by G. K. Chesterton
With a few honorable exceptions, our historians have tended to gloss over the Progressive Era’s affinity for many of the 20th century’s most troubling ideas. Few Americans know, for example, about the magnetic appeal Italian fascism held in the 1920s for many of the most prominent American liberals and pragmatists. They openly praised Mussolini’s achievement in transforming a chronically disordered nation into “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen”, as FDR Brains Trust adviser Rexford G. Tugwell enthused.
An even more interesting omission is our neglect of the then-widespread popularity and respectability of eugenics. This new “science” for the systematic practice of selective human breeding for the supposed improvement of society led to the sterilization and segregation of the “feeble-minded” and other “undesirable” individuals and groups in American society. It sounds like a preoccupation of the exotic fringe to most of us now, but nine decades ago eugenics was openly advocated as a mainstream Progressive idea. Indeed, the most certifiably advanced minds of the day promoted and celebrated it. In 1923, former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, U.S. Senator Royal Copeland of New York, former President David Starr Jordan of Indiana and Stanford Universities, President Livingston Farrand of Cornell University, and a host of other educational, medical and social-welfare luminaries making up the Eugenics Committee of the United States came forth with a program calling for “selective immigration, sterilization of defectives and control of everything having to do with the reproduction of human beings.” In 1932, Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Nor was support restricted to a secularist avant-garde. As Christine Rosen has shown, many American Christian and Jewish religious leaders, including even some Roman Catholics, were fully supportive of eugenic ideas and policies. It was no fringe phenomenon.1
Nor was eugenics merely a utopian idea. It formed the basis of concrete policies. For one thing, it lent its strong support to the immigration-restriction statutes of the 1920s. But there were more direct and telling effects. Thirty-three American states passed laws that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of those deemed “unfit.” The famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case—”three generations of imbeciles are enough”—expressed the Supreme Court’s upholding of a Virginia law, thereby signaling the general acceptability of eugenic involuntary-sterilization laws. Such activity was...