Turns Out America Pioneered Eugenics Before The Nazis Used It

Eugenics didn’t start with the Nazis. In fact, the Nazis learned from eugenics in the US. American eugenics pioneered laws that denied people’s human rights in the name of the greater social good – using the pseudo-science of eugenics as a justification. Just like the “science” of phrenology was completely racist, eugenics targeted “undesirable” Americans, including the poor, immigrants, and the Jewish people. 

Is it any surprise that the Nazis learned the history of eugenics from Americans? One American eugenicist, Harry Laughlin, was even sending letters to Nazi scientists about sterilization laws. The dark history of eugenics in America included the sterilization of at least 60,000 people—which continued in Virginia until 1979. 

The eugenics movement was so popular in the United States that some surprising people supported it—even Hellen Keller supported eugenics. And the justification used by Americans—and the Supreme Court—to violate people’s human rights is disturbing. 

  • Hitler Got The Idea For Eugenics From The United States
    Photo: Roto3'14 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

    Hitler Got The Idea For Eugenics From The United States

    When most people hear the word “eugenics,” they think of a few very specific individuals, like Hitler or Josef Mengele and the experiments he conducted. But most people don’t realize that the idea of eugenics actually came from the United States.

    The Fuhrer himself made that clear in “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925. He wrote, “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

    Hitler was praising America particularly for its sterilization laws—and when his party took power in 1933, one of the first things they did was pass their own sterilization laws, modeled from the ones in the United States.

  • Eugenics Promised That Science Could Improve Society
    Photo: Second International Congress of Eugenics / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eugenics Promised That Science Could Improve Society

    What is eugenics? According to Francis Galton, who coined the term in 1883, the word simply means “good genes,” but it was linked with human breeding from the start. In the early twentieth century, Americans from all political persuasions believed that eugenics was a cutting-edge science that could improve society. Just as farmers could improve livestock through selective breeding, humans could direct their own genetic progeny to improve the human race.

    The logo for the Second International Congress of Eugenics, held in 1921, made that clear. "Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution," it declared. Eugenics drew on genetics, biology, sociology, and medicine to make humanity stronger. And eugenics was mainstream science at the time––the Congress was held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

  • American Eugenics Argued That The Government Should Encourage The "Fit" To Procreate
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    American Eugenics Argued That The Government Should Encourage The "Fit" To Procreate

    From the beginning, eugenics was sold as a tool to help society. And early on, some of the uses, including tax incentives or birth bonuses, were given to encourage the “right” people to procreate. “Better Babies Contests” handed out trophies to human children. In fact, the contests were often held at state fairs. Similarly, "fitter family" contests rewarded "fit" Americans for procreating. 

    Science, eugenics promised, could direct human evolution and improve humanity. But there was also a dark side to the eugenics movement that tried to stop “unfit” people from procreating.

  • Eugenicists Declared That Some Americans Were Simply A Drag On Society
    Photo: Frank Moss / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eugenicists Declared That Some Americans Were Simply A Drag On Society

    Eugenicists argued that many social problems had a genetic cause. The first head of the Eugenics Record Office, Charles Davenport, published a study trying to show that politeness, selfishness, and disobedience were all genetic traits. Others went even further, arguing that “shiftlessness” could be inherited, causing future generations to be poor. In the early 20th century, feeblemindedness, sexual immorality, and even criminality were linked to genes. Girls as young as nine were subject to these procedures.

    According to these arguments, “bad genes” were a social problem—and society had a responsibility to stop them. As Charles Eliot wrote in The New York Times in 1915, “society must concern itself not chiefly with the isolation, temporary or permanent, of the individual murderer, thief, or forger, but with the extermination or repair of the genetic, educational, or industrial defects which cause the production of criminals.”

    And when it came to exterminating “genetic defects,” there were two options: sterilization or euthanasia. 

  • Some Americans Were “Unredeemed," Which Implied Society Should Stop Them From Procreating
    Photo: Virginia Board of charities and corrections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Americans Were “Unredeemed," Which Implied Society Should Stop Them From Procreating

    In 1915, a eugenicist named Eugene Estabrook studied a sprawling family of upstate New Yorkers, called the Jukes. In 1877, a sociologist named Richard Dugdale had studied the same family, tracing their records from seven generations of Jukes. Dugdale estimated that this one family had cost the state of New York over a million dollars. But where Dugdale blamed poverty and public health, Estabrook declared that the family had a “criminal gene.”

    No amount of public welfare programs could “save” the Jukes, according to Estabrook and the eugenicists. They were, Estabrook wrote in a report published by the Eugenics Record Office, “unredeemed.” And worse, because the problem was genetic it would never change—they would always be that way. 

    Eugenicists began to argue that “unfit” people like the Jukes had to be stopped at any cost—all in the name of saving the state money.

  • Eugenics Was Used By Congress To Stop Immigrants At Ellis Island
    Photo: Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eugenics Was Used By Congress To Stop Immigrants At Ellis Island

    By 1917, Congress tried to ban immigrants who were “likely to become a public charge,” including “idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons” and more. In 1920, Congress got a major boost from eugenicist Laughlin, who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Laughlin claimed that immigrants were polluting the “American” gene pool. In particular, Laughlin pointed at eastern European and southern European immigrants, along with Jewish immigrants, as genetically inferior.

    The Immigration Act of 1924 was based in part on Laughlin’s eugenics argument, and it placed stringent caps on southern and eastern European immigrants. Using eugenics as a justification, the law targeted ethnic groups deemed “inferior." When he signed the act into law, President Calvin Coolidge declared, “America must remain American."

    In 2015, Senator Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 eugenics law as “good for America.”