These fears were not simply his own. Many of the world's leaders, Dr. Bell knew, felt the same. Former president Theodore Roosevelt had called this trend "race suicide," and had felt that America's greatness was being threatened not only by rampant poverty but also its cozy affluence. He had once proclaimed, "Some day 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." The inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the social crusader Margaret Sanger, and the administrators of the Harriman, Carnegie, and Rockefeller philanthropic foundations were each calling for state-sanctioned programs of better breeding. The editorial pages of newspapers such as the New York Times, scholars at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, as well as professional associations of doctors and social workers were each urging the nation's legislatures to quell the tide of "hereditary defectives."
In addition, many British leaders supported compulsory sterilization to purify their nation's genetic pool. When Winston Churchill was home secretary, he had once written to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith urging support for a sterilization bill before Parliament. "The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate," he explained. "I feel that the source from which all the streams of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before the year has passed. . . . [A] simple surgical operation would allow these individuals to live in the world without causing much inconvenience to others."
Now, after nearly twenty years of effort, the case of Carrie Buck provided the most resounding legal affirmation of this theory of genetic engineering. In the Supreme Court case that bore Bell's name, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., feared the United States would be "swamped with incompetence" if women like Carrie continued to have children. "It is better for all the world," he wrote in the majority decision of Buck v. Bell, "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. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Yes, our descendants may well be proud. Actually, this idea wasn't new at all, Dr. Bell would muse. "Racial improvement" was a practice as old as the first great civilizations of the world. Didn't remarkably heroic races cast their defective infants in the River Tiber or leave them upon the mountainside to starve? "The idea of elimination, by one way or another, of those who were expected to be disqualified for a certain standard of physical and mental perfection, has come down to us through a great space of time," he would later maintain. "And it persists as strongly in the minds of people today as it did in the minds of the ancient Spartans and Romans. . . . Such efforts to preserve a healthy race, cruel as they may seem, were after all but the pursuit of natural laws: the buds unfit to mature, fall; and the weaklings of the flock must perish."
Excerpted from Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius Copyright © 2006 by Harry Bruinius. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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