War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race
by Edwin Black
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003
448 pp., $27
There have long been two schools of thought about how to deal with the poor. One school holds that the poor should, like the non-poor, be treated as individuals who can acquire the necessary skills to become productive citizens. A second school holds that the poor are different from the non-poor—they’re victims, with little or no chance of improving their lot without the sheltering hand of the state.
A more extreme branch of this second school believes the poor are genetically wired for failure, and it is from within its leadership that the ugliest chapter in the history of philanthropy emerged. From 1910-1940, so-called Progressives actively funded the eugenicists, people who systematically sterilized people they deemed tainted with criminal genes to keep them from reproducing. If the poor couldn’t be redeemed, the argument went, then they shouldn’t be born in the first place.
Edwin Black’s newest book, War Against the Weak, details the damage that eugenics caused in the United States and Europe. Black, an investigative journalist whose previous books have been about the Holocaust, charges that some of America’s major foundations “collaborated with the Department of Agriculture and numerous state agencies in an attempt to breed a new race of Nordic humans, applying the same principles used to breed cattle and corn. The names speak power and prestige: the Carnegie Institution (Editor’s note: not to be confused with the philanthropic foundation the Carnegie Corporation), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Harriman railroad fortune.”
In America, eugenicists scored their greatest successes between the mid-1920s and 1940. The 1927 United States Supreme Court decision in Buck vs. Bell declared sterilization of “imbeciles” constitutional. As a result, some 60,000 women were forcibly sterilized between 1927 and 1965. In addition, Black shows that eugenicists had a substantial role in shaping the Immigration Act of 1924, which drastically restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe while keeping immigration from “Nordic” countries such as Germany and Great Britain relatively open.
State governments proved most persuasive to eugenic arguments. State public health officers conducted most to the involuntary sterilizations. And some state officials, particularly in the South, combined eugenics arguments with more traditional racism in an effort to outlaw “unfit” marriages between blacks and whites. Under the commonwealth of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, for example, racial investigations of brides and grooms were common. The act, which prevented scores of marriages between whites and blacks and whites and Asians remained in force until 1967.
The federal government played a lesser role. Eugenicists did receive some grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and traveled under diplomatic passports to attend international conferences. Other agencies offered advice, but not money. Only the U.S. Census Bureau resisted eugenicists, by blocking their efforts to have Census forms include a classification for low-intelligence “socially inadequate” Americans.
Eugenics also permeated the extensive writings of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger, a fellow-traveler in the eugenics movement, repeatedly advised donors not to help the poor. In Pivot of Civilization (1922), Sanger declared that “organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease.” The growth of charity, Sanger declared, was “the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and dependents.” Sanger continued her eugenically inspired war against the poor until the 1950s.
What role did foundations play in funding the eugenics movement? Here Black provides some partial answers. But because he fails to carefully trace how much foundation money went to eugenics-practicing organizations, and how much of that was actually applied to eugenics issues, we cannot determine with precision how guilty foundations were.
We do know that foundations supported eugenics in two major ways. The first was aid for the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), based in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Created in 1910, the ERO did not fund any medical experiments, but published research (most famously of a family it called the “Kallikaks”) that claimed to prove that feeblemindedness and criminality were inheritable. ERO staff members furiously networked with eugenicists in other countries, particularly Germany.
The ERO’s principal patron was Mary Harriman, widow of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman (and mother of diplomat Averell Harriman). Between 1910-1925, Mary Harriman gave the ERO 80 acres of land in Long Island and grants, which, in this period, appear to have amounted to $800,000. In addition, the Rockefeller Foundation gave a small annual grant of $6,000 for some years as well as a one-time grant of $10,000. In 1917, Mary Harriman donated the ERO’s property and $300,000 to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which was founded by Andrew Carnegie to conduct scientific research. The ERO remained a division of the Carnegie Institution until it was shut down in 1939.
Unfortunately, Black does not show who paid for the ERO after 1925, or what percentage of the Carnegie Institution’s budget went to eugenics. Nor does Black provide any evidence from Carnegie Institution archives about why they supported the ERO for so long. He does, however, offer evidence that Carnegie’s relationship with the ERO wasn’t naive.
Eugenics Record Office director Harry Laughlin, working independently of Carnegie Institution, edited Eugenical News, the principal newspaper of the eugenics movement. Carnegie money did not fund Eugenical News, but most of the ERO staff wrote for it. Eugenical News enthusiastically backed German eugenics schemes, and from 1923 onwards the paper called itself a “current record of race hygiene,” and summarized German-and later, Nazi-eugenics experiments.
In 1935, after Laughlin declared the Nuremberg Laws (which stripped Jews of German citizenship) to be scientifically sound, Carnegie Institution investigators raided the ERO and found that the half-million files the ERO collected were “relatively worthless for genetic study.” The investigators ordered that the ERO begin to shut down and that no Carnegie staff work on Eugenical News. Despite this order, nothing happened for four years. During this time, Laughlin accepted an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University for being “a champion of the eugenic sterilization.” In 1937 the ERO was the American distributor of Erbkrank (The Hereditarily Diseased) a film produced by the Nazi Party’s Race Policy Office, which claimed that hard-working Nordics were forced to live in slums because their taxes went to lavish facilities for “the feebleminded.” These pro-Nazi activities proved too much for Carnegie, which finally shut down the ERO in 1939.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s support of German genetics in the 1930s was more generous than the Carnegie Institution’s eugenics funding. Throughout the 1920s and prior to Nazism, Rockefeller funded several loosely connected German scientific research organizations (all of which were named the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute). Several of these institutes later lent much of their resources to supervise Nazi eugenic experiments.
In 1930 the Rockefeller Foundation decided to assist German scientists devastated by the Great Depression by creating the Emergency Fund for German Science (later renamed the German Research Society), a pass-through agency. After 1933, the foundation decided to protect itself from charges that it funded anti-Semitic organizations by giving most of its German aid to the emergency fund, which then gave grants to individuals rather than institutions.
However, evidence Black uncovered suggests that the foundation had little control over how its money was used once it was inside Germany. He documents that in October 1934 that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry took Rockefeller money intended for research in blood chemistry and gave the funds to Ernst Rudin to support his eugenics research. The Rockefeller Foundation should have cut off all aid to German institutions that did such rediversions, and prevented Nazi scientists from getting Rockefeller money.
Another dubious Emergency Fund for German Science grantee was Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer. Verschuer’s protege and colleague was Josef Mengele, who continued Verschuer’s experiments on twins by plucking Jewish twins from the gas chambers and torturing them.
Here, Rockefeller Foundation officials are guilty at least of not doing due diligence on their grantees. Verschuer, for example, joined the Nazi Party in 1924, and published several racist and anti-Semitic articles before 1933. Rockefeller Foundation program officers should have stopped grants from going to Nazi scientists. In addition, because of the fungibility of grantmaking, Rockefeller aid allowed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes to divert more money to eugenics research.
But Black does not just claim that the Rockefeller Foundation was negligent. He charges that in the 1930s, “while openly eschewing eugenics with statements and memos, Rockefeller openly turned to eugenicists and race scientists throughout the biological sciences to achieve the goal of creating a superior race.”
His principal pieces of evidence are two memoranda by Warren Weaver, a science program officer for Rockefeller. In 1933 Weaver wrote that Rockefeller’s “work in human genetics” should be a “basic and long-range” program. A year later, Weaver asked whether “We can develop so sound and extensive a genetics that we can hope to breed, in the future, superior men?”
Black does not tell us who this memo supporting “superior men” was written for, or if it was acted upon. Moreover, Rockefeller explicitly stated from 1933 onwards that it was not funding eugenics. Given that the Rockefeller Foundation Archives are some of the best documented of any foundation, and that Black’s exhaustive research found only one sentence in one memorandum explicitly supporting the “breeding” of “superior men,” it is far more plausible that the Rockefeller Foundation was very negligent in its support of German eugenicists than that it conducted a secret eugenics program that, unlike every other program it funded, remains undocumented and unrecorded.
In the end, Black fails to answer several other important questions about eugenics funders. First, we do not learn who supported Eugenical News. And second, we get no information about two alleged eugenics funders that Black briefly mentions—philanthropist Cleveland H. Dodge and the Dodge Foundation, and the Race Betterment Foundation, created by cereal magnate John Kellogg. He does not tell us how large these foundations were or how much they gave to eugenics. He doesn’t even tell us if the Race Betterment Foundation evolved into the Human Betterment Foundation, an organization which funded eugenicists in the 1930s.
Black should have also expanded his section on the postwar population control movement, which received about ten times more money than the eugenicists ever did from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. It is clear that, at least in the 1950s, the population controllers were carefully disguised eugenicists. Black shows some connections between the two movements, but his section on population control suffers from not exploring further the historic link to eugenicists.
Donors can learn two lessons from Edwin Black’s important book. Treat the poor as hopeless people, and you may be tempted to walk the same road as the eugenicists. Far better to treat the poor as individuals and to help provide the necessary tools needed to pull themselves out of poverty.
Second, make sure your grantees don’t have skeletons in their closets. The evidence suggests that the Rockefeller Foundation’s support of Nazi eugenicists was unthinking rather than deliberate, but someone should have questioned the grants, particularly those of Ernst Rudin, who continued to receive indirect Rockefeller aid after earlier direct grants were publicly denounced by Jewish groups. Before making a grant, a donor should ask himself, “Is this how I want to be remembered?” Rash grantmaking may leave a donor with a philanthropic legacy as tainted as Mary Harriman’s.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Great Philanthropists, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.