Swans Commentary » swans.com January 2, 2012  



Eugenic Propaganda, Old And New
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - January 2, 2012)   By 1931 the American Eugenics Society faced increasing internal pressure, partly caused by the Depression but also aggravated by a reorientation of major funding agencies, such that by the end of the year "the Society was nearly seven thousand dollars in debt." With dissension growing within their ranks, Leon Whitney (the Society's executive secretary) resigned, as did long-time board members Harry Laughlin, Charles Davenport, and Madison Grant -- although it is important to recognize that the AES's Committee on Selective Immigration continued to be "led by" Madison Grant and Harry Laughlin until 1935 (as it had been for the previous eleven years). (1) It was around this time that Frederick Osborn, a nephew of Henry Fairfield Osborn and a leading advocate of the sociological view of eugenics, "emerged as the new leader" of the American eugenics movement. (2)

Having already served on the AES's board of directors since 1928, Frederick, like his uncle, was a sophisticated power broker, and in addition to being a board member of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Milbank Memorial Fund, he...

... had numerous connections with executives of major east coast foundations. In May 1933, he wrote a revealing "Memorandum on the Eugenics Situation in the United States" for "the Rockefeller interests." In that memorandum he noted that the "rediscovery of Mendel... and the marvelous development of a science of genetics in the succeeding years distracted attention from the social and psychological studies necessary for a broad base in eugenics." (p.117)

Frederick was particularly worried "that eugenics propaganda was being disseminated that was not in line with the knowledge base of eugenics," and the one individual he was most concerned with was Charles Davenport -- an influential individual who having resigned from the AES board of directors in 1930 remained attached to their advisory council until it was broken up in 1935. In order to help force through his desired reforms for the AES and the Eugenics Research Association, Frederick's memo had "urged the Rockefeller Foundations to hold off funding eugenics projects until a clearer direction emerged." In writing this, Frederick made it clear that his preferred candidates for the proposed "new" leadership of the eugenics movement included Harry Laughlin, Henry P. Fairchild, and Henry F. Perkins, the latter of whom served as the Society's president between 1931 and 1934. With such powerful contacts it should come as little surprise that "By 1935 Osborn and his allies were able to take over the reigns of the Society." (3)

But what had really changed? Not much, it seems. "The changes that occurred in American eugenics between 1920 and 1940 were moderate changes, mostly accommodations to new knowledge, technology, and social conditions." For example, certain accommodations had to be made with respect to advances in genetics (which undermined the ideas of strict genetic determinism), but instead of reevaluating the legitimacy of their commitment to such eugenic ideas, "American eugenicists simply took a step back from the biological arguments, admitted the uncertainties of genetic inheritance, and rested their case for sterilization on a combination of sociological and genetic arguments." (4)

In 1940, Osborn published Preface to Eugenics, a college text book, which summed up the ideological changes that have come to be referred to as the "new" eugenics. The essential goal of eugenics remained the same: to control human reproduction to "cast out the worst" and "to continue the normal or superior." Thus, the basic program of positive and negative eugenics remained intact. (5)

So although Frederick's positioning in the Society is alleged to have brought about significant changes, he was very much a defender of the "old" negative eugenics, and while he "rejected the certainties of past eugenic pronouncements on race, he maintained all of the Society's anti-immigrant policies." This was hardly new. Indeed, when Frederick summarized a paper given by a visiting researcher at an American Eugenics Society conference in February 1937, he noted that "the German sterilization program is apparently an excellent one" and that "taken altogether, recent developments in Germany constitute perhaps the most important social experiment which has ever been tried." (6)

It should come as no surprise then that Frederick Osborn "vigorously defended the 'important studies' of Harry Laughlin, E.S. Gosney, and Paul Popenoe which advocated a vigorous role for widespread eugenic sterilization." In fact, Frederick and Laughlin "worked closely together in the thirties running the Eugenics Research Association and publishing the Eugenical News." Then in 1937, they went so far as to co-found the Pioneer Fund -- a controversial eugenic foundation financed by Wycliffe Draper that "supported the AES through the 1950s." The first project undertaken by the newly established Pioneer Fund "was to bring a Nazi eugenic propaganda film to America which was distributed to high schools and churches." (7) Thus it is appropriate that between 1937 and 1940 Frederick's "goals for eugenics... differed very little from those of Harry Laughlin in 1920" such that the two men had a "shared a vision of eugenics which was rooted in the 1920s." As Mehler rightly emphasizes, while there have been "many efforts... to distinguish Nazi eugenics from 'humane socialist eugenics,' 'new eugenics,' or 'reform eugenics' [such work] obscures the fundamental coherence of eugenic ideology in the United States and Germany in the thirties." (8)

Under Frederick Osborn's leadership, the approach taken to implement American eugenic programs had clearly changed, but the substance of the programs had not evolved in any significant sense. The 1920s pioneered legal strategies that focused on the passing of eugenic sterilization laws, and while many states did end up passing such laws, the laws were simply not being implemented. Social engineers, acting in the service of the ruling class, may have seen "eugenics as the ultimate reform but among the mass of the literate and voting population" such changes were considered "too radical." The 1930s thus heralded a major change in emphasis on the part of the eugenicists. Now the issue of race and class was avoided, and instead sterilization was described as a political right that should be freely available to all, rich or poor: eugenic policies were being integrated into the American Dream. Moreover, the American Eugenics Society now changed tack and "began to stress the benefits of sterilization for the individual sterilized rather than the necessity of sterilization for the society at large." But while "the ideal as stated by Osborn in 1940 was that every adult should be free to choose the size of family they wanted, this did not apply to those who were clearly hereditary defectives." (9)

In order to solve the problem of the millions of hereditary defectives that remained in America, it was deemed necessary that dysgenic elements of society should be adequately educated and/or provided with sufficient incentives (or disincentives as the case may be) to freely choose to be the beneficiaries of sterilization. (10) This approach was seen to be more in keeping with democratic rather than totalitarian politics, and the example of Sweden was quickly latched upon as a successful model for building a eugenic state. To be sure, social welfare programs were necessary to encourage genetically superior families to have larger families, but as the American Eugenics Society "saw it, the contemporary trend was to tax the eugenic elements to pay for the care of the dysgenic elements, and this was a trend that had to be reversed." Writing in 1939, Osborn emphasized how the right environment must be established for "a natural and unconscious process" favoring "those genetic types capable of developing their own culture to its highest point." Thus a particularly critical, albeit hidden, part of this new model of democratic eugenics "were social policies aimed at increasing the economic burden on elements of the community considered dysgenic." (11)

This, however, did not mean that American eugenics advocates abandoned their positions on immigration, miscegenation, and sterilization. They still believed that a tenth of the population required negative eugenics measures, including coercive sterilization. In fact, the American eugenicists of the mid-thirties stressed the need for much wider use of sterilization. They wanted sterilization to be freely available to the entire population. (p.304)


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1.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.217. "The passage of the 1924 immigration restriction act has generally been acknowledged by historians as one of the great successes of the early eugenics movement. Less well appreciated is the fact that eugenics leaders campaigned persistently for the extension of the quota system to the Western Hemisphere in the period 1924 to 1940. The AES was particularly concerned with the immigration of Mexicans into the Southwest. The tactics and arguments against Mexican immigration paralleled those used in the campaign against eastern and southern European immigration. This campaign was carried on throughout the period of the development of the so-called, 'new eugenics.'" (pp.184-5)  (back)

2.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.110. Others to resign around this time included C.G. Campbell (who resigned only months after being elected to the presidency), Mrs. Lucien Howe, and H.J, Banker. (p.110) "These resignations coincided with a shift in emphasis to a more sociological view of eugenics. But the sociological perspective was there all along as was the reform-minded leadership dominated by politically and socially progressive individuals. While some of the leaders of the AES were politically conservative, the dominant majority were politically progressive." (pp.139-40)  (back)

3.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.117, p.118. Mehler suggests that Perkins was made president in large part because of his intimate relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation. (p.102)  (back)

4.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.127, p.265.  (back)

5.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.119. Ironically Daniel Kevles, in his highly influential book, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Hereditary (Pelican Books, 1986), refers to Osborn's book and comes to completely the opposite conclusion; simply writing that in Preface to Eugenics, Osborn sought to "put the most attractive face possible on the reformist version" of eugenics. (p.175)  (back)

6.  Frederick Osborn cited in Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.223. One might add that a "major figure" in the Northern California branch of the Society was C.M. Goethe, who as "an admirer of Adolf Hitler, used his platform as president of the Eugenics Research Association between 1936 and 1937 to plead for support of Nazi eugenics." (p.136) Such praise was no anomaly, and as Mehler observes: "Support for the Nazi eugenics program was widespread within the American Eugenics Society leadership. The idea that in the 1930s support for Nazi eugenics was limited to a fringe element discredited in the legitimate world of science is patently false." (p.244)  (back)

7.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.114, p.115, p.245. In the 1920s, Charles Davenport became the first eugenicist to have his work funded by Draper. During the following decade Draper soon progressed to being "the principal source of financial support for a Klansman's crusade to have blacks repatriated to Africa." In 1937, Frederick Osborn became the founding secretary of Draper's Pioneer Fund, and when Harry Laughlin died in 1941 he went on to become the Fund's president. The Pioneer Fund's activities were then effectively put on hold until the end of World War II, during which Osborn was put in command of the U.S. Army's information and propaganda branch (otherwise known as the Morale Branch). The Fund's activities thus recommenced in earnest in 1947; and later that year Draper...

"... began to employ Bruce Wallace, a doctoral student at the time, later a well-known geneticist -- as a personal tutor in genetics. Recalling his experience with the 'wealthy Manhattanite' some decades later, Wallace said he found his pupil's 'intended use of ... genetic knowledge ... abhorrent.... Criminality ... was uppermost in his mind as a genetic trait. Needless to say, racial differences, in his opinion, were both hierarchical and genetically based,' and Draper became 'visibly agitated' when Wallace tried to disabuse him of these notions. The scientific facts were clear and indisputable to the Colonel, who wanted to devote his resources not so much to finance studies that would demonstrate white, northern European genetic superiority but to support projects that would use this presumptive fact as a point of departure and encourage policies to prevent the contamination of this superior group by inferior races, especially blacks." (p.55)

Despite his preference for a more moderate approach to eugenics, Osborn remained with the Fund until 1958 whereupon he felt forced to resign because of his political differences. That said, Osborn clearly sympathized with Draper's ambitions, and in the resignation letter he wrote to Draper (in 1956), Osborn wrote: "I still think that our ultimate aims are very similar, but I recognize that we go about them in such different ways that it is hard to find a common ground." Subsequent to Osborn's resignation, Draper chose Harry Frederick Weyher, Jr. to act as his replacement at the head of the Fund, and in the following decades -- especially after 1972 -- the Pioneer Fund went on to become "the primary resource for scientific racism" in the United States. Well-known racists who have benefited form the Fund's largesse have included Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, J. Philippe Rushton, William Shockley, Thomas Bouchard, Richard Hernstein, and Charles Murray. It should come as no surprise that "immigration reform" remained a significant concern of the Fund, and between 1982 and 2000 they provided almost $1.5 million to two such lobby groups: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the American Immigration Control Foundation. In 1995, the former group published a book titled The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons, by another famous Pioneer grant recipient, Garrett Hardin.

William Tucker, The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund (University of Illinois Press, 2002), p.24, p.8, p.9, p.188, p.189.  (back)

8.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.127, p.232. Harry Laughlin also "lent his expertise" to the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies (formed in 1927 by John B. Trevor) to enable their successful campaign "to keep what they called 'international sentimentality' from lowering the 1924 [Immigrant Act] bars against those few European Jews and anti-fascist Italians lucky enough to escape from the lands of applied eugenics." For a detailed examination of Laughlin's involvement in this horrific campaign, see Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (Random House, 1967). One might note that AES board member Irving Burch (1935-40), also "shared the racial views of John B. Trevor, [and] became one of the active leaders" in the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies. Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (Knopf, 1975), p.352, p.353, p.367. When Trevor died in 1956 the Coalition was taken over by his son, John B. Trevor Jr., who, soon after, became a board member of the Pioneer Fund.  (back)

9.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.283, p.120.  (back)

10.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.279. "While the literature still refers to 'inferior stocks' these were identified only as a generic category. This was somewhat ingenuous since the degenerates referred to were still within the usual groups. Thus, for example, the society still fought vigorously against Mexican immigration and still regarded degeneracy as being more frequent among the poor." (p.285) Likewise: "The 'problem' of 'differential fertility' was a code for the decline of white, Northern European stock." (p.285)  (back)

11.  Mehler, A History of the American Eugenics Society, p.289-90, p.293, p.303. "This model was not new but the demographic evidence of its success was quite important." (p.303)  (back)


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Published January 2, 2012