Post-World War II Eugenics
by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe
Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 114-116.
The dominant figure in American eugenics after World War II was a complex individual, Frederick Osborn (1889-1981). He is credited with reforming eugenics, removing the taint of racism and putting the field back on a firm scientific footing. But during his “reform,” from 1947 until 1956, he was president of the Pioneer Fund, a secretive white supremacist group. So he did not oppose racism; he opposed open racism. His reform of eugenics, then, would disguise, not remove, the taint of racism.
Osborn was a Major General. But he never made much of his military rank after World War II, perhaps because he was a little uncomfortable holding such a high rank without ever seeing combat. He was in charge of boosting troop morale during World War II, and got his exalted rank by politics. He spent most of his life boosting eugenics.
In 1956, Osborn traveled across the Atlantic to give the annual Galton Lecture at a meeting of the Eugenics Society. The speech was later published in the Eugenics Review (volume 48, number 1, April 1956). His words were well received then, and remain fascinating today.
In the address, entitled “Galton and Mid-Century Eugenics,” Osborn stated his devotion to the cause. Galton had envisaged a movement to raise the average of human intelligence and character that would “sweep the world and make man at least the master of his own destiny on earth.” But it had not happened, and the movement was reduced to “a few small handsful of men in various countries . . . not influencing public opinion.” In fact, Osborn noted, “The very word eugenics is in disrepute in some quarters.” Despite these problems, Osborn affirmed that “I still believe in Galton’s dream.”
Then Osborn posed the key question: “What have we done wrong?” He was concerned because “we have all but killed the eugenic movement.”
It is hard to imagine such moral blindness. Speaking just a decade after World War II, when tens of millions of people died fighting the savagery of a master race ideology, is Osborn concerned about the deaths of the Jews? Is he sorry about what happened so that the Nazis killed the feebleminded? Is he ashamed of the role that eugenics played in Germany and Japan, churning out death for civilians? No, he is troubled because they had almost killed the eugenics movement.
So what went wrong, according to Osborn? He said that they had “failed to take into account a trait which is almost universal and is very deep in nature. People simply are not willing to accept the idea that the genetic base on which their character is formed is inferior and should not be repeated in the next generation. We have asked whole groups of people to accept this idea and we have asked individuals to accept it. They have constantly refused . . . they won’t accept the idea that they are in general second rate.”
As you try to understand why people may have been slow to accept that they were second-rate, keep in mind that Osborn considered the upper five or ten percent of the population to have the intelligence and character that the entire human race should have.
Osborn’s response to the challenge was a proposal he called “voluntary unconscious selection.” The idea was to alter laws, customs and social expectations, so that individuals would decide for themselves that they did or did not want to have children. The way to persuade people to exercise this voluntary unconscious selection was to appeal to the idea of “wanted” children. Osborn said, “Let’s base our proposals on the desirability of having children born in homes where they will get affectionate and responsible care.” In this way, the eugenics movement “will move at last towards the high goal which Galton set for it.”
Osborn’s speech shows that the eugenics movement was hurt, but not dead. They still held to Galton’s dream, they were trying to find new ways to achieve it, and they were still making plans.
For the other excerpts from this book, see:
For more of our blog posts on racism, see:
The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion (Graciela Olivarez)
More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting (intersectionality)