An American Dilemma and Eugenics

A woodcarving of Jesus and Satan

The word “eugenic” is an unquestionably negative adjective –tagging something eugenic is to disparage it, except in the rare case of someone who attempts to resuscitate some aspect of the vilified American eugenics movement. However, if asked, it is doubtful that those who employ the term to vilify something they object to can give an accurate definition of the term. Those who turn to the history of science to define the term are likely to be frustrated. The American eugenics movement was in fact so broad and historical scholarship on it has been so profuse that by the end of the twentieth century the word “eugenics” was applied to so many different activities that it was of little use in describing much of anything. And, since every industrialized country in the world had some kind of program under the rubric “eugenics” the problem becomes more acute if we move beyond the United States. Today, historians, activists, journalists and assorted political pundits can easily find evidence in the many activities associated with the word eugenics to support nearly any assertion they wanted to make. “What,” asked Philip Pauly a quarter century ago, “is then left of ‘eugenics’ apart from Francis Galton’s euphonious term and impressionistic images of semiutopian technocratic professionals?” (p. 133).

Unfortunately, outside the specialists in the history of biology, “eugenics” is often assumed to lead directly to the Nazi Final Solution. In a society that expressly values diversity and civil rights, the word “eugenicist” carries the same sort of weight that being labeled a pinko carried during the red scare. Diane Paul, who has extensively studied and written about both the history of the American eugenics movement and ongoing genetic research and interventions that are sometimes associated with the label eugenic, wrote, “I argue that efforts to demarcate eugenics from non-eugenics will prove as fruitless as analogous efforts to demarcate ‘science’ from non-science’ for the same reason; eugenics, like science, is simply much too heterogeneous. I believe that disputes about the meaning of eugenics are also unproductive. At present, the term is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad, but beyond the pale. It is a way of ending, not promoting, discussion.” (pp. 96-7)

Rhetorician Richard Weaver would call the word “eugenics” in our world a “devil term.” By this he meant a single term that stood for an idea or concept that was so repellent as to be universally rejected. Writing in the early 1960s, Weaver suggested that “un-American” or “Communist” or, significantly, “Nazi,” were a good examples of such “term[s] of repulsion” (p. 223).  A devil term cuts of discussion. It stops inquiry. The use of them betrays a desire to eliminate any further discussion of the problem.

I bring this up because one of my Twitter frenemies keeps bringing up (even though no one asked) his belief that “Gunnar Myrdal was a hardcore-eugenicist!” if I mention Myrdal’s enormously influential book, An American Dilemma.  Published in 1944, AAD set the stage for how Americans wrote and thought about race relations for two decades. It is widely considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century on race relations. What could it mean that this anti-racist classic was authored by a “hardcore eugenicist?” To answer that question, we need a clear understanding of “eugenics” which, as Paul noted years ago, is hard to come by.

We have a huge literature on the history of eugenics and we must navigate it with some care. Unfortunately, my Twitter interrogator doesn’t show much knowledge of it. For example, in one blog post he wrote: “The involvement of the early 20th century Progressive Movement with the racial pseudo-science of eugenics has only recently begun to receive a thorough and appropriately critical historical treatment.” A historian of science would never use the Whiggish and historically meaningless term, “pseudo-science” but let that pass for a moment. Is the central claim correct? Had the Progressive movement’s involvement in eugenics in the US been neglected or ignored. Hardly. Just pulling books off my shelf I find the Progressive Movement treated, often prominently, in the following (listed in reverse chronological order of publication):

  • Lombardo, Paul A. 2008. Three Generations, No Imbeciles : Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kline, Wendy. 2001. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics From the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hasian, Marouf A. 1996. Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Paul, Diane B. 1998. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature/Nurture Debate. Albany NY: State University of New York Press. [Note: this volume includes her essay “Eugenics and the Left” originally published in 1984].
  • Pickens, Donald K. 1968. Eugenics and the Progressives. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Haller, Mark H. 1963. Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitudes in American Thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Vecoli, Rudolph J. “Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History (1960): 190-202.

This is just a quick look at my shelves and it doesn’t include dozens of books on the subject as well as hundreds of articles. (an aside: My copy of Dan Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenics (1985) is missing for some reason but I’m fairly sure he treats the Progressive movement in that book as well. My copy of Kenneth Ludmerer’s Genetics in American Society (1972) is missing too! I need to unpack all those boxes in the the garage!) My point is that to state that historians have avoided the link between eugenics and the Progressives is to ignore over a half century of research. This does not inspire confidence that naming Myrdal a “hardcore eugenicist” comes from a place of informed inquiry.

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal as Eugenicists

A photo of Alva and Gunnar Myrdal

Alva and Gunnar Myrdal

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal were a  power couple in Swedish politics and intellectual life. Gunnar won the Nobel prize in 1974 and Alva eight years later. It is fair to call them eugenicists, but before we get much further we need to sharpen our analytic tools. Eugenics in Sweden was part of the Social Democratic welfare state. Consider this 1942 review of Alva Myrdal’s book, Nation and Family published in the Journal of Heredity  as a way to introduce Swedish eugenic programs to Anglophone audiences. The devil term “eugenics” conjures up the mass sterilization, if not the outright “mercy” killing of racial inferiors in order to protect the noble Nordic race from the horrors or racial interbreeding. What we find instead are the outlines of a broad social safety net and an outlook that:

precludes the application of many direct and simple, but coercive measures which other nations have used.

It is from this point of view that Dr.Myrdal discusses as aspects of population policy such topics as: educational preparation for married life, the economics of homemaking, housing for families, problems of public and maternal health, the the incomplete family, social security and the care of the Handicapped, recreation and the family, and the employment of women.

Benefits should be given directly to children and mothers in the form of medical care, adequate nutrition, housing, education, and the like. Benefits thus given by the state will substantially lessen the economic burden and promote the healthy development of the children; thus reconciling the qualitative and quantitative objectives of the program.

Now, our libertarian friends may react with horror at the thought of socialized medical care, social security, fair employment practices for women, care of the handicapped but I, for one, think all that sounds pretty damn good. And all of it was part of the Myrdals’ eugenic program although it is difficult for us to see that because of the negative connotations of the the word here in the twenty-first century.

So, many eugenic measures suggested by the Myrdals had little to do with biological heredity. Neither did they have much to do with racism. According to Gunnar Broberg and Mattias Tyden. in their essay “Eugenics in Sweden: Efficient Care:”

The Myrdals, however, were not out to protect the “race”; they did not care in the least for Teutonic race mysticism. Invariably they saw the population less as a biological entity than a mathematical or physical quantity. “Race” was a qualitative concept of no use in politics. (p. 97).

The Myrdals were not racists. On the contrary, their important work on the population crisis, Kris i befolkningsfragan, placed population and family problems in a socioeconomic context, and was, consequently, a plea for social and economic reforms. They evidently regarded eugenics with some suspicion: “The eugenicists, who in part are responsible for the investigation of the qualitative aspects of population questions, have made important contributions in special fields. As to more general guiding principles, their contributions, in part, have been of questionable value.” (p. 104)

But what about sterilization? Wasn’t that part of Sweden’s eugenic program? Well, yes and no. Sterilization’s relationship with eugenic thought is complicated. In this country, for example, compulsory sterilization programs preceded eugenic rationales. In the best history we have of U.S. sterilization laws, Mark Largent’s Breeding Contempt, Largent argues that physicians interested in controlling their patients preceded biologists in crafting sterilization laws here and that the role of biologists has been “overstated in the histories of eugenics” regarding sterilization (p. 9). Biologists certainly were involved with crafting sterilization laws but they “arrived quite late to the discussions about coercively sterilizing those citizens who were presumed to carry hereditary defects and  they gained much more from participating in the movement than the movement gained from them” (p. 39).

The complexities of the relationship between sterilization and eugenics arise from the multiple rationales for sterilization policies. Eugenic rationales emphasized the dangers of heredity diseases passed onto future generations. Social rationales emphasized the inability of some people to adequately care for their children. Medical rationales emphasized the dangers of reproduction to the patient herself (almost always a woman, in this case). All three rationales can work together obviously, but it is important to sort out the reasons someone might advocate for a sterilization law.  Simply pointing to the existence of some sterilization policy and summoning the devil by shouting “eugenics” is misleading and cuts off any real historical understanding.

Sweden, like the United States, had sterilization laws: one in the 1930s and one in 1941, precisely when the Myrdals were involved in policymaking. Neither successfully advocated coerced sterilization save for those who could not make the decision for themselves and only 20% of sterilizations performed between 1934-41 were classified that way (Broberg and Tyden, 2005, p. 108). Further, it was precisely at this time when eugenic arguments in favor of sterilization began fading away in favor of social arguments. Alberto Spektorowski explains:

In 1933-1934 the eugenic argument had been partly replaced by a social one. From a political point of view, the Social Democratic Party that took office in 1932 legitimized what could be defined as the “right way” of communitarian living. A positive population policy was aimed at the ‘right-living’ members of the community. To these groups, improved health care, housing, et cetera, would serve as encouragement, and would also increase production in the long-term. A policy of sterilization, on the other hand, was aimed at the ‘wrong-living,’ in an attempt to discourage their actions as well as to reduce short- and long-term costs. Although clear links were seen between hereditary genetics and social problems, the latter aspects were the primary subjects of concern. The subsequent parliamentary debate of 1941 even featured speakers who wished to abandon the Darwinist basis of the policy proposal in order to pursue more radical reforms in this area. (p. 96)

After World War II, the eugenic rationale had disappeared almost entirely from sterilization decisions while the medical rationale took the forefront:

Chart showing a sharp drop in eugenic sterilizations in Sweden between 1945-75.

Broberg, Gunnar, and Mattias Tyden. “Eugenics in Sweden: Efficient Care.” In Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and Finland, 2005, p. 139.

To summarize: The Myrdals could be labeled “eugenicists” if we understand the term to include a broad array of social programs in the Swedish welfare state. They could be considered supporters of voluntary sterilization, and in some cases coerced sterilization, as a method of birth control as part of this broad array. They could have supported sterilization for multiple reasons, one of which could have been to prevent the transmission of hereditary diseases while others had nothing to do with such matters. There is no basis at all to think their eugenics resembled those of Nazi Germany’s racist programs from which they can be very clearly distinguished.

None of this is to argue that Swedish eugenics or sterilization programs were without problems or even praiseworthy. There are good reasons to be suspicious of any program that would disproportionately impact vulnerable members of society. There are good reasons to interrogate how “voluntary” sterilizations were when under the control of the mechanisms of the welfare state. However, none of these important questions are answered by simply claiming things like: “The Myrdals were eugenicists who supported sterilization” and thinking that you have contributed anything toward a clear understanding of the Myrdals or their social policies.

An American Dilemma

Cover of Gunnar Myrdal's book An American Dilemma

An American Dilemma is a damn big book. The dilemma Myrdal explored was the contradiction between the “American Creed” of freedom, democracy, and equality with the reality of Jim Crow and other racist practices. The book was an enormous compendium of fact and figures about the condition of the “American Negro.” It established what historian Walter Jackson called “A Liberal Orthodoxy” regarding how to address American racism.

It is not a book that advocates eugenics. Eugenics as a topic is discussed (not advocated) on two pages of the book. Sterilization as a topic is discussed (not advocated) on one. The topic is mentioned fleetingly in Walter Jackson’s book who calls Myrdal’s sterilization proposal a “straw man” (p. 202). In the same passage Jackson says the discussion of sterilization “would later become controversial” but provides no footnote to such a controversy. Sterilization and eugenics appear as topics in exactly two pages in William Barber’s Gunnar Myrdal: An Intellectual Biography (2008, pp. 60-1) and there only regarding Myrdal’s work in Sweden rather than in the U.S. In his exhaustive treatment of the reception of An American Dilemma which covers nearly every field in which the book had impact David Southern does not note any discussion of sterilization or eugenics in the twenty-five years following the book’s publication. If there was a major controversy about Myrdal’s mentions of sterilization and eugenics in An American Dilemma it does not appear in the extant and extensive literature on Myrdal (at least not any any literature I know, please correct me if I’m wrong). The Twitterati accused me of “not knowing” about how sterilization as a topic appeared in the An American Dilemma and I can do little but beg forgiveness for not remembering those three pages of a 1,500-page book. To think that the book is somehow a brief for eugenics disguised as an anti-racist tract is absurd. Gunnar Myrdal was no “hardcore eugenicist.”

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