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War Against the WeakReview - War Against the Weak
Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race
by Edwin Black
Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003
Review by Erika Nanes
Jan 24th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 4)

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" to reproduce.

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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