EUGENICS -- the idea of manipulating human genes to the end of improving individuals, groups or entire populations -- is strongly associated with the Nazi programs of sterilization, euthanasia and genocide. But during the first third of the 20th century, eugenics movements flourished in many nations, including the United States. In the last few years, newspaper articles have called attention to -- and prompted official apologies for -- state-mandated sterilizations done legally to rid society of its alleged human trash, the ''weak'' in the title of Edwin Black's new book, notably in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon and California.
Black is the author previously of ''IBM and the Holocaust,'' a work strongly suggesting that the company, with its punch-card machines, knowingly assisted Hitler's brutalities. His ''War Against the Weak,'' apparently written with similar intent, is a muckraking book about a subject incontestably awash in muck. In the vein of the genre, it is a stew rich in facts and spiced with half-truths, exaggerations and distortions.
The most pungent ingredient is its central thesis: eugenic doctrines and policies favoring ''Nordic superiority'' were in fact invented in the United States, were developed in alliance with American wealth and power, and were then exported, inspiring Hitler and achieving their ultimate realization in the Holocaust.
Black pursues his thesis across largely familiar ground -- the eugenic theories that attributed costly physical conditions and socially deleterious behaviors to genetics, accounting for many of them as expressions of ''feeble-mindedness''; the claims in the United States that such deficiencies occurred with particularly high frequency among African-Americans and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe; the respectable standing of eugenic science at leading universities, state agencies and institutions, public interest organizations and research installations, notably the Eugenics Record Office, which was part of what became the department of genetics at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and which was financed in the main by the widow of the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman and in part by grants from the Rockefeller philanthropies.
Black rightly observes that eugenic research into heredity combined ''equal portions of gossip, race prejudice, sloppy methods and leaps of logic, all caulked together by elements of actual genetic knowledge to create the glitter of a genuine science.''
The eugenics movement provided a biological rationale for the Immigration Act of 1924, which discriminated against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, and for laws in a number of states that restricted interracial marriage. It scored a major victory with the case of Buck v. Bell in 1927, in which the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, upheld the constitutionality of Virginia's eugenic sterilization law, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writing for the majority that the principle that upheld vaccination for the good of the community's physical health could sustain cutting the fallopian tubes for the benefit of its social health.
Black has used the considerable work on eugenics, assiduously checking sources, including my own, and drawn on original published and archival materials in the United States and Europe, collecting some 50,000 documents, he tells us, with the aid of numerous volunteers working in several dozen repositories. If he covers what is in the main a well-known story, he adds to it substantial new detail, much of it chilling in its exposure of the shameless racism, class prejudice and cruelties of eugenic attitudes and practices in the United States. Some American eugenicists argued for killing the ''unfit,'' and a few indeed practiced it by subjecting newborns to euthanasia (not a merciful death for those in pain, Black points out, but a painless death for those ''deemed unworthy of life'').
In support of his main thesis, Black stresses that European eugenicists were linked with their American counterparts through international organizations, meetings, correspondence and visits several made to the United States, some to work at the Eugenics Record Office.
German eugenicists praised American policies, research and writings and incorporated accounts of them into their works. In ''Mein Kampf,'' Hitler himself praised America's sterilization laws and immigration restriction act. Black also emphasizes that beginning in the 20's and continuing well into the Nazi period, the Rockefeller Foundation provided sizable funds for research at three eugenically oriented research institutes in Germany. All, he writes, would ''make their mark in the history of medical murder.''
True enough, eugenic actions were pioneered in the United States, and a number of American eugenicists praised the Nazi sterilization law, noting it was devoid of racial intent and robustly consistent with Buck v. Bell. But it greatly oversimplifies matters to say that the American example pointed Nazi Germany down the road to the Holocaust. Many American eugenicists opposed the Nazis outright, and even the most avid enthusiasts of sterilization turned against them after the proclamation of the Nuremberg Laws. Black basically argues that because the mad beast had some American markings, its chief features must have all been bred in the United States. But as he himself acknowledges, the nations of Europe had their own, indigenous eugenics movements. Notions of Nordic superiority had strong, independent roots abroad, and so did ideas of racial improvement through measures like sterilization. The Nazis did draw on American precedents, but Black neglects to weigh the impact of the imports against the force of native impulses.
Black writes that in the 30's refugees were denied entry to the United States ''because of the Carnegie Institution's openly racist anti-immigrant activism,'' ignoring the far more powerful forces, including anti-Semitism and economic fears, that kept the gates closed. While some Rockefeller Foundation money did go, at least indirectly, to some anti-Semitic scientists and racially oriented research in Nazi Germany, the foundation increasingly aimed at supporting individuals engaged in objective investigations of the genetics of nonhuman organisms as well as of human beings, part of a broad trend then beginning elsewhere in Europe and in the United States to liberate human genetics from socially prejudicial eugenics. Black deals with these efforts dismissively, writing that the Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, remained committed to the goal of ''creating a superior race.''