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 And The Nazis Got The Idea For Eugenics From The United States
When most people hear the word “eugenics,” they think of the Nazis. Hitler. Josef Mengele. Horrible experiments with euthanasia. And the Nazis have rightly been condemned for their efforts to manipulate human genetics in the name of creating a master race. But most people don’t realize that Hitler and the Nazis got the idea for eugenics from the United States.
Hitler 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 the Nazis 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
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
From the beginning, eugenics was sold as a tool to help society. And early on, some of the uses were relatively benign—tax incentives or birth bonuses were given to encourage the “right” people to procreate. “Better Babies Contests” handed out trophies to human children as if they were prize-winning pigs at a state fair. 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
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 and death.