Imbe­ciles: The Supreme Court, Amer­i­can Eugen­ics, and the Ster­il­iza­tion of Car­rie Buck

Adam Cohen
  • Review
By – May 23, 2016

In the first months after Hitler came to pow­er in Ger­many, the Nazis enact­ed the July 1933 Law for the Pre­ven­tion of the Genet­i­cal­ly Dis­eased Off­spring, which allowed for Nazi genet­ic health Courts” to forcibly ster­il­ize any cit­i­zen who suf­fered from a list of alleged genet­ic dis­or­ders. This law designed to elim­i­nate lives not worth liv­ing” cul­mi­nat­ed in the Nazi Euthana­sia pro­gram, ini­ti­at­ed in 1939, which led to the death of over 200,000 unfit” Ger­man citizens.

The Nazi law came six years after the Unit­ed States Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927), an 8 – 1 rul­ing upheld a Vir­ginia law which allowed for the eugenic ster­il­iza­tion of unde­sir­able cit­i­zens for the greater good of the coun­try. At the cen­ter of the court case was Car­rie Buck, a young woman, who was deemed fee­ble­mind­ed” and shipped off to the Vir­ginia-based Colony for Epilep­tics and Fee­ble-Mind­ed. She was forcibly ster­il­ized fol­low­ing the Supreme Court deci­sion, although it was lat­er shown that she was healthy and men­tal­ly able.

The court’s major­i­ty opin­ion was giv­en by Jus­tice Oliv­er Wen­dell Holmes, Jr., a Social Dar­win­ist who believed that the Nordic Protes­tant elite was threat­ened by the influx of immi­grants from South­ern and East­ern Europe as well as the increas­ing high birth rate by imbe­ciles, morons, and idiots.” Holme’s con­clu­sion reached its apex when he wrote: Three gen­er­a­tions of imbe­ciles is enough.”

Imbe­ciles is the grip­ping his­to­ry of Buck v. Bell, where­in Car­rie Buck and a care­less attor­ney were pit­ted against sci­en­tists , lawyers, and judges who believed that eugenic mea­sures were nec­es­sary to save the nation from being swamped by incom­pe­tence.” Cohen, a for­mer mem­ber of The New York Times edi­to­r­i­al board, a senior writer for Time mag­a­zine, and a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Law school, tells the sto­ry with great pas­sion and pro­vides the read­er with a his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Eugen­ics move­ment , which in its hey­day, was not only respon­si­ble for the pas­sage of The Nation­al Ori­gins Act in 1924, which sought to pro­tect the white Anglo-Sax­on major­i­ty by curb­ing immi­gra­tion (Hitler praised Congress’s pas­sage of the act) but was also com­prised of geneti­cists like Madi­son Grant and Har­ry Laugh­lin who were anti­se­mit­ic. Cohen notes that Grant’s the­o­ries about racial supe­ri­or­i­ty and the need to forcibly deal with the weak and defec­tive great­ly influ­enced the Nazis who trans­lat­ed his writ­ings into Ger­man. Part of Mein Kampf and lat­er Nazi racial poli­cies appeared to bor­row direct­ly from Grant’s The Pass­ing of the Great Race, lat­er dis­cov­ered in Adolf Hitler’s per­son­al library.

Indeed, Cohen makes a strong case that Amer­i­can genet­ic the­o­ry was not only an influ­ence for Nazi Germany’s dead­ly racial hygiene laws but indi­rect­ly to an immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy that pre­vent­ed many Jews in the 1930s from seek­ing a refuge from Nazi per­se­cu­tion in the Unit­ed States.

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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