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The Cruel History of Eugenics in America: An Interview with Adam Cohen

Adam Cohen, photo by Eleanor Randolph

Book Jacket, Penguin Press

In the 1920s, some American families competed in state and county fairs to be judged the “fittest human stock.” Families deemed the “most perfectly developed” were awarded blue ribbons, just like cows and pigs.

These Fitter Family Contests were but one reflection then of the infatuation with eugenics across the United States—especially by the elite institutions of science, law, and academia—in an effort to purge the nation of the unfit. Eugenists promoted the reproduction of the healthiest citizens while eliminating the “feebleminded” through policies such as immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation and compulsory sterilization laws.

Acclaimed author Adam Cohen traces the grim history of American eugenics in his groundbreaking new book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Penguin Press). The book focuses on one of vilest Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history when, in 1927, celebrated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a brief and disturbing opinion allowing the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young Virginia woman with a limited education (Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)). The decision led to the mass forced sterilization of tens of thousands more Americans, mostly poor and powerless women, who were considered “feebleminded.”

As he illuminates this gross injustice, Mr. Cohen limns the world of Carrie Buck and the prominent scientists, lawyers and judges who wanted to end her family line. He also explores the wide influence of the American eugenics movement that demonized the weak and vulnerable as it inspired Hitler’s ideas on creating an Aryan master race. His book is based on exhaustive research into materials from medical, legal, academic, and other archives, including extensive documents on the legal proceedings against Ms. Buck from the trial court stage to the Supreme Court proceedings.

Mr. Cohen is a former member of The New York Times editorial board and senior writer for Time magazine. He has written several other books, including Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School where he was president of volume 100 of the Harvard Law Review. He also has worked as a public interest lawyer in New York City and with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and has also taught at Yale Law School.

Mr. Cohen graciously responded to a series of questions about his new book by email.

Robin Lindley: You have an extensive background in journalism and law. What inspired your moving and revelatory new book Imbeciles on eugenics in America and the notorious Supreme Court case on the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck?

Adam Cohen: I was interested in writing about the Supreme Court and the role it plays in our country, but rather than write about one of its great landmark cases, I wanted to write about a case it got very wrong — and look at why it did.  My interest, really, was in injustice.  In law school, I did not learn about this case in my constitutional law class — or anywhere else — but we knew about it, and about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous quote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  I decided to explore the case a little more — and when I did, I knew it was a story worth telling.

Robin Lindley: For people who may not be familiar with the pernicious “science” of eugenics, what would you like readers to know?

Adam Cohen: I think it’s important to realize that eugenics — the “science” of uplifting the human race by getting the “right” people to reproduce and the “wrong” people not to — was incredibly popular.  It was widely embraced in the popular media, taught in leading colleges and universities, and supported by many of the nation’s most prominent citizens.  It was truly a widespread national movement.

Robin Lindley: American scientists were at the forefront of the eugenics movement. Why did eugenics take a powerful hold in our democracy in the early twentieth century?

Adam Cohen: There were a few reasons.  In part, it was the fallout after Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution — the eugenics movement was begun in England by people who believed that if nature could select for the most “fit” humans, people could push this natural process along by regulating who reproduced and who did not.

In America, though, another factor was at work: in the 1920s, the nation was changing rapidly.  Record levels of immigration were changing the demographics of the country — bringing in people of different religions, races, and natural origins - and industrialization was driving people off of farms into crowded cities.  Historians argue that these changes made native-born, middle- and upper-class Americans anxious, and those anxieties were channeled into trying to control something they felt they could control: who was allowed to reproduce.  American eugenics was, in this sense, an attempt by society’s ruling groups to hold onto control.

Robin Lindley: What sorts of people and institutions embraced eugenics? Was there a hope for an American “master race”?

Adam Cohen:  It was, to a large extent, a movement of elites.  Academics, doctors, scientists, lawyers, and the upper classes generally were among the most enthusiastic supporters.  They were hoping to create a more elite national population — but it was not likely to happen, no matter how much they tried to recreate the nation in their own image.

Robin Lindley: Harry Laughlin was a vehement proponent of eugenics and his writing even influenced Hitler. What was his role in the U.S. movement?

Adam Cohen: He was really the national leader of the eugenic sterilization movement.  He ran the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island, in New York, which was the leading research and lobbying group for eugenics.  And he wrote the model eugenic sterilization law that many states used in drawing up their own laws.

Robin Lindley: Was there any opposition to the eugenics movement in this period?

Adam Cohen: There was not a lot of organized opposition.  The one group that did mount an opposition, lobbying against sterilization laws in state legislatures and writing against it, was American Catholics.  When bills came up for votes, priests, nuns and Catholic lay people often showed up to oppose them.  And in some states like Louisiana, which had a large Catholic population, their opposition made the difference.

Robin Lindley: What was the Immigration Act of 1924 and how did eugenics influence this extremely restrictive Act?

Adam Cohen: The Immigration Act of 1924 dramatically changed immigration, cutting immigration of Italians, Jews from Eastern Europe, and Asians dramatically.  Congress actively solicited eugenics expert opinions when it considered the law, and eugenics-minded views about the inferiority of those groups were a driving force in its adoption.

Carrie and her mother, Emma Buck, were both declared feebleminded on scant evidence and committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, where Carrie was sterilized for eugenic reasons. (Photo of Carrie Buck and her mother, Arthur Estabrook Papers, University at Albany, State University of New York)

Robin Lindley: Your book focuses on Carrie Buck and legislation in Virginia that permitted forced sterilization of the “feebleminded.” Who was Carrie Buck?

 Adam Cohen: She was a poor white young woman from Charlottesville, Virginia, who was chosen to be the first person in Virginia sterilized under its Eugenic Sterilization Act of 1924.

Robin Lindley: Why was Carrie Buck considered “feebleminded” and how was that determination made?

Adam Cohen: She had been taken in by a foster family, but when she was raped by a nephew of her foster parents, and became pregnant out of wedlock, they decided to have her declared epileptic and feeble-minded and sent away to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.  It was not that hard for them to do.

Robin Lindley: Proponents of the forced sterilization law in Virginia choreographed Ms. Buck’s “appeal” of the state’s decision to sterilize her under the law. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about her trial and state level appeal? It’s stunning that her attorney, Irving Whitehead, posed virtually no arguments for Ms. Buck while instead supporting the state’s position.

Adam Cohen: She was railroaded.  She was given a lawyer, Mr. Whitehead, who was not on her side — and he did not put on a real case for why she should not be sterilized.  He continued to represent her all the way up to the Supreme Court — and it is no real surprise that she lost.

Robin Lindley: Your discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell is illuminating and heartrending. The esteemed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a brief five paragraph opinion upholding the Virginia statute and permitting the forced sterilization of Ms. Buck—and thousands of others.

You dispel many myths about the august Justice Holmes. What impressed you most about Justice Holmes’s background and his views on eugenics?

Adam Cohen: Justice Holmes was a Boston Brahmin — a phrase his father, the dean of Harvard Medical School, and a famous writer, coined.  He was raised to believe that people like him, from prominent old families, were superior, so when eugenics came along, he was highly sympathetic.  Justice Holmes thought the world needed more people like him, and fewer like Carrie Buck — so it was no great stretch for him to uphold her sterilization.

Robin Lindley: Holmes’s opinion in the Buck case is one of the most odious ever issued by the Supreme Court, yet it was joined by seven other justices, including a former president, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, as well as a true believer in individual rights, Justice Louis Brandeis. What stands out to you in the short opinion by Holmes and why do you think the great legal minds on the court agreed with his cruel opinion?

Adam Cohen:  It is best remembered today for Justice Holmes’s terrible declaration that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” about Carrie, her mother, and her daughter (none of whom were imbeciles).  But the worst thing about the ruling, really, was that the Court not only upheld the Virginia law and Carrie’s sterilization — it urged the nation in general to sterilize more people.

Robin Lindley: Who was the lone dissenter in Buck v. Bell and what was his rationale?

Adam Cohen: The dissenter was Justice Pierce Butler, who happened to be the only Catholic on the Court.  He did not write a dissenting opinion or explain his views, but it seems likely that he was influenced by his faith.

Robin Lindley: What happened to Carrie Buck after the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the Virginia law on forced sterilization?

Adam Cohen: She was sterilized, and the daughter she gave birth to as a result of the rape died in childhood, while being raised by another family.  Carrie lived a long life, and married twice, but she died without children, something she very much regretted.

Robin Lindley; You estimate that sixty to seventy thousand people—mostly women--underwent forced sterilization in the United States from about 1907 on. What medical procedures were used to sterilize “feebleminded” men and women?

Adam Cohen:  For men it was generally a vasectomy, and for women a salpingectomy, which blocks the fallopian tubes to prevent the movement of the egg toward fertilization.

Robin Lindley: How did the American eugenics movement influence the racist policies of Germany in the 1930s?

Adam Cohen: The Nazis very much followed the United States.  We began eugenic sterilizations with a law in Indiana in 1907, well before the rise of the Nazis.  They looked to American laws as models, and Nazi scientists corresponded with Harry Laughlin and others for guidance.

Robin Lindley: How did the eugenics movement lose support in the U.S.?

Adam Cohen: The rise of Nazism dealt it a big blow.  The Eugenics Record Office closed at the end of 1939 because it lost funding, in large part because Nazism discredited the cause.  Then in the 1960s and 1970s, the rights revolution, in which society began to take a more sympathetic view toward the developmentally disabled and other people with disabilities or difference also undercut the movement.

Robin Lindley: You note that Bell v. Buck is still the law of the land. It has never been overruled. Is involuntary sterilization still possible, especially for poor and vulnerable people in situations similar to Carrie Buck?

Adam Cohen:  The case has never been overruled.  The state eugenics laws that once existed are gone now, but any state — or Congress — could pass one at any time.  And there have been reports over the years, including recent ones, of sterilizations occurring without the cover of such laws, in prisons and elsewhere.

Robin Lindley: The story you present seems very timely. Do you see resonance now of the Buck case and our infatuation with eugenics as some candidates for president stir up fear and anger with racist, misogynistic, and anti-immigrant tirades?

Adam Cohen:  This really is a story about demonizing the other and the weak — a theme that is always relevant, but particularly so in today’s political climate.  This was a moment in history when idealism — an attempt to make a better nation and world — went way off the tracks.  It is important that we remember this history so we don’t repeat it.

Robin Lindley: You have earned well-deserved praise for your exhaustive historical, medical and legal research. What was your research process? It must have been especially difficult to obtain hospital records and background on Carrie Buck, her family and other victims of forced sterilization. And your book must have taken years to write.

Adam Cohen: It is striking how much more material is online these days than there was when I first started writing books four years ago.  I was amazed at things that came on line even during the time when I was writing the book.  That said, much of the material that I used was in archives and libraries — the University of Virginia, the Library of Virginia in Richmond, the Harry Laughlin Papers at Truman State University in Missouri, and other places like that. 

I love history and original documents, so for me a week in rural Missouri reading the Laughlin papers is a lot of fun — or finding the original court documents in the Virginia courthouse where the original trial occurred.  I’m not sure I had any special process — just a lot of typing of notes into my trusty MacBook. 

One thing I learned: write your footnotes as you go, because you don’t want to be 2,000 miles away and realize you don’t know what page that quote or fact was on, or what the date on that letter was.

Robin Lindley: You obviously have a strong sense of justice. What are your hopes in terms of the repairing the damage done by the Buck case and the reprehensible practice of forced sterilization in the United States?

Adam Cohen: Well, I hope that the book is getting at least some people talking about eugenics, and thinking about why it is a road we don’t want to go down again.  But I also hope it gets people thinking more broadly about how we, as a society, use power — and whom we use it against.  Knowing how wrong our nation got eugenics in the 1920s should, I think, make us more modest about our own judgment — and get us thinking about what we might be getting wrong today.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Mr. Cohen for your thoughtful comments and congratulations on your powerful and revelatory new book, a significant contribution on a neglected chapter of our history.