David A. Hollinger is professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism.”
When Congress sharply restricted immigration in 1924, it acted on the basis of ideas about race and heredity known to be false. The story of this triumph of ignorance has been told before, but never more vividly than by Daniel Okrent in a book that appears in another era when well-financed engines of deceit affect immigration policy. “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America” is a rigorously historical work. But readers who follow today’s debates about immigration and who are familiar with tweets from the White House may reflect on how weak the truth can be when powerful interests try to obscure it.
The title of “The Guarded Gate” was inspired by an 1895 poem by the Boston patrician Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a leading restrictionist. Aldrich would have none of Emma Lazarus’s words, chiseled into the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Writing in a mode more like Donald Trump, Aldrich warned:
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them passes a wild motley throng . . .
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?
Okrent’s central theme is the gradual and portentous convergence of two originally autonomous movements of the period just before World War I. The movement to restrict immigration gained steam in the 1890s among New England patricians like Aldrich and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. They were repelled by the massive influx of people from Eastern and Southern Europe that began in the previous decade. Simultaneously, the movement to improve the human species by promoting reproduction by individuals of the finest stock began in England and spread to social elites in America. This eugenics movement gained superficial plausibility from Charles Darwin’s emphasis on inheritance. Eugenics became relevant to immigration restriction when ersatz scientists divided even Europeans into distinctive races and ascribed to each race differing levels of intelligence and character. Although the science of genetics had established well before World War I that intelligence, honesty, promiscuity, sloth and other traits central to eugenics were not carried by single genes and did not define races, restrictionists seized eugenics as an apparently scientific basis for keeping Jews and Italians and Poles and Hungarians out of the United States.
Okrent enlivens his narrative with vivid portraits of Aldrich, Lodge and other prominent figures active in the campaign to avoid the “race suicide” said to follow from allowing the northwestern European population of the United States to be overwhelmed by ostensibly inferior groups. Okrent’s cast of characters includes Margaret Sanger, the birth-control advocate, and Mary Harriman, a railroad heiress who was then the wealthiest woman in the United States. None of Okrent’s subjects was more colorful than Madison Grant, the designer of the Bronx Zoo and a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Grant gained fame as the individual most responsible for saving the California redwoods from loggers before writing his generation’s most popular and pernicious treatise on race and heredity, “The Passing of the Great Race.”
The legendary anthropologist Franz Boas and a handful of biologists attacked this 1916 book for popularizing genetic ideas that were simply wrong. But a number of academics sympathized on cultural and social grounds with immigration restriction. Like the Republican Party leaders of our own time who understand Trump’s threat to the rule of law, but refuse to criticize him because his popularity enables them to achieve their own political ends, eminent scientists at Columbia, Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities enabled Grant to sell himself to the public as a leading scientist. Okrent reminds readers of a scene in “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, in which a dimwitted boor explains that books about race suicide are “all scientific,” so it’s imperative for the “dominant race” to “watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
Fitzgerald laughed, but millions of Americans did not. They came to believe that the population groups then called “races” carried genes with vastly different potential for the breeding of better — or worse — human beings. The rightful owners of the country were “Nordics,” a term popularized by Grant that Okrent reports achieved its greatest use as late as 1941. The least that a scientifically informed nation could do was to keep the threatening races at a safe distance.
What finally discredited eugenics in America was less the scientific community — which was slow to publicize sound genetic research — than Adolf Hitler. Okrent shows how avidly Nazi race theorists and administrators copied the Americans, especially their enactment of numerous state laws authorizing sterilization of the “unfit.” If Grant had not been confined to a wheelchair and near death in 1937, he almost certainly would have accepted Hermann Goring’s invitation to join leading Nazis in a ceremonial hunt in a German forest. Officials on trial at Nuremberg said they were following the American lead and cited in their defense “The Passing of the Great Race.”
Well after popular revulsion at Nazi racial practices cast eugenics in an unfavorable light, the United States continued its preference for immigrants from northwestern Europe, as in the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Even after passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, when Congress finally dropped that preference from American law, Sen. Edward Kennedy assured skeptics that “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset.” Had the legislators properly understood the new law’s family unification provision, allowing for massive immigration from Latin America and Asia, they might not have passed it. By then, Jews and Italians had become “white,” and eventually — as Okrent takes almost perverse pleasure in pointing out — many of the restrictionists’ children married sons and daughters of immigrants of the very demographic groups their parents most despised.
Martin Luther King Jr. loved to quote Carlyle’s hopeful dictum, “No lie can live forever.” Perhaps. But once a lie is in place, it takes a lot to kill it.
By Daniel Okrent
478 pp. $32