By Probert, Hywel
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4583
"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... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Mr Justice Holmes's closing remark contained no consolatory words for Carrie Buck, the 20-year-old unmarried mother sitting abjectly in the US Supreme Court.
Three years before, officials at the Virginia Colony had concluded that Carrie and her mother, then a resident in an asylum, shared hereditary traits of "feeble-mindedness and sexual promiscuity". As such, Carrie perfectly fitted the law's description of a "probable parent of socially inadequate offspring". The facts told a different story: Carrie Buck had been raped by a friend of her foster parents, and Vivian, the resulting illegitimate daughter, was on the honours roll in her elementary school class. But these things didn't matter: now that the highest court in the land shared the opinion of the Virginia Colony, Carrie Buck would be forcibly sterilised.
This is not a vignette from the Salem witch trials, but rather from the America of the late 1920s. Industrial unrest, economic depression and overcrowding in the United States of the early 1900s had sparked a resentment of anyone regarded as hindering society's progress. The fashionable "progressivism" of the time aimed to solve social problems by scientific means; certain scientists suggested that conditions could be eased by curbing the birth of defective individuals who would have to be cared for by the state. In 1907, the world's first law allowing compulsory sterilisation was passed in the state of Indiana. By 1924, around 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilised in the US, amid paranoia that southern and eastern European nations were deliberately sending to the US genetic defectives who had disproportionately high rates of mental illness, criminal behaviour and social dependency. Thus began a chapter in American history that most would like to forget.
Eugenics was a term coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, nephew of Charles Darwin. He perceived it as a moral obligation to improve humanity by encouraging the ablest and the healthiest to have more children -- what is now described, rather glibly, as "positive" eugenics. The more sinister and virulent strain of the philosophy, "negative" eugenics, was ultimately to find its most nourishing home on the other side of the Atlantic.
For many years, the beating heart of the American eugenics movement was the Eugenics Record Office, set up in 1910 at Cold Spring Harbour (incidentally the modem centre for research into the Human Genome Project) with a grant from Mary Harriman. She was later described by its founder, Charles Davenport, as "the principal patron of the ERO". Mary was the wife of Edward Harriman, a well-known railroad magnate, and mother of Averell, the powerful Wall Street industrialist who, in 1921, decided to restart Germany's Hamburg-Amerika Line, which became the world's largest shipping line in the years leading up to the Second World War.
In 1926, Averell Harriman welcomed a familiar name into his Wall Street firm (W AHarriman and Co) as senior partner - Prescott Bush, father to one American president and grandfather to another. The association was to end simultaneously in fabulous wealth and temporary ignominy -- at the height of the Second World War, in 1942, the New York Herald Tribune reported that the Union Banking Corporation, of which Prescott Bush was a director and E Roland Harriman a 99 per cent shareholder, was holding a small fortune under the orders of Adolf Hitler's financier. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, all of Union Banking Corporation's capital stock was seized.
Perhaps the American who had the most influence on German policy after 1933 was Harry Laughlin, the publisher of the Model Eugenic Sterilisation Law in 1922, which led to the sterilisation of about 20,000 Americans by the mid-1930s. …