Last week in a Twitter response to Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, Dinesh D’Souza linked to a 2017 article published on Breitbart.com in which he claimed the following:
Hitler learned a great deal from the Democrats and from American progressives. He got some of his core policy strategies from them.
Specifically, D’Souza claimed Hitler copied three policies from American Democrats – the treatment of native Americans, the segregation of African-Americans, and sterilization laws and the eugenics movement from the first half of the last century. While all of these claims are problematic, my intention in this post is to fact check him regarding immigration laws and eugenics.
1924 Immigration Act
Hitler also appealed to the racially exclusionary provisions of U.S. immigration laws, specifically the 1924 Immigration Act that had been pushed by American progressives as a model of enlightened eugenic legislation.
As Kruse pointed out on Twitter, the 1924 Immigration Act was sponsored by two conservative Republicans, Albert Johnson (R-WA) and David Reed (R-PA) and signed into law by Republican president Calvin Coolidge. When Republicans controlled the House, Johnson was the chair of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee. While chair of that committee, Johnson appointed eugenicist Harry Laughlin to be the committee’s “Expert Eugenics Agent” and routed funds for eugenic research to Charles Davenport’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor where Laughlin also worked.
While it is true that the supporters of eugenics and race-based immigration had common cause, it is not true that the Democratic Party was the sole or even leading influence. Members of both parties voted for the bill but it was sponsored and promoted heavily by Republicans.
On a related note, Republicans today are typically the ones who want to slow immigration into the U.S. It was a recent Republican president who wondered why we couldn’t take more people from Norway than from “sh*thole” countries.
Third, Hitler learned from progressive sterilization laws that had been enacted in America through the influence of activists like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.
Progressive eugenicist Paul Popenoe, himself an advocate of euthanasia by poison gas, praised Hitler for being on the front lines of modern eugenics. Harry Laughlin and Charles Davenport’s Eugenic News termed the Nazi sterilization program “a milestone which marks the control by the most advanced nations of the world of a major aspect of controlling human reproduction.”
It is true that Hitler praised America’s laws allowing the sterilization of people deemed to be deficient in various ways. It is also true that many of the leaders in the eugenics movement supported Germany’s movement to enact similar laws. However, Sanger had little to do with sterilization laws because the eugenics supporters cited by D’Souza didn’t want her help.
While it is safe to say that Margaret Sanger was progressive in her views, she wasn’t viewed as a colleague by those in the mainstream of the eugenics and sterilization movement. She hoped to attach herself to it to further her own cause but leaders in the eugenics movement didn’t seem to want her. Read what eugenics leader Paul Popenoe said in a letter to fellow eugenicist Madison Grant about Sanger’s American Birth Control League:
Dear Mr. Grant,
I have been considerably disquieted by the letter you showed me yesterday, suggesting a working alliance between the American Eugenics Society and the American Birth Control League. In my judgement we have everything to lose nothing to gain to such an arrangement.
[The American Birth Control League] is controlled by a group that has be brought up on agitation and emotional appeal instead of on research and education… With this group, we would take on a large quantity of ready-made enemies which it has accumulated, and we would gain allies who, while believing that they are eugenics, really have no conception of what eugenics is and are actually opposed to it.
[At a recent international birth control conference] two members of our advisory council … put through a resolution at the final meeting, urging that people whose children gave promise of being of exceptional value to the race should have as many children, properly spaced, as they felt that they feasibly could. This is eugenics. It is not the policy of the American Birth Control League leaders, who in the next issue of their monthly magazine came out with an editorial denouncing this resolution as contrary to all the principles and sentiments of their organization.
If it is desirable for us to make a campaign in favor of contraception, we are abundantly able to do so on our own account, without enrolling a lot of sob sisters, grand stand players, and anarchists to help us. We had a lunatic fringe in the eugenics movement in the early days; we have been trying for 20 years to get rid of it and have finally done so. Let’s not take on another fringe of any kind as an ornament.
Acknowledged eugenics leader Popenoe called Sanger’s group “sob sisters” and a “fringe.” The principle leaders in the movement to enact sterilization laws were people like Popenoe, Davenport, and Laughlin.
Popenoe and Gas Chambers
Although Popenoe did support Hitler’s goals of racial purity, I can’t find any evidence that he supported “euthanasia by poison gas” as D’Souza claims. On the contrary, in his 1918 book Applied Eugenics, Popenoe rejected execution as a means of achieving eugenic ends. At the beginning of chapter 10, Popenoe wrote:
The means of restriction can be divided into coercive and non-coercive. We shall discuss the former first, interpreting the word “coercive” very broadly.
From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution. This has been used since the beginning of the race, very probably, although rarely with a distinct understanding of its eugenic effect; and its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated. It is a method the use of which prevents the rectification of mistakes. There are arguments against it on other grounds, which need not be discussed here, since it suffices to say that to put to death defectives or delinquents is wholly out of accord with the spirit of the times, and is not seriously considered by the eugenics movement.
The next possible method castration. This has practically nothing to recommend it, except that it is effective—an argument that can also be made for the “lethal chamber.” The objections against it are overwhelming. It has hardly been advocated, even by extremists, save for those whose sexual instincts are extremely disordered; but such advocacy is based on ignorance of the results. As a fact, castration frequently does not diminish the sexual impulses. Its use should be limited to cases where desirable for therapeutic reasons as well.
It is possible, however, to render either a man or woman sterile by a much less serious operation than castration. This operation, which has gained wide attention in recent years under the name of “sterilization,” usually takes the form of vasectomy in man and salpingectomy in woman; it is desirable that the reader should have a clear understanding of its nature.
While it was ghastly for Popenoe to even list execution in his discussion of eugenics, it is false to say he advocated gas chambers.
Paul Popenoe – A Republican
According to information unearthed by PhD history student Jeff Nichols, Popenoe was a registered Republican from the 1920s through the 1960s (e.g. 1934). His son David Popenoe confirmed this in a 1991 essay written for the Institute for American Values. About his father, the younger Popenoe wrote:
My father often called himself a Victorian man and turn-of-the-century Republican.
In good Victorian fashion, he also exhibited what many today would call a profound sexual prudishness. He claimed to have been a virgin at the time of his marriage at age 32 and even to have successfully eschewed masturbation; he viewed prostitution and pornography as among the world’s great evils. Around women, he was awkward and shy.
Although Popenoe supported birth control and sex education, as noted above, he wasn’t a fan of Margaret Sanger or her progressive agenda. He eventually developed a relationship with James Dobson, the founder of Focus of the Family. Dobson was one of his assistants at his American Institute of Family Relations. Popenoe wrote the Foreward to Dobson’s breakthrough book, Dare to Discipline. Popenoe was adamantly opposed to homosexuality and any blurring of gender roles. In contradiction to D’Souza, the facts show that Popenoe wasn’t a Democrat and he certainly was more conservative on many issues than progressive.
Charles Davenport – Fiscal Conservative, Rifleman
Charles Benedict Davenport was the director of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory on Long Island which housed the Eugenics Record Office. This lab kept genetics and health records on families and was the base of operations for the eugenics movement. In 1910, he wrote Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding.
While I am not certain Davenport was a Republican (although a Charles Davenport is listed a Brooklyn paper as participating at a Republican event in 1911), he was a fiscal conservative as president of the Oyster Bay Taxpayers League and supported the formation of Rifle clubs and a Home Defense League. In his social life, Davenport was traditional enough to compel his daughter to apologize for tearing down an anti-suffrage poster.
Davenport was the recipient of a famous letter from Republican Teddy Roosevelt in which Roosevelt expressed support for eugenics. Roosevelt told Davenport:
I am greatly interested in the two memoirs you have sent me. They are very instructive, and, from the standpoint of our country, very ominous. You say that those people are not themselves responsible, that it is “society” that is responsible. I agree with you if you mean, as I supposed you do, that society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stock, physically and morally, while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women who ought to marry, and if married have large families, remain celebates or have no children or only one or two. 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.
Harry Laughlin – Served in Republican Administrations
Harry Laughlin was committed to the eugenics cause and I believe would have worked with members of any party who supported eugenics. The fact remains that he served under Republican office holders who held the same views as he did.
As noted previously, he served as “Expert Eugenics Agent” for Republican Albert Johnson’s House Immigration and Naturalization Committee. Laughlin also served as an envoy for Republican Secretary of Labor James J. Davis. Davis openly promoted a “pro-Nordic” position in his position in three Republican administrations. For instance, in Congressional testimony in support of the 1924 Immigration Act, Davis said:
…historians and scientists tell me that all the great civilizations of the past have fallen, not through hostile invasion, but through the peaceful penetration of alien peoples, usually entering their gates as workers or slaves.
He also wrote that America’s status as a Nordic country required that immigration policy should bar other races which are
physically, mentally, morally and spiritually undesirable, and who constitute a menace to our civilization.
Laughlin and Republican Davis teamed up to push for both eugenics and laws restricting immigration to Northern Europeans.
Charles Goethe – Leading California Republican
D’Souza identified Charles (C.M.) Goethe and E.S. Gosney as two additional “progressive” eugenicists. Both men were registered Republicans.
A further example of progressive enthusiasm for Hitler involves Charles Goethe, founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, who upon returning from a 1934 fact-finding trip to Germany to examine Nazi sterilization programs, wrote a congratulatory letter to his fellow progressive Eugene Gosney, head of the San Diego-based Human Betterment Foundation.
Goethe was a prolific “letter to the editor” writer the papers across the nation on behalf of eugenics and, as suggested by one of his many letters shown above, was a white supremacist who supported exclusionary immigration policies.
Goethe was also a wealthy Republican. In 1926, he listed his occupation as “capitalist” and consistently registered as a Republican. In 1964, Goethe was called one of California’s leading Republicans in this Valley News article documenting his support for a state ballot initiative to fund higher education. Significantly, a key promoter of the measure also supported GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
With Ezra (E.S.) Gosney*, Goethe was a founding member of the Human Betterment Foundation. As D’Souza wrote, Goethe credited the Foundation for shaping the opinions of the Nazis on the matter of eugenics. However, D’Souza apparently assumes Goethe was a Democrat when he in fact he was a Republican.
Goethe’s eugenic and immigration ideas were linked. In a 1940 letter to The Indianapolis Star, Goethe lamented France’s falling rates and predicted similar results in the United States. He wrote:
The present census reveals that the United States is following France herein. The real menace is greater than the returns disclose, for these do not show the workings of the differential birth rates law. Our high powers are race suiciding, our morons breed.
Goethe’s and the eugenicists’ rhetoric reminds me of the Charlottesville white supremacy chants of “you will not replace us.”
E.S. Gosney – Boy Scout, Popenoe’s Board Member, Republican
Businessman E.S. Gosney assembled a list of prestigious capitalists, industrialists, bankers, educators and clergy to form the Human Betterment Foundation. There are no Democrats in the list of incorporating members (which includes a Rabbi and a Methodist and Presbyterian minister). How can Democrats have a legacy of eugenics if the key sterilization organization was made up of Republicans?
Gosney, a registered Republican, was active in the Boy Scouts and served on Paul Popenoe’s American Institute for Family Relations, a decidedly conservative organization which favored traditional marriage and opposed homosexuality and divorce.
Most, if not all, of D’Souza’s list of progressive Democrats appear to be Republicans. When one reviews the record, his theory falls apart. He will probably deny it but readers can judge for themselves. I ask again: How can the Democrats get the blame for a legacy of eugenics when so many of the leaders and developers of the movement were Republicans?
These Republicans (or in some cases not obviously aligned men) believed strongly in social engineering while at the same time holding Republican views on other issues. In fact, eugenics was for a brief period of history very near the mainstream. While it is surprising and sad, it cannot be blamed on any one political party. People in both parties supported various aspects of the eugenics movement for different reasons and people in both parties opposed those beliefs. D’Souza’s “big lie” is a actually a big bust.
I want to give a hat tip to Jeff Nichols who got me started looking at this with tweets about three of these eugenics leaders.
*E.S. Gosney’s first name is Ezra not Eugene as D’Souza mistakenly wrote.