Forget the film, it’s the book you want to read: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a remarkable and inspiring story about Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survives a series of terrifying ordeals. However, early in the book my attention was drawn to Hillenbrand’s statement, that as a teenager in the 1930’s, Louie came close to being sterilized by the state of California, because “as a serial troublemaker, a failing student, and a suspect Italian, he was just the sort of rogue that eugenicists wanted to cull.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, America was reeling demographically from immigration, racial conflict and post-Reconstruction chaos. Government adopted the idea of scientifically managing both nature and society, a philosophy that came to be known as Progressivism, and as usual when politics and science are conjoined together, a monster was born. This view of science as reform, plus the newly discovered science of genetics, gave rise to eugenics, the racist pseudoscience that claimed to improve human populations through selective breeding and sterilization. If you think that the idea of breeding a blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermensch, first emerged under the German Nazi Party you’re mistaken. The concept originated in the United States decades before Hitler came to power, and many of Hitler’s worst atrocities, including gas chambers, were first legitimized by American eugenicists.
In 1911, a study funded by the prestigious Carnegie Institute, outlined eighteen possible ‘solutions’ to the problem of preventing gene pool pollution, including euthanasia, forced sterilization and geographical isolation. The most commonly suggested method for eugenicide in America was a “lethal chamber” or public locally operated gas chamber. Local gas chambers enjoyed the support of many liberals, such as the government chemist and Pure Food and Drug Act pioneer Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow, who said it was just to “chloroform unfit children…and show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” William J. Robinson, a New York urologist and leading authority on birth control, eugenics, and marriage, wrote that the best solution would be for society to “gently chloroform” the children of the unfit or “give them a dose of potassium cyanide.” Paul Popenoe, the leader of California’s powerful eugenics movement, also endorsed the lethal chamber, and in his popular college textbook Applied Eugenics, published in 1918, he states that: “From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution…Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.”
Hitler followed closely the progress of the American eugenics movement and even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant, calling his race-based eugenics book, The Passing of the Great Race:The Racial Basis of European History, his “bible”. In addition to providing the theoretical underpinning of eugenics, America funded many of Germany’s eugenic institutions. For example, Rockefeller gave a large grant to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin. At the time of the Rockefeller gift, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who later worked at Auschwitz, was head of the Institute. Verschuer had a long-time assistant called Josef Mengele, who subsequently became the infamous camp physician at Auschwitz known as the “Angel of Death”. It’s worth noting that during the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis referred to the work of American eugenicists and quoted Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in their defense: “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.”
After the landmark 1927 Supreme Court case which legitimized compulsory sterilization of the ‘unfit’, eugenics rapidly became public policy and it opened the doors to rampant discrimination against virtually anyone with an ‘undesirable’ trait: alcoholics, epileptics, rapists, the deaf, the depressed, certain criminals, ‘promiscuous’ women pregnant out of wedlock and poor men and women on welfare who were diagnosed as feeble-minded. 65,000 Americans were sterilized, often without their knowledge or consent, under the eugenics programs that operated during the 20th century, rendering untold generations extinguished from future existence. Even today, the practice has not been completely eradicated. A recent report shed light on the practice of female sterilization in California prisons during the period 2006-2010 when 148 women were sterilized illegally.
“In his last book, Mr. [H.G.] Wells speaks of the meaningless, aimless lives which cram this world of ours, hordes of people who are born, who live, yet who have done absolutely nothing to advance the race one iota. Their lives are hopeless repetitions. All that they have said has been said before; all that they have done has been done better before. Such human weeds clog up the path, drain up the energies and the resources of this little earth. We must clear the way for a better world; we must cultivate our garden.”
Margaret Sanger 1879-1921 Founder of Planned Parenthood