Swans Commentary » swans.com December 5, 2011  



Eugenic Propaganda, Old And New
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - December 5, 2011)   Members of the ruling class are well aware that eugenics is a powerful weapon of social control, and contrary to the widespread misconception that the science of eugenics fell into disrepute after its genocidal application in the Nazi holocaust, it still has a central place in capitalist management strategies. Far from having a marginal impact on politics, over the last century eugenic ideas have permeated all manner of American institutions. However, as a result of the Nazis' association with the techniques of propaganda and eugenics, the continued use of these ideological weapons required a complete overhaul of the language used to describe them. In the case of political propaganda, crude signifiers like propaganda were substituted with public relations, while research into psychological warfare was recast as mass communications research. (1) Likewise, in the aftermath of World War II, references to the utility of eugenics were rapidly eliminated from scholarly discourses in both Britain and America, and the nightmarish policies of eugenics were allegedly vanquished to make way for the more congenial politics of genetics and demographics. Furthermore, we are assured that from 1930 onwards many eugenicists had already distanced themselves from the negative eugenics showcased by the Nazis, replacing their practice with a positive eugenics -- which was otherwise referred to as reform eugenics.

Some historians would thus have us believe that the "old" racist eugenics of American folklore were supplanted with a "new" benign form of eugenics, more befitting of a democratic polity. But as this article demonstrates, a critical interpretation of the relevant facts casts doubts upon the validity of what is ultimately a convenient cover story for capitalism. Indeed, given that in recent decades there has been a "resurgence of support for eugenics among respected academics," it is vitally important to understand how this reemergence has happened. Thankfully, Barry Alan Mehler's Ph.D. thesis, "A History of the American Eugenics Society, 1921-1940," (2) sheds much needed light on this controversial issue, roundly debunking the naive notion that America's leading eugenicists significantly revised their views during the 1930s. Instead, he argues, it would be more accurate to say that they were forced, by changes in popular opinion, to alter their rhetoric and thereby pursue more democratic-sounding strategies to implement what were essentially the same eugenic goals. This means that contrary to the misleading impression given by most other historians, the ruling class's commitment to eugenics never really ended. (3) Far from it, it appears that for all intents and purposes these elites succeeded in institutionalizing their eugenic beliefs into the American political establishment -- a success that has laid the groundwork for the reemergence of eugenic policies today. As Mehler writes, his...

... study stresses the fundamental continuity and coherence in the history of eugenics as a corrective to an oversimplified division of the movement into "old" and "new". This is not to deny historical development. Significant evolution did take place in the American eugenics movement, but that evolution was not from a "bad" eugenics to a "good" eugenics nor was the eugenics of the 1930s a repudiation of the older eugenics. (p.21)

However, before launching into the significance of this so-called transition from "old" eugenics to "new" eugenics, it is necessary to first describe what the "old" eugenics movement actually stood for.

Although it initially went by another name, the American Eugenics Society was first organized in late 1921 by the executive committee of the Second International Congress of Eugenics. Held at the American Museum of Natural History, the Congress "was an impressive affair attended by over 300 delegates from around the world," and presiding over the Congress was the longstanding president of the Museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was one of most popular and well-known scientists in America... albeit a racist and anti-Semite. (4)

Osborn set the tone for the Conference in his opening address. He declared that "education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values." America, he argued, was "engaged in a serious struggle" to maintain her republican institutions that were threatened by immigrants who were "unfit to share the duties and responsibilities" of democracy. It was imperative for the state to "safeguard the character and integrity of the race or races on which its future depends." (p.46)

Although both Osborn and the corporate media were enamored by notable visiting dignitaries such as Georges Vacher de Lapouge (who was "one of the fathers of European Aryan ideology"), eugenics in America already represented the "largest and best funded" movement of its kind in the world -- attracting the support of a variety of powerful funding agencies like the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Rockefeller Foundation, and John Harvey Kellogg's Race Betterment Foundation. Other institutions at the forefront of this movement included the Eugenics Record Office, the Eugenics Research Association, and the Galton Society, all three of which were closely "interlocked" with the American Eugenics Society (AES). However, the newly formed AES differed from the former organizations through its emphasis on "political and educational goals rather than research and information exchange among professionals." Fittingly, the Society "had more money than it could use" and it's budget for 1925 was $17,000, ten thousand of which came from the pocket of George Eastman and five thousand from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (with both repeating these donations the following year). (5)

During its early years, the activities of the AES were clearly associated with policies that focused on negating the alleged impact of dysgenic breeding stock in the working class, which by some estimates was suggested to impact around ten percent of the American population. This was referred to as negative eugenics, and their goals were pursued through policies that focused on legislative changes concerning forced sterilization and immigration. This is not to say that eugenic programs that centered on positive eugenics were not promoted during this time, just that the overwhelming focus of the eugenics movement was on negative eugenics. In this regard, one of the early successes of the movement was to ensure the passing of the notorious 1924 Immigration Act.

According to some scholars, the movement's emphasis on negative eugenics was just a passing phase that was subsequently dropped in the 1930s when they saw the moral bankruptcy of their earlier ways, but this seems unlikely. Instead it appears that while significant political changes did take place in the 1930s, the leaders of the American Eugenics Society remained firmly committed to negative eugenics, but felt it necessary to disguise their commitment to class warfare with the popular rhetoric of positive eugenics. In many ways these "changes" mirrored the evolving social engineering requirements of the elements of the ruling class that held the movement's purse strings, as:

By the mid-twenties a new direction was emerging within the Rockefeller foundations, which was to influence the AES in the early thirties. The tendency was to move away from projects that aimed at the "root cause" of social problems and to support projects that focused on rationalizing the institutions of social control. For example, the [Rockefeller-funded] Bureau of Social Hygiene began its work in 1914 by investigating the biological "root causes" of crime with an eye towards eliminating crime via sterilization and segregation of criminals. This approach was abandoned by the mid-twenties when funding turned to ballistics and fingerprint identification studies as well as studies of European Police systems. Thus, there was a tendency to reject the notion that eugenics could solve problems such as crime, pauperism, and feeblemindedness. This did not mean that eugenics was not useful in social policy formation particularly in the area of population management.

The Rockefeller Foundations continued to fund eugenic projects but the new projects tended to emphasize migration patterns, resource potentials, differential fertility, and human migration patterns as well as sophisticated attitudinal studies regarding family planning and birth control. These studies were obviously much more useful for planning ongoing projects including planning for regional development. Thus, the new eugenics studies funded by the Rockefeller foundations were much broader in scope and aimed not so much at improving the germ plasm but at industrial needs and resource potentials. This broader scope did not preclude concerns over the quality of the germ plasm, but encompassed them. (6)

Eugenic concerns have always been closely aligned to the reproductive worries of Rockefeller-backed "reformers" (like, for instance, Margaret Sanger), and by 1929 the American Eugenics Society "had come to accept and vigorously promote birth control and population control"; so much so that in 1931 former AES president Henry P. Fairchild (1929-30) and "then president of the Population Association of America, [unsuccessfully] proposed that the AES, the Birth Control League, and the Population Association merge into one organization." (7) In fact, although Fairchild was one of the original incorporators of the Society, he was a "strong advocate of the sociological view of eugenics, [and] he came to be a key critic of the genetic determinism of [Charles] Davenport" that maintained a powerful influence on the Society. But Fairchild's differences should not be overstated, as "While his perspective on the importance of genetics to the eugenics program differed from previous presidents of the Society, his view of the goals and methods of eugenics was substantially the same as his predecessors'." "For the most part" those eugenicists who became interested in population control in the thirties "saw the two movements as complementary." (8)


[Continue to Part II of this essay.]


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Hitler professed an admiration for the British and American's pioneering efforts in manipulating public opinion during World War I, and in the wake of the killing fields German elites were both intrigued and guided by British and American commitments to eugenic solutions to the ubiquitous problem of class warfare.  (back)

2.  Barry Alan Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, 1921-1940, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, 1988, p.8. (Mehler's Ph.D. adviser was Richard Burkhardt, Jr.) Mehler is a professor of Humanities at Ferris State University and the director of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, which he founded in 1991.  (back)

3.  According to Mehler, "the new eugenics of the 1930s differs significantly from the portrait of the new eugenics sketched by Mark Haller, Kenneth Ludmerer, and Daniel Kevles. I believe these historians were misled by Frederick Osborn, and more subtly by an unconscious Whiggism that views the development of genetics as progress and assumes that the racism of the early eugenics movement was an aberration." Mehler adds: "It was [Frederick Osborn's] sensitivity to the vulnerability of eugenics, especially after the Holocaust, that led him to rewrite the history of pre-war eugenics." Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.127, p.128.  (back)

4.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.36, p.37. Other key individuals who went on to play a central role in the American Eugenics Society who took on leading roles at the Second International Congress of Eugenics were Madison Grant (who acted as treasurer of the Congress), the Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office, Harry Laughlin (who was in charge of exhibits), and Lothrop Stoddard (who was in charge of publicity).  (back)

5.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.51, p.40, p.61, pp.82-3. The initial members of the Society (circa 1922) were Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, Charles Davenport, Irving Fisher, Harry Olson, Henry Crampton, and Clarence C. Little. (p.63) In 1923, Harry Laughlin joined the Society's board of directors, and when the Society became incorporated in 1926 Henry P. Fairchild joined their board.

Three notable individuals with particularly strong foundation connections who served on the American Eugenic Society's 99-person strong advisory council (from 1923 until it was disbanded in 1935) were Steward Paton, who was a trustee of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; John C. Merriam, who was president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (1920-38); and Ray Lyman Wilbur, who was president of Stanford University and secretary of the Interior under Herbert Hoover, a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation (1923-40) and the Rockefeller General Education Board (1930-40), and president of the American Social Hygiene Association (1936-48).  (back)

6.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, pp.102-3. In 1931, the Rockefeller Foundation began funding the National Research Council's Committee for Research in Problems of Sex where their focus was initially on "fertility control"; and in 1932, "the Macy Foundation began a series of grants to Dr. Gregory Pincus for his work on ovulation which eventually led to the development of the birth control pill." Princeton University then set up their Office of Population Research in 1936 with a $250,000 grant from the Milbank Memorial Fund. Indicative of this trend, in 1935, the cofounder of the Scripps Foundation for Research in Population Problems, Warren S. Thompson, having spent some years working closely with Frederick Osborn joined the American Eugenic Society's board of directors. (p.104)  (back)

7.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.96. For a useful overview of the connections between eugenicists, the "Population Lobby," and "Government's as Family Planners," see Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (Secker & Warburg, 1984). Greer writes: "It now seems strange that men who had been conspicuous in the eugenics movement were able to move quite painlessly into the population establishment at the highest level, but if we reflect that the paymasters -- Ford, Mellon, DuPont, Standard Oil, Rockefeller and Shell -- are still the same, we can only assume that people like Kingsley Davis, Frank W. Notestein, C.C. Little, E.A. Ross, the Osborns Frederick and Fairfield, Philip M. Hauser, Alan Guttmacher and Sheldon Segal were being rewarded for past services. The Population Reference Bureau, which had begun life collecting data for the racist Guy Burch's campaign against Non-Aryan immigration, simply expanded its field of operations and began issuing the Population Bulletin which still keeps people up to date on the precise degree of US population increase cause by immigration, legal and illegal. Frederick Osborn need have feared no conflict of interests when he set up the Population Council 'at the initiative of John D. Rockefeller III' in 1952." (pp.319-20)  (back)

8.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.97, p.169. In 1931, Fairchild "helped found the Population Association of America 'to organize, promote, and support research with respect to problems connected with human population in both its quantitative and qualitative aspects.' The officers of the new organization included Frederick Osborn, C.C. Little, Raymond Pearl, and Ellsworth Huntington." (p.101) Fairchild served as the president of the Population Association of America from 1931 until 1935, and several years later served as the vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federations (1939-48). (pp.168-9)  (back)


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Published December 5, 2011