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War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's…

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master…

by Edwin Black

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A difficult book to read. Not because it is poorly written. But because it is so disappointing to read about the American history of oppressing the weak.

The pseudo-science of eugenics is the application of evolutionistic natural selection to humankind. If humans are descended from animals and still evolving then some portion of humankind could conceivably be further ahead than others. And if this is true, should not the human race be bettered by encouraging the propagation of this portion of our race and discouraging the continued breeding of those that may be further down the evolutionary ladder? Especially those that carry hereditary diseases, deformities, a high probability of mental defect, or propensity to engage in criminal misconduct. Or so eugenic theory would have you believe.

Some of the research backing this idea followed families through multiple generations and tracked the fact that most member's of this family were criminals. If these people were sterilized so they could not continue to have children the state and society would be safer and see a significant savings in the criminal justice arena. The same argument was presented for families with a history of expensive medical issues.

This "reasonable" view of evolution and society was cloaked in the blessing of science and used to create sterilization laws and laws prohibiting interracial marriages. These views and the corresponding laws were not the result of a groundswell of public sentiment calling for sterilizations to be accomplished on those found unfit or laws prohibiting interracial marriages. Rather, these laws were promulgated, lobbied for, and supported by a highly educated portion of the American scientific community funded by major philanthropic monies.

Part of the basis of this philanthropy was the idea of some that charity rewards people for failure and that human kind should mirror nature in letting the weak die off and the strong continue. Charity was viewed as unnatural meddling in the natural way of life. Eugenics was viewed as a way of restoring balance. Margaret Sanger, founder of planned parenthood believed in this view of charity as well as well as the importance of eugenics.

There were several doctors that performed uncalled for sterilizations on people they thought were unfit prior to laws being passed allowing the procedure. Indiana was the first state to legalize sterilization of the unfit. At least 29 other states followed that lead. California by far completed the most recorded sterilizations. And the funding to start the process was provided by New Englands wealthy. A victory showing what a small group of educated people with a vision and funding can accomplish while the majority of people are not really paying attention.

What did this movement cost America? The idea as a science and the word "eugenics" was British in origin (invented by Sir Francis Galton). However, it was in American where this idea became popular and applied in an active way. In the 20s and 30s these ideas accepted in America were globalized. American model legislation for sterilization was sent to many European countries and enacted there creating sterilization programs in Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, and Germany. German efforts to cleanse their race of those deemed unfit were highly admired in America. And it was because of successful eugenic efforts to restrict immigration into America of the unfit that many Jews were unable to escape Europe and holocaust to come.

American philanthropic efforts were not confined to the United States. Rockefeller and other wealthy New Englanders funded most of the eugenic scientist in Germany after WWI. The research and books that guided Hitler to understanding how the unfit made the German people weak were funded with American monies. Hitler even wrote an admiring thank you letter to one of the leading eugenics proponents in the United States.

We tend many time to tie up our righteous anger for the holocaust to the leader of the German people that led them into murdering millions and the SS who carried out his vision. We like to say Adolph Hitler was a racist, and that is true fact. But his racism was not merely some backwoods silly hatred based on people being different than he was. Rather, his hatred was based on the science of eugenics.

We should not forget that when Jews and other people that were considered unfit (not always based on race) got off the train at Auschwitz and other death camps it was not Hitler personally that decided who would be treated in what ways. Nor was it always the SS trooper. Rather usually there was someone there with medical credentials and eugenics training in their background making this decision. The SS were the trigger man. Hitler was the government leader that made the horrors of the holocaust possible politically. But it was the scientists and doctors, funded by American money that created the basis for all these horrors. How could ordinary people do such terrible things to other people in death camps and elsewhere? First, they were taught eugenics and that not all people are equal, and the unfit drag the rest of society down. Before they tried to kill off entire races they worked hard to cleanse their own race; sterilizing or killing the weaker parts of their society in nursing homes and insane asylums. It is clear that we cannot trust science alone to create a moral compass for society.

Much as I hate to admit it, America carries some moral responsibility for what happened in Europe with the holocaust. Because of the outrage and condemnation of the holocaust and Germany's eugenic actions the American eugenic community melted away into the background. Usually changing their names from eugenics to something with genetics. It still took many years to change all the laws that the American eugenic movement put into the books in the United States. It was not until the 1960s that laws against interracial marriages were set aside and people were being sterilized without their consent into the 1970s. Several states till have laws on the books for sterilization. But they have not been utilized for years.

This book is well written and researched. If anything there is probably much left unexamined for the sake of preserving a comprehensible narrative and story of a reasonable length. Clocking in at over 500 pages it's not a swift read.
( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
There is lots of good information here, but I had a bit of a problem with the execution. The history of the American eugenics movement is plenty dark without the author's use of words like "disgusting" and "abhorrent." Black has done a lot of good research, but his book is most effective when he shares that information without commentary. ( )
2 vote climbingtree | May 22, 2011 |
This is an excellent book. I am now half way through this book and cannot put it down except to recommend it to everyone. Establishes how eugenics was basically established in the United States years before Hitler's Germany! ( )
1 vote octafoil40 | Dec 18, 2010 |
This is one of the saddest books you'll ever read. To give you a taste, "The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race" (259).

Charity is declared evil, since "it was better that the cold and hungry be left without help, so that the eugenically superior strains could multiple without competition from 'the unfit'" (127). And "referred to the lower classes and the unfit as 'human waste' not worthy of assistance, and proudly quoted the extreme eugenic view that human 'weeds' should be 'exterminated'" (127). The first president of Stanford University argued that the poor should be sterilized. I agree with the other reviewer that it should be mandatory reading, perhaps in around 7th grade. I need to think more to do this review.

I was shocked by the names that occur in here, such as Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Carnegie Hall, the Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Sanger, H.G. Wells, Irving Fischer, and so on. Modern framing of debate can be understood as descending in significant part from the eugenics movement. Immigration rhetoric, school performance testing, testing and standardized norms as gatekeepers to social resources such as universities, war rhetoric, and political division over redistribution of resources all can been seen in a new perspective after reading this book.

If you've ever found the genocide and monstrocities commited during WW2 to be unfathomable, this book makes WW2 genocide fathomable. It shows how deviance was defined and redefined. This book doesn't hold back either. You get taken all the way from the pearly pampered gates of acadamia spewing hatred down down down into the eugenic death doctors of WW2 concentration camps, and through grisly human medical experimentation. There is a shot of the face of Josef Mengele. One of the saddest books you'll ever read. ( )
  lafincoff | Oct 24, 2010 |
One of the most amazing/horrific books you will ever read. Should be mandatory reading. Unbelievable what is done in the name of politics masquerading as science sometimes. ( )
1 vote kurvanas | Aug 26, 2009 |
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To my mother who at present is unable to read this book, but whostill remembers when American principles of eugenics came to Nazi-occupied Poland.
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In War Against the Weak, award-winning investigative journalist Edwin Black connects the crimes of the Nazis to a pseudoscientific American movement of the early twentieth century called eugenics. Based on selective breeding of human beings, eugenics began in laboratories on Long Island but ended in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Ultimately, over 60,000 unfit Americans were coercively sterilized, a third of them after Nuremberg declared such practices crimes agains humanity. This is a timely and shocking chronicle of bad science at its worst--which holds important lessons for the impending genetic age.
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Explores the connection between the United States eugenics program of the the early twentieth-century and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, citing proof that American scientists attempted to create a master race.

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