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Edwin Miller's War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a
Master Race represents a
challenge to all those who would plead for "American values" as being
inherently more moral than those of the rest of the world. In pained, at times almost excruciating
detail, Miller creates a picture of the extent to which prominent figures in
American life, ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Margaret Sanger, along with
such established American institutions as the Carnegie Institute and the Rockefeller
Foundation, invested time, money, and prestige in the eugenics movement of the
early twentieth century. Although a
British scientist coined the term "eugenics," from the Greek words
for "well" and "born," Black makes clear that the movement
flourished as it did because of the institutional legitimacy, and accompanying
funding, it garnered in the United States.
While early eugenicists
concentrated on encouraging those with certain genetic profiles—often those
associated with Nordic cultures—to reproduce, Black notes that the movement's
American incarnation emphasized the need to restrict reproduction by people
considered undesirable. To eugenicists,
this was a large group: the disabled;
the congenitally poor; criminals and those thought to have inherited criminal
tendencies; and, unsurprisingly, immigrants, particularly those from southern
and eastern Europe, who were coming to the United States in record numbers in
the early twentieth century. To keep
these "undesirables" out of the gene pool, eugenicists lobbied for
the most efficient way to "terminate their bloodlines": forced
sterilization. Such was the influence
of the eugenics movement in the United States that at its height, 27 states had
passed legislation mandating sterilization for those deemed "unfit"
One of the more sobering
anecdotes that Black relates is the story of Carrie Buck, embodied in the
Supreme Court case Buck vs. Bell. Buck,
the child of a woman who had herself been institutionalized for feeble-mindedness
and sexual promiscuity, was forcibly sterilized by the state of Virginia at the
age of 17 after having a child out of wedlock.
The Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified this forced
sterilization, commenting that "three generations of
imbeciles is enough." That
decision, Black estimates, in turn allowed for tens of thousands of other
forced sterilizations, all "justified" by the principles of
eugenics. These social and legislative
consequences of eugenics research did not go unnoticed by Nazi eugenicists, who
received early support from the institutions financing American eugenics
research and, Black argues, found in America a template for their own
experiments in racial hygiene.
Black's background in
investigative journalism comes across in his work, which, as might be expected
from the product of fifty researchers drawing on archival material from four
countries, is exhaustively researched and footnoted. Only in the book's final chapter, which adumbrates the
possibility of insurance companies discriminating against clients with genetic
predispositions to disease, does Miller fail to mount sufficient evidence to
persuade beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Even this chapter, however, underscores Miller's central claim: because
genetic information has rarely been used for innocent purposes, we must all
ensure that the abuses of the early twentieth century don't happen again.
2004 Erika Nanes
Erika Nanes holds both a Ph.D. in English and
American literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing. She is currently a lecturer in the Writing
Programs of the University of California, Los Angeles.
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