May 10, 2019


Saving the Nordics from the Mongrels: Review of 'The Guarded Gate' By Daniel Okrent (RICHARD STARR, April 2019, Commentary)

The men whose vision was embodied in the 1924 Act did not by and large believe that the immigrant masses could or even should be assimilated and Americanized. Okrent gives us the view of Kenneth Roberts, who for years had been banging the drum for restriction in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, the largest and most influential of American magazines in those pre-radio, pre-TV days: "If America doesn't keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southeastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in return." This was not the extreme view of an outlying crank; the Saturday Evening Post was the beating heart of the mainstream media. 

For the highbrow version, Okrent gives us Fairfield Osborn (Princeton, 1877), Columbia University professor of zoology and president of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society. In 1925, Osborn gave thanks to the philanthropist Mary Harriman (mother of Averell), winner of the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences, whose munificence had helped make possible the great legislative triumph of the year before--the "wise, deliberate... exclusion of citizens we cannot welcome to our country." Osborn's concern, to be clear, was not the assimilation of the lower orders but the protection and perfection of those at the top. At last, he said, "we are tending toward the selection of the best, the exclusion of the worst."

The Immigration Act of 1924 was hugely popular. The vote in the House was 308-62; in the Senate, 69-9. Good old-fashioned prejudice and xenophobia no doubt played a part, along with fears of Bolshevists and anarchist bombers. What really ran up the score, however, was the prestige and authority of pseudoscience.

A few Boston Brahmins had, since the 1890s, been pushing for literacy tests and other stratagems to slow the rate of immigration, but success kept eluding them. Then, starting in the years before World War I, America went crazy for the new branch of applied biology known as eugenics. 

In a nutshell, the eugenicists were hereditarian extremists. Extrapolating from Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection and the more recent laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in his experiments on pea plants, they thought they could enhance the human race. Humanity, they believed, was built on a hierarchy of races, genetically determined. Those at the top of the pyramid (Nordics), if only they could be exhorted or induced to mate with one another, would pass their moral, physical, intellectual, and spiritual gifts to their offspring (along with blue eyes and blond hair). The lesser breeds, morally, physically, and intellectually inferior by various degrees, were unfortunately surpassing their betters in one key skill: reproduction. Even worse, they were intermarrying with their betters to produce mongrel offspring. Best that they be kept at a distance, or even sterilized. (Dozens of states passed compulsory sterilization laws for the mentally defective and were blessed with the approval of the Supreme Court, 8-1 in the notorious 1927 Buck v. Bell case.)

As Okrent notes, "this ferment of racial analysis was a direct, if almost certainly unintended, product of the Darwinian revolution: once you establish that not everyone is descended from Adam and Eve--and thus not genetically related to one another--anything goes: racial differences, racial hierarchies, racial hatred." And though eugenics may sound to modern ears like Darwin for Dummies, it wasn't the dummies who led the parade. It was the best and brightest, good progressives, pioneering conservationists, highly credentialed scientists and intellectuals.

Posted by at May 10, 2019 8:47 PM