The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why hero worship is a mistake for the left

Their heroes often have a dark side.

Gov. Earl Warren waves as he and members of the California delegation leave Sacramento on a special train to attend the Republican convention in 1948. (AP)

Earl Warren is remembered as one of the greatest liberals in modern U.S. history. During his 16 years on the Supreme Court, he safeguarded voting rights, expanded the rights of the accused and, of course, wrote the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down racial segregation in public schools.

Yet there is another, darker side of Warren’s legacy, one that few people remember. For years, he was instrumental in a government program that deprived poor and marginalized women of their rights, violated their privacy and incarcerated them without due process. As California’s attorney general and later as its governor, Warren led state and local officials as they detained women whom they “reasonably suspected” of having sexually transmitted infections (syphilis or gonorrhea), examined them for these STIs without their consent and then imprisoned the infected ones for weeks or months for forced treatments.

Warren’s complicity in this program is a good reminder that many of our political heroes were far more complicated figures than we remember. For many people, these figures were never heroes at all. And this, in turn, provides a lesson for those seeking to improve the world today: Relying on the rich, the famous and the powerful to change the world is a losing proposition, one that can hurt as many as it helps.

Beginning during World War I, and continuing into the 1950s and beyond, government officials across the United States imprisoned tens of thousands — perhaps even hundreds of thousands — of women and girls in squalid detention facilities, without due process, because they were suspected of having STIs. This largely forgotten quarantine program was called the “American Plan.” The detentions occurred for decades before the discovery of penicillin or sulfa drugs, so these women had to endure dangerous injections of mercury and doses of arsenic-based drugs. Some were even sterilized.

In February 1941, federal officials urging enforcement of the American Plan met for the first time with Warren, then the state attorney general. He impressed them by voicing strong support for the plan, and “let it slip that he had already been advising the authorities” in San Bernardino, who were enthusiastically detaining and examining hundreds of “suspected sources of venereal disease infection.” In the weeks that followed, Warren would persuade his law enforcement colleagues to pledge “their cooperation in getting rid of prostitutes” on a statewide level. At his urging, several cities across California immediately began rounding up and examining suspected women.

Following his election as California’s governor two years later, Warren happily oversaw the continued enforcement of the American Plan. For years under his leadership, officials imprisoned thousands of women — disproportionately working-class women and women of color — depriving them of the due process Warren later fought for on the Supreme Court. After World War II ended, Warren lobbied Congress to continue funding federal efforts to promote the plan.

Warren’s forgotten complicity in this forgotten program was certainly not unique. The plan began during the progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who personally disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a wartime presidential cash reserve for the construction of new facilities for “the custody and rehabilitation of girls and women who proved to be a menace to the health and morals of the men in training.”

The program continued during and well after the presidency of another liberal hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Congress balked at funding federal efforts to imprison women, the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. took over financing much of the American Plan, donating millions over several decades. At a state and local level, such liberal luminaries as Fiorello La Guardia and Edmund “Pat” Brown extolled its virtues and heartily enforced it.

Perhaps most surprising, even the American Civil Liberties Union tacitly supported the plan. Though the ACLU’s executive director for Northern California, Ernest Besig (the same man who sued the government over Japanese internment), objected to some elements and even represented some women suing for their freedom, he also made sure not to go too far. “We are, of course, not opposed to a venereal disease control program in San Francisco,” Besig said in 1945, “and, indeed, I am sure that our membership is heartily in favor of some kind of control.”

This complicity was not unique to liberal men — some elite women promoted and expanded the American Plan. Many of the first generation of female prison reformers and professional social workers joined the federal government during World War I specifically to oversee it. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was complicit: She refused to object when she attended meetings at which elite women endorsed a program of compulsory examinations and “quarantine hospitals,” and she repeatedly raised money for organizations that promoted the incarceration of infected women.

For the most part, elite men and women supported the American Plan out of a genuine — if hopelessly misguided — desire to do good. They wanted to help “fallen women” and prevent the spread of disease. Female reformers thought they were helping their “wayward sisters,” in the parlance of the times.

Yet they embraced a philosophy that demonized those without their standing. They wholeheartedly believed that the sexual promiscuity of the poor had to be policed and reformed — while saying nothing about the proclivities of those in their class. Convinced that they were right, elite liberals didn’t bother to listen to women themselves — especially not poor or nonwhite women. They made bigoted assumptions and embraced eugenic beliefs, leading to the unjust imprisonment of thousands.

The liberal embrace of the American Plan is instructive to those of us fighting for change in the present. It testifies to how many of our heroes saw poor women as citizens unworthy of protection under the law. Though liberal, they shared some of the instincts and blinders of less liberal members of their class. They were too comfortably enmeshed in an oppressive system — a system that often provided opportunities and benefits for them — to fight for genuinely radical change.

The same holds true today. No prominent, powerful hero, be it Oprah or Elon Musk or even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will ride to the rescue and create the fairer, more just, more compassionate society demanded by those on the left. Instead, the American Plan teaches us that if we want change, we must fight for it ourselves.

Indeed, the American Plan’s most effective opponents were not liberal reformers. Rather, it was the incarcerated women themselves. Over the decades of the plan’s existence, thousands of these women escaped, rioted and set their detention facilities on fire. They launched hunger strikes and spoke out in newspapers and sued the government. In many places, including San Francisco and New York, it was the activism of these women that finally halted enforcement of the plan. It is their example we have forgotten, and it is their actions we must remember.