More astonishing than the number of people sterilized is the long list of famous Americans who supported and sanctioned such programs. Bruinius takes his book’s title from the 1927 Supreme Court majority opinion in Buck v. Bell, which ruled that the Constitution did not prohibit Virginia — and, consequently, other states — from sterilizing its citizens. The opinion, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., is Bruinius’ trump card, and he repeats bits of it often; if you have trouble believing that anyone with half a brain might have bought the arguments of eugenicists, the opinion settles the matter.“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” Holmes wrote. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices [ i.e., forced sterilization], often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Referring to Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in the case whom the state intended to sterilize, and whose mother and daughter both had been suspected by doctors to be afflicted with feeblemindedness, Holmes added: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (As Bruinius points out, Holmes had this label wrong; Buck and her kin had been diagnosed as morons, not imbeciles.)Others who supported eugenics included Victoria Woodhull, the suffragist and progressive activist who was the first woman to run for president; the inventor Alexander Graham Bell (who later moved away from the movement); foundations connected with the Carnegies, the Harrimans and the Rockefellers, which donated large sums toward eugenics research; professors at leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Johns Hopkins; and editorialists of the New York Times. Bruinius also fingers Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate who founded the American Birth Control League, the predecessor to Planned Parenthood, as having sympathy for eugenics; though Sanger did say many suspect things, her closeness to the movement has been questioned and rejected by her supporters. Then there was Theodore Roosevelt, who, in a letter to the eugenicist Charles Davenport in 1913, hoped that “Someday we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”It’s not exactly clear what Roosevelt meant by “citizens of the wrong type,” but it should be noted that as eugenics thinking matured, many supporters began to see the delineations between people of the right and wrong type as extending beyond just mental categories. Leading eugenicists argued that science proved that non-whites were genetically inferior to whites, that certain kinds of Europeans were better than other kinds, and that you should never trust a Jew. The eugenicists’ claims were touted by opportunistic politicians, who used the scientific findings to pass restrictive immigration laws in the U.S.
Hitler studied American eugenics laws. He tried to legitimize his anti-Semitism by medicalizing it, and wrapping it in the more palatable pseudoscientific facade of eugenics. Hitler was able to recruit more followers among reasonable Germans by claiming that science was on his side. While Hitler's race hatred sprung from his own mind, the intellectual outlines of the eugenics Hitler adopted in 1924 were made in America.During the '20s, Carnegie Institution eugenic scientists cultivated deep personal and professional relationships with Germany's fascist eugenicists. In Mein Kampf, published in 1924, Hitler quoted American eugenic ideology and openly displayed a thorough knowledge of American eugenics. "There is today one state," wrote Hitler, "in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States."