The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 2 of 3) | News Feature | Indy Week
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The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 2 of 3) 

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Through advertising, public relations campaigns and speaking engagements, the Human Betterment Association expanded by telling different people what they wanted to hear. Its leaders spoke about birth control and voluntary sterilization to some, and about involuntary sterilization to others. And so just five years after the group had launched a national campaign, the number of sterilizations began to soar in states where it was concentrating. Gamble ultimately organized and funded local eugenics chapters in six states. North Carolina was documented in the 2002 Winston-Salem Journal series Against Their Will, but similar efforts took place in Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas and Texas. In many of the states Gamble provided seed money in the form of Procter & Gamble stock (see story, this page).

By 1950 more than 180,000 pamphlets promoting eugenic sterilization had been mailed just in North Carolina and Iowa. More than 100 U.S. colleges had requested 12,000 copies of a questionnaire designed to promote higher birth rates among the upper classes. Requests for publications on eugenics came in from Northwestern University, the Los Angeles Public Library, Skidmore College, the University of New Mexico and dozens more institutions. In one month praise for the new eugenics campaign came in from a school superintendent in Oregon, the Department of Social Work at Florida State University, the University of Texas and Stanford University.

The Human Betterment Association was able to attract respected and influential supporters, including Nelson Rockefeller. The future vice president and governor of New York helped solicit funds for the new sterilization project.

In Georgia, Dr. Lombard Kelly, dean of the state Medical College in Augusta, agreed to be president of that eugenics chapter. In Arkansas, minutes of the group from 1952 show that "5,419 copies of Why Fear Sterilization, 3,436 copies of Speaking of Sterilization and 1,290 copies of Human Sterilization had been mailed to Nurses, Ministers, Attorneys, State and County Officials, Social Workers and to Doctors, by request, in the state."

More often than not, public notice of the campaign was positive. A Dec. 2, 1949, newspaper clip from Salt Lake City noted that "Utah sterilized a greater proportion of its residents in 1947 than any other state in the nation. The Utah program for sterilization of the feeble minded and insane which led to this record is praised as an 'important achievement in public health' in an article appearing in a recent issue of the Rocky Mountain Medical Journal. It was written by Dr. Clarence J. Gamble of Milton, Mass. Dr. Gamble added, however, that even Utah is failing to keep up with the number of feeble minded added to the population each year. He estimated that there are more than 6,370 feeble minded persons in the state – or 12 times the 539 who have been sterilized since Utah's law became effective in 1925."

While many people and organizations gladly bought in to the eugenics message, Gamble's aggressive tactics caused problems, too. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America directed its affiliates to have nothing to do with groups working for sterilization, suggesting there was particular concern about Gamble. Even his highly selective biography (which omits virtually any mention of the eugenics campaign) notes that he "was never able to appreciate that others had needs, motivations and goals of their own which might conflict with whatever he wanted done at the time."

One of Gamble's letters to the Georgia eugenics chapter, sent while he was on vacation in Cape Cod, gives a glimpse of such behavior. "What do we need to do to make possible more sterilizations per year? What's the present bottleneck? Perhaps you can tell me this most accurately if you apply it to Augusta. How can more of the feebleminded there be operated on?" Gamble demanded.

In April 1957 the Human Betterment Association convinced the National Association of Social Workers to share its 23,000-member mailing list. Gamble offered to pay for half the mailing costs, and the board noted that "this unusual opportunity to present the Association's program was one which must not be missed." (But in 1961, NASW changed its position and declined to let its mailing list be used.)

The group also started a pilot program in Philadelphia, meeting one-on-one with hundreds of social workers to determine how willing each was to recommend sterilization for people on public assistance. Just as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Carnegie Institute played major roles in promoting the pre-World War II eugenics movement, the new Human Betterment Association became a source for public officials all around the country.

In North Carolina, Mecklenburg County appears to have had a particularly close tie. One result of the new outreach was a surge in "off the record" sterilizations. The old system of eugenics was terribly flawed, relying on faulty science and simplistic IQ tests. But the eugenics that began to emerge in the 1950s was in some ways even worse. In many cases there were no tests, or even vague standards, and the decision on who was or wasn't fit for parenthood often came down to how much money people had.

But the turmoil in sexual politics that began in the 1950s played a role, too. A 1955 memo from New York City showed that even the possibility of interracial sex could provoke hysterical responses. "A mother wished her 17-year-old daughter sterilized before the girl went to a mixed-race camp. A neurologist at the Neurologist Institute recommended that the girl be sterilized. The Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics did not know how to handle the case as the girl was a minor ... After long deliberation with administrative heads and legal advisors, the hospital decided against sterilization."

As tensions over race continued to build, another force emerged to energize those who wanted to sterilize the poor. For decades the eugenics movement had suggested that certain groups were unfit and provided varying definitions of the term. But in the late 1950s came a simpler rallying cry: too many people in the world, period. Dixie Cup Company founder Hugh Moore published The Population Bomb in 1954, warning that the growth in human population was unsustainable. That argument found a wider range of support among politicians and the general public than any of the earlier ones made by supporters of eugenics.

In the spring of 1959 the executive director of the Human Betterment Association wrote to then Sen. John F. Kennedy, asking him to speak out on birth control. On June 5, Kennedy wrote back, saying, "I too have been concerned with the population explosion and I do believe that satisfactory means must be found to retard the growth of population, particularly in some areas of the world."

There was no discussion of sterilization in the correspondence, and certainly no mention of eugenics. But racial tensions and fears about the world population and the rapidly growing availability of sterilization combined to create a perfect climate for sterilizing poor people in the 1960s. Before long, a Nobel Prize winner was openly suggesting that blacks had lower IQs than whites and that the less intelligent should be sterilized. Major newspapers and magazines all over the country gave extensive coverage to the crackpot idea, suggesting that it had merit. As activists pushed for clearer laws to prevent abuse of sterilization, aides in the Nixon White House decided the issue was too controversial and kept the new rules locked in a warehouse.

As a charitable organization, eugenics group, leader received tax breaks

The wealthy Americans who bankrolled the post-World War II eugenics movement believed they were helping society, but they were helped too—by receiving federal tax credits that, in effect, financially rewarded them for pushing involuntary sterilization.

To the U.S. Treasury Department, the New Jersey eugenics group Birthright was just another charitable organization, formed "to foster all reliable and scientific means for improving the biological stock of the human race," according to a 1943 letter from the government.

But Birthright was embarking on a nationwide campaign to sterilize people deemed unfit to have children. Much of the group's seed money came from Dr. Clarence Gamble, an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and a Harvard Medical School researcher, who received tax breaks for his contributions.

In 1943, the Gamble Family Trust donated $10,000 to Birthright to launch the new eugenics movement—and evidence shows that Gamble was quite aware of the tax benefits of his eugenics gifts. "The market value of the stock is deductible from income for tax purposes, and it can be sold by the charitable organization without tax on the profits," Gamble wrote in a 1946 letter to James Hanes of Hanes Hosiery in Winston-Salem, regarding funding for a local eugenics group in North Carolina.

Gamble built his fortune after inheriting an even million dollars in stock on his 21st birthday in 1915—the equivalent of about $22 million in 2011. The one condition his father imposed was that Gamble give at least 10 percent of his income to church or charitable groups each year.

When Gamble donated shares of Procter & Gamble stock to eugenics groups, he could legally claim a write-off for his gift and use that credit to reduce the taxes he owed on other income. Such donations were—and are—completely legal.

Yet, some of Gamble's colleagues in the eugenics movement believed he abused the tax system by continuing to take dividend payments on the stock he donated as charitable gifts. Marion Olden, a Birthright founder, said that she mailed Gamble interest payments on a stock donation. "You know that was crooked, that was cheating the government on his income, you see ..." Olden said in a previously unpublished interview done by William Van Essendelft in the 1970s.

Other members of the group—called Birthright at the time—simply complained that Gamble was trying to exercise too much control over what was partly his own donation, so it's unclear whether he actually did anything wrong.

But some state tax officials questioned whether promoting eugenics was really a charitable cause. Gamble organized and funded a series of state eugenics chapters in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the Texas Betterment League noted. "On June 19, 1952, our Treasurer, Mr. R.W. Fender, received $1,613.19 from Dr. Clarence Gamble of Procter & Gamble from the sale of stock given by Dr. Gamble. This amount assured the organization of adequate funds for our work."

The league's first attempt to gain charitable status was rejected by the Texas Secretary of State. "We are returning herewith the application for the above proposed corporation in order that the purpose clause specify in reasonable detail just how the corporation purports to be benevolent, charitable, educational and missionary," an August 1952 letter noted.

However, the league revised its mission: "Specifically, its purpose is to disseminate to the public medical and scientific information concerning the transmission by mentally defective parents to their descendants of hereditary insanity or feebleness of mind; to inform them of the devastating effect upon society of the continued transmission of such hereditary mental diseases to posterity; to point out the means and methods by which medical science can prevent such transmission, and to encourage the use of such methods."

The Texas Secretary of State's Office then approved the league's charitable status.


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