other side of the Atlantic.

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For many years, the beating heart of the American eugenics movement was the Eugenics Record Office, set up in 1910 at Cold Spring Harbour (incidentally the modern centre for research into the Human Genome Project) with a grant from Mary Harriman. She was later described by its founder, Charles Davenport, as “the principal patron of the ERO”. Mary was the wife of Edward Harriman, a well-known railroad magnate, and mother of Averell, the powerful Wall Street industrialist who, in 1921, decided to restart Germany’s Hamburg-Amerika Line, which became the world’s largest shipping line in the years leading up to the Second World War.

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In 1926, Averell Harriman welcomed a familiar name into his Wall Street firm (W A Harriman and Co) as senior partner – Prescott Bush, father to one American president and grandfather to another. The association was to end simultaneously in fabulous wealth and temporary ignominy – at the height of the Second World War, in 1942, the New York Herald Tribune reported that the Union Banking Corporation, of which Prescott Bush was a director and E Roland Harriman a 99 per cent shareholder, was holding a small fortune under the orders of Adolf Hitler’s financier. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, all of Union Banking Corporation’s capital stock was seized.

Perhaps the American who had the most influence on German policy after 1933 was Harry Laughlin, the publisher of the Model Eugenic Sterilisation Law in 1922, which led to the sterilisation of about 20,000 Americans by the mid-1930s. Laughlin’s law provided the blueprint for Nazi Germany’s statute of 1933, allowing for the legal sterilisation of more than 350,000 “undesirables”.

Laughlin’s influence on the American eugenics saga did not end there: in 1937, he became the first president of the Pioneer Fund, an organisation still dedicated to funding ideologically motivated research into the relationship between intelligence and race, and ultimately to “racial betterment”. Laughlin’s description of truth, common sense and responsibility as being “of a biological order” is still a maxim by which the Pioneer Fund abides.

The link between the Pioneer Fund eugenicists and the leading figures of the American political right continues today. William H Draper III was co-fundraising chairman for the 1980 “George Bush for president” campaign, and was president of the US Export-Import Bank under the Reagan and Bush administrations. Draper’s father was director of German Credit and Investment Corporation – and related to the founder of the Pioneer Fund, Wickliffe Draper. This association between eugenics and the American right also infiltrated the Christian right. In 1972, Thomas Ellis, a close political associate of Jessie Helms, helped Helms to become senator for North Carolina. Helms went on to become the standard-bearer for the political wing of Christian fundamentalism in the US, and Ellis to become a director of the Pioneer Fund from 1973-77. These ostensibly curious bedfellows were soon to come into the orbit of the ambitious actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, when Ellis became North Carolina state chairman for the 1976 Reagan campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

In 1983, Reagan nominated Ellis to a position on a government board, but Ellis was forced to withdraw after his Pioneer Fund background was revealed in the media. This was not before he devised an infamous American campaign advertisement showing a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection notice, with a voice-over condemning the affirmative action that had lost the speaker his potential job. Ellis still maintains that one race might be genetically superior to the others, and bemoans the fact that “there is such a huge cry about the thing, you can’t have a legitimate, intelligent argument about it”.

The baton of right-wing genetic determinism has been passed to worthy successors in the 1990s and the current decade, notably the scientist and academic Charles Murray. His bestselling book The Bell Curve asserted the intellectual inferiority of black Americans to white Americans, and argued that economic inequality is simply a ratification of genetic justice. Murray repeatedly quoted sources such as J Philippe Rushton, an academic from Ontario who has received more than $700,000 from the Pioneer Fund, and who has argued that eugenics could stave off the threat that black fertility poses to “north European” civilisation. Murray also cited the work of William Shockley, the infamous former Stanford University professor who proposed a “bonus plan” in the 1970s, in which welfare recipients with below-average IQs would be paid to undergo sterilisation.

Murray’s ideas are politically important because they have been endorsed by figures close to George W Bush. Dick Cheney and Elaine Chao, vice-president and secretary of labour respectively, have had links to organisations that patronised Murray. However, the strongest and most important proponent of Murray’s eugenic philosophy within the Bush cabinet has been Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services.

Thompson was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1986, and in 1995 instituted a radical welfare scheme known as W-2 (Wisconsin Works). Charles Murray acted as consultant to Thompson on this scheme, which succeeded in slashing by 92 per cent the number of people in the state receiving welfare. The human costs, however, were immense: infant mortality rose by 17.6 per cent in Milwaukee (the biggest city in Wisconsin, with a population of 600,000) in the first year of the new programme; in the black community, the rate rose by 37 per cent.

The implication that more subtle alternatives to sterilisation have recently been considered by eugenicists is borne out by the statements of Frederick Osborn. Osborn, a former president of the American Eugenics Society and director of the Pioneer Fund, co-founded the Population Council, a powerful international organisation that, in its latter-day incarnation, conducts studies into biomedics and public health. In correspondence with his co-founder John D Rockefeller, Osborn wrote: “Birth control and abortion are turning out to be major eugenic steps. But if they had been advanced for eugenic reasons . . . [that] would have retarded or stopped their acceptance.”

Perhaps more surprising still is the eugenic philosophy advocated by the feminist icon Margaret Sanger, the inspiration behind Planned Parenthood. Sanger called for the sterilisation of “genetically inferior races” in her 1922 tome Pivot of Civilisation. The Sanger Institute, which has not sought to distance itself from Margaret Sanger, is now at the front line of research in the Human Genome Project.

The philosophy of eugenics may have become synonymous with the Third Reich. But there is plenty of evidence to show that it is accepted – and, indeed, supported – by many of the most powerful people and organisations in the present-day United States, including the family that has produced two American presidents.