In his 1910 textbook, Elementary Principles of Economics, world-renowned Yale Professor Irving Fisher devoted part of a chapter to “Population in Relation to Wealth.” Fisher warned of the problem of “race suicide” caused by the fact that the most industrious and productive members of society tended to have fewer children than those belonging to lower racial and social groups. “If the vitality or vital capital is impaired by a breeding of the worst and a cessation of the breeding of the best, no greater calamity could be imagined.” But he was pleased to point out:
A method of attaining the contrary result — namely, reproducing from the best and suppressing reproduction from the worst — has been suggested by the late Sir Francis Galton of England, under the name of “eugenics.” This movement, which promises to become a strong one, aims to prevent (by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operations) the possibility of the propagation of feeble-minded and certain other classes of defectives and degenerates, also to develop a public sentiment which shall condemn marriages in which either husband or wife has a transmissible disease, or any inheritable taint of epilepsy, insanity, etc., or is otherwise unfit to become a parent.
And in his 1911 textbook, Principles of Economics, in the chapter on “Population,” Harvard Professor Frank W. Taussig noted:
More and more thought has been given of late years to the strange contrast between our care in breeding animals and our carelessness in breeding men. . . . Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites. . . . The human race could be immensely improved in quality, and its capacity for happy living immensely increased, if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying. . . . More light will come in time from what is called eugenics; that is, from systematic inquiry as to the transmittal of inborn and acquired traits from generation to generation, with a view to the possibilities of selection and breeding.
Professor Taussig did admit that “it is difficult to conceive any such system which would not imply the sacrifice of present happiness of countless individuals, for the sake of a cold and distant ideal of ultimate racial improvement.”
The significance of these passages is that two of America’s most respected economists of the time found it appropriate to basically endorse the idea of racial breeding and control in standard economics textbooks. It is one indication of how widespread such notions had become in the first decades of the 20th century.
The modern eugenics movement began with Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s. The guiding premise was that genetic background influenced the mental and physical development of both individuals and racial and social groups. Science, it was believed, would enable a discovery of those genetic “types” in humans that represented racial and social degeneracy as well as those representing racial and social improvement. Wise laws and state power could then see to it that the racially and socially undesirable were prevented from propagating more of their “inferior types” through methods such as forced sterilization. At the same time, incentives and sexual breeding techniques could induce the genetically superior to increase their numbers and thus improve the race and the culture.
Beginning in 1907, with legislation passed in Indiana, forced sterilization on the basis of eugenic doctrine began spreading across the United States, with finally thirty states having such laws on the books. In this century, upwards of 50,000 Americans have been sterilized by order of the state. The constitutionality of such compulsion was upheld in 1927, when the case Buck vs. Bell went before the Supreme Court. With only one dissent, the court said, in a majority opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:
It is better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
The court, in other words, went beyond saying that a person is guilty until proven innocent; it declared that hypothetical persons were presumed guilty of criminal intent even before being conceived and may not be brought into existence. The 1927 decision has never been overturned, and is still a part of the law of the land.
After World War II, German lawyers defending those accused of being Nazi war criminals for having forcibly sterilized two million people as a part of Nazi racial doctrine pointed to the sterilization laws in America and the 1927 Supreme Court decision as justification for their clients’ conduct.
In his recent book, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism, Stefan Kühl traces the relationships between the Nazi racial theorists and members of the American eugenics movement in the 1930s. American eugenicists and German advocates of “racial hygiene” were already communicating and sharing ”scientific” information before the First World War. The conflict in Europe, and particularly American entry into the war against Germany, broke off all such ties. But shortly after the war’s end, contacts began to reemerge, with their American colleagues being especially helpful in getting German eugenicists accepted back into their community of scholars.
Throughout the 1920s, the German proponents of racial sterilization drew upon the arguments of their American counterparts, using data the American eugenicists had collected to justify the case for distinguishing between “superior” and “inferior” racial types; they also made the case that America was more enlightened and progressive in its racial policies, since numerous American states had passed sterilization laws, while German law was “backward” in its narrow defense of individual rights that frustrated equivalent German legislation.
With Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, Germany’s racial hygienists came into their own, with institutes for race science and research being established or expanded. They solicited articles by many of the leading American eugenicists for their “scholarly” journals, translated many of their works into German, and gave them wide distribution. The Nazis used these American books and articles to demonstrate that they were not alone in the world in advocating compulsory racial improvement and purity.
A number of American eugenicists happily cooperated. Harry L. Laughlin, who authored the “model” sterilization law for Virginia that was then copied by several other states, saw his proposals explicitly implemented in Germany’s 1933 Hereditary Health Law, that prohibited racial intermarriage and codified forced sterilization in the new Germany. As a tribute, the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree in 1936, which he enthusiastically accepted.
Even in the late 1930s and early 1940s, some American eugenics publications refused to criticize Nazi race policy in general or legal persecution of the Jews in particular. Some of the leading eugenicists argued that to do so would be to unjustifiably mix science with politics. But in 1942, American eugenicist T. U. H. Ellinger published an article in the Journal of Heredity, in which he said that after a visit to Germany in 1939-1940, it was clear to him that Nazi treatment of the Jews was merely “a large-scale breeding project, with the purpose of eliminating from the nation the hereditary attributes of the Semitic race” and eugenic science “can undoubtedly assist them in carrying out a reasonably correct labeling of every doubtful individual. The rest remains in the cruel hands of the S.S., the S.A. and the Gestapo.”
In 1940, another leading American eugenicist, Lothrop Stoddard, said, after spending four months in Germany, that the Nazis were “weeding out the worst strains in the Germanic stock in a scientific and truly humanitarian way” and that the “Jews problem” was “already settled in principle and soon to be settled by the physical elimination of the Jews themselves from the Third Reich.” Stoddard had even sat in on some cases of the German Hereditary Supreme Court and helped the judges reach a positive verdict for sterilization concerning, “An ‘apelike’ man with receding forehead and flaring nostrils who had a history of homosexuality and was married to a ‘Jewess’ by whom he had three ‘ne’er-do-well children.’”
Professor Kühl emphasizes that by the end of the 1930s a sizable number of American eugenicists began to differentiate between what they considered their own scientific studies and the racialism of the Nazi regime. And a growing number refused to have anything to do with their German counterparts. They believed that Nazi practice was prejudicing their own work in the eyes of the international community of scholars. But the fact remains that the American eugenics movement, the compulsory sterilization laws in thirty states, and the 1927 Supreme Court decision served as powerful legitimizers for Nazi racial theory and practice. As the German journal Grossdeutscher Pressdienst declared in 1936, “[F]or us Germans it is especially important to know and to see how one of the biggest states in the world with Nordic stock [the U.S.] already has race legislation which is quite comparable to that of the German Reich.”