For readers today, it is almost impossible to browse through the eugenics literature from before World War II without hearing intimations of Auschwitz in every line. It takes a continual effort to keep in mind that they did not know about the Holocaust then. When one early enthusiast declared that eugenics “is going to be a purifying conflagration some day,” no one understood how horrifically prophetic those words would later sound.
Reading about Irving Fisher, Ellsworth Huntington, and the rest, I felt a predictable sense of loathing: these were despicable men. But in other parts of their lives, even the worst of them was at times admirable, and I felt a queasy sense of liking. This was illogical on a personal level. Their writing was laced with animosity toward the wave of immigrants into the United States after 1890—southern and eastern Europeans (mainly Italians and Jews, respectively), yellow-peril Asians, and the drunken, misbegotten Irish. It was an era when a Harvard anthropologist could lament “the flooding of this country with alien scum.” Fisher spoke of “defectives, delinquents, and dependents.”
Under the pretext of science, the eugenicists were proposing to preserve “Nordic” hegemony by breeding out my own Irish and Italian stock, among others. So why liking? Partly, it’s because the idea of the white Anglo-Saxon gentry prattling about their own superiority has become a stock joke (“Too damned funny, old bean”). Ellsworth Huntington sounds about as dangerous as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady when he declares: “An Englishman likes to work things out for himself, and is glad when an emergency throws him on his own resources. The Mediterranean and Alpine people, on the contrary, are much more docile, more willing to be led.”
And partly it’s because, having grown up Irish and Italian, I am aware that my people also entertain notions of our magnificence. Other ethnic groups do the same, though they are generally not so foolish, or so accustomed to power, as to issue scientific pronouncements on the topic to the less fortunate. The truth is that all humans favor in-groups, starting with the family, and we disparage those we perceive as outsiders. Treating this as only the outlaw impulse of eugenicists and Nazis is a convenient way of overlooking a hateful tendency in us all.
These eugenicists also felt disturbingly familiar in other ways. They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers, but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors, and family men. If Madison Grant had not been such an ardent racist and so closely tied to Nazi genocide, he might be remembered today as one of America’s greatest conservationists. “Among his many accomplishments,” writes Jonathan P. Spiro in his recent biography, Defending the Master Race, “Grant preserved the California redwoods, saved the American bison from extinction, founded the Bronx Zoo, fought for strict gun-control laws, built the Bronx River Parkway,” and helped create Glacier, Denali, and Everglades National Parks. (To be continued.)