[first published March 24, 2012]
The early decades of the 20th century were not only marked by many Western intellectuals placing their faith and hope in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, but by an even broader coalition of "progressives" who surrendered all common sense as they leapt to grab the shiny promises of the eugenics movement.
A few of the men who should have known better: Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt, Leland Stanford, and Linus Pauling. Playwright George Bernard Shaw insisted that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man" -- and even suggested a lethal chamber!
With Indiana and California leading the way, more than thirty states passed laws allowing sterilization.
In 1927 the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was former president William Howard Taft. Among the justices were Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
An eugenics case from Virginia, Buck v. Bell, came before the Supreme Court. In early May, they ruled 8-1 (with Mr. Holmes writing for the majority) that compulsory sterilization was allowed. The high court agreed that it was proven that Carrie Buck, as well as her mother and daughter, were feeble-minded. In Justice Holmes’ ringing words:
"Society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes… Three generations of imbeciles are enough."The lone dissenter was a man with deep enough roots – a strong Catholic faith – to keep him from being swept up in the eugenics craze: Justice Pierce Butler from Saint Paul, Minnesota.
One of nine kids of Irish immigrants, he had worked as a lawyer for railroad magnate James J. Hill.
Justice Oliver Holmes commented before the eugenics decision: "Butler knows this is good law. I wonder whether he will have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion."
[Men of deep religious faith were certainly on the defensive -- the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred less than two years earlier.
Someday some adventurous Hollywood director will tell the tale of Pierce Butler's shining example. And the Catholic men of Saint Paul will commission a statue of him on Cathedral Hill.]
It was not until 1974 that the state of Virginia repealed its sterilization procedures.
At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, Nazi doctors employed Justice Holmes’ opinion in the Buck v. Bell case as part of their defense.
|One of Justice Holmes' clerks in 1930 was Alger Hiss|
If the Black Lives Matter folks in Minnesota were serious, they would rally every May 2nd on Pierce Butler Parkway in Saint Paul -- praising the man who stood up against the wacky "pro-science" progressives of his day!
It would be fitting, also, for a place like Brandeis University to have an annual teach-in to plumb the reasons why compassionate liberals were seduced by the pro-sterilization arguments.
UPDATE: Another sad eugenics tale is this one centering on the father of the late TV correspondent Charles 'On the Road' Kuralt. As director of public welfare in Mecklenburg County (1945 – 1972), Wallace Kuralt harbored nary a doubt that he was vanquishing poverty and bringing a better life to North Carolinians by sterilizing folks recommended by his social workers.
George Will has a recent column on the many liberals who loved eugenics:
"Between 1875 and 1925, when eugenics had many advocates, not all advocates were progressives but advocates were disproportionately progressives because eugenics coincided with progressivism’s premises and agenda."