The Secret, Sordid History of Eugenics Unveiled

Book Review: The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America

(photo: Cropped book cover)


Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America 

By Daniel Okrent

Scribner, 2019

528 pages, $30 (hardcover)

To order:


Amid the glorious history of our country, there have been dark clouds, shameful events that fell short of the founding ideals, including: slavery, the bloody War Between the States, the denial of rights for African Americans long after the Civil War was over, and the internment of the Japanese Americans, all of whom were U.S. citizens, during the Second World War.

These are all well-documented events, easily found in history books.

Less easily documented and harder to pinpoint is a series of movements that spanned decades: eugenics. As history shows us, eugenics led not only to mass discrimination in immigration policy but also mass destruction of human beings in and out of the womb.

In The Guarded Gate, by Daniel Okrent, this sordid history is laid out in disturbing detail. It was a movement that attracted some of the most powerful figures in the country — from Henry Cabot Lodge, then Republican senator from Massachusetts, to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and other less-known characters from our history, mainly men and women of great wealth and influence. Even Teddy Roosevelt for a time was a supporter. In 1921, Vice President Calvin Coolidge said “biological laws” had proven the inferiority of Southern and Eastern Europeans.

The fuel for this hatred was based not only on ages-old anti-Semitism, but also a deep mistrust of Catholics. Indeed, many believed the Catholic Church was a tool of the Jews.

This topic of immigration and eugenics for Okrent is new territory, though his other books are also about slices of American history. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition was about America’s experiment in banning alcohol, while Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center saw him being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He has also written several books on baseball. 

He wrote The Guarded Gate because of his passionate interest in American history as well, it seems, from his own family’s ethnic background. In an interview with Politics and Prose he said that he was fascinated with the anti-immigrant thread that has run through our history. He noted that early on even Benjamin Franklin expressed concern about newcomers, with the Germans being the target of his concerns. Each generation or so found a group to despise, or at least to consider “unworthy” of being an American. In the prologue to Guarded Gate, Okrent writes that his own grandparents were Jews from Romania and Poland. Of course, Eastern European Jews were considered high on the list of “undesirables” by those who fought against liberal immigration policies. His mother’s father was a doctor from Romania who managed to get into the U.S. “under a temporary restrictive law that enabled him to get in before the gates closed.”


Deadly Bigotry

This bigotry he describes turned deadly, with support, at times, of the respectable mainstream press.

In the late 19th century, as Okrent reports, anti-immigrant violence reached a fevered pitch. The New York Times reported on a fictitious violent “secret Polish society” in the Shenandoah Valley.

“A mob in New Orleans lynched 11 Catholics Italian immigrants …who had been accused — and then acquitted of the murder of the city’s police chief,” Okrent writes.

Shortly after the hiring of a few Russian Jews at a New Jersey glass factory, “the workers embarked on three days of xenophobic riots.”

As Okrent notes, the eugenics movement began in the late 19th century as a call to restrict legal immigration to those who were deemed to be the best material for becoming true Americans — those of Northern European stock and of the Protestant faith. Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks and Russians were considered too crude and not smart enough to ever become acceptable American citizens.

This movement eventually turned into something more deadly: the so-called science of eugenics, which believed that the principles used for creating the best breeding stock in the barn could be used on people to ensure the “best people.” This mindset led to the mass use of birth control, abortion on demand and even the Holocaust.

But eugenics is not just a matter of racial intolerance — it also became a platform for intolerance of any difference that deems a person an imperfect, subjective and deadly idea. Recall that the Nazis considered Jews and Slavs as subhuman.

As Okrent shows in his book, eugenics, which also supported forced sterilization for those considered too feeble or too criminal to reproduce, became the ultimate utilitarian view of humanity: People were not equal as children of God, but only of value based on race and health.

In the 1890s a financial panic sparked the growth of the anti-Catholic American Protective Association to a million members.

Many mainstream Protestant churches leant their support to immigration restrictions based on ethnicity. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, whose millions included Poles, Italians and others, fought against these discriminatory policies.

It was indeed ironic that a country founded by people fleeing persecution, especially anti-religious bigotry, suddenly was gripped by a desire to exclude others also seeking freedom and a better life.


Breeds of Contempt

Attempting to close the door to “lesser people” was a natural starting point for eugenics, as eugenics looked at race as being the determinant factor in deciding a person’s ability to fit in.

One of the great proponents of the movement was Madison Grant, a New York City lawyer who also loved zoology. His passion for breeding animals carried over to human beings. His book The Passing of the Great Race was praised by all sorts of respectable people of the time as well as some far less respectable.

Okrent writes: “Jews may have attracted more of [Grant’s] venom than Catholics but Grant didn’t really see them as separate threats, leaping to new imaginative heights when he warned [a friend] of the threat posed by ‘the Catholic Church under Jewish leadership.’” He saw both groups “cut from the same cloth … half Asiatic mongrels.”

Adolf Hitler had a copy of Grant’s book in his private library and he thanked Grant for writing it. The book was fodder for Hitler’s insane race theories: that there was a Jewish conspiracy and that Jews were polluting the great German race. Horrifically, these ideas led to the ovens of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

“Hitler studied The Passing enthusiastically, cited it in speeches, and other writings and at the time of his suicide, in the Berlin bunker in 1945, still owned a copy of the original German edition, ‘warmly inscribed’ to him by the German publisher,” writes Okrent.

Many prominent American leaders took the eugenics movement seriously. But when you read Okrent’s tally of what could only be called pure idiocy it is hard to believe any thinking person could be so gullible.

Charles W. Gould, a prominent eugenics leader, greatly disliked Italians and claimed that, for 2,000 years, the ethnic group “never produced an outstanding able man.”

So how would he explain the genius of Dante, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? Grant had a solution: Insist they were actually of Nordic blood.

Indeed, there were some who claimed that Jesus was not Jewish but an Aryan murdered because he was not Jewish.


A Pass for Sanger?

Okrent is more circumspect when it comes to Sanger. Perhaps that’s because he supports much of her “progressive” legacy, as many Americans do.

Yet what he does report about should make supporters think twice about her legacy.

Okrent writes: “Sanger’s own words provide ample evidence of her affirmative support for eugenics. In a 1921 essay in the Birth Control Review she wrote that ‘the campaign for Birth Control is not merely of eugenic value but is practically identical in idea with the final aim of Eugenics.’”

Okrent adds that she later attacked “the idea of providing medical and nursing care to poor families.”

“Fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of the good is an extreme cruelty,” Sanger noted.

In a recent First Things magazine essay, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas drove home the connection between Sanger’s work and eugenics:

“From the beginning, birth control and abortion were promoted as means of effectuating eugenics. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was particularly open about the fact that birth control could be used for eugenic purposes. These arguments about the eugenic potential for birth control apply with even greater force to abortion, which can be used to target specific children with unwanted characteristics.”

Today that ugly legacy can be seen, among other places, in Iceland, where there has been the total elimination of babies with Down syndrome. For many, this is considered “progress.” For others, it is the continuation of the eugenics nightmare that will end where it always ends: in the Godless horror of survival of the fittest.

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.