While Kenneth Cuccinelli, acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office for the Trump administration, may have caused a stir by revising Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus” to replace her poor immigrants with more suitable types “who can stand on their own two feet,” he was perfectly in keeping with a long tradition of American nativism. In fact, a virulent campaign to exclude Lazarus’s “huddled masses” erupted within a decade of her poem’s appearance. By the time a plaque inscribing her words were affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had initiated a powerful restrictionist movement in Congress beginning with a demand for literacy tests and culminating in the National Origins Act of 1924 that virtually ended immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
This baleful narrative of exclusion is chronicled in Daniel Okrent’s compelling study, “The Guarded Gate,” which examines the collusion between nativism and the eugenics movement that provided “scientific” respectability for the anti-immigration forces in making racialist quotas the law of the land for more than 40 years. Okrent’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in the antecedents of the white nationalist’s “Great Replacement” theory cited in the rant by the El Paso shooter, who justified his murderous assault on Hispanics by echoing President Trump’s repeated depiction of people fleeing Central America’s chaos as “an invasion.”
Cuccinelli, Trump’s immigration factotum, might have been more at home with verses written in response to Lazarus’s poem by Senator Lodge’s fellow Brahmin Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a protest “against America becoming a cesspool of Europe.” The poet warns his readers to beware “accents of menace alien to our air,” and follows with the plaint: “Oh Liberty, white Godess! Is it well / To leave the gates unguarded? . . . “ Aldrich was not simply a versifying dilettante, but the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He was one of a confluence of influential men who used their power to vilify immigrants as an alien threat and harness public opinion and political pressure to restrict their entry.
In Okrent’s telling, they were lauded by politicians from Teddy Roosevelt to Warren Harding to Calvin Coolidge. They were bankrolled by the Rockefellers, the Harrimans and George Eastman. They numbered representatives of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and the Century Association. They included reputable scientists such as Charles Davenport who founded the Cold Spring Harbor Station for Experimental Evolution, John Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Fairfield Osborne who led the Museum of Natural History — which served as an unofficial action central for the eugenics movement in its heyday. These patricians gave cover to less reputable characters who battened on the pseudo-science of eugenics to foster their racialist theories.
Foremost among those was Madison Grant whose monument to race theory was “The Passing of the Great Race,” which divided the world into a plethora of peoples giving pride of place to the Nordic folk as the master race. In Grant’s cosmology, however, the white race would be overwhelmed by mingling with lesser breeds unless it maintained its racial purity. The solution was to staunch the flow of immigration by inferior stock. Thus was the junk “science” of eugenics wedded to the cause of nativism.
Grant’s ethnology was a swamp of misinformation and conjecture. He mixed the racialist theories of Arthur de Gobineau with the Social Darwinism of Francis Galton, misappropriated Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity, and tossed them into a witch’s brew of Nordic superiority facing extinction by mongrel breeds. His book was published by the prestigious firm of Scribner’s — which became a virtual clearing-house for racial polemics. It was edited by no less than the esteemed Maxwell Perkins and received with great critical acclaim. Grant and his theories were lauded in the halls of academe, in Congress and the press. It was a perfect template for the far right’s “Great Replacement” clamor of our own day. To be sure, there were scientific voices that derided Grant’s claims, but they were drowned out in the nativist hysteria of the time.
Grant had plenty of company. Prescott Hall, whose scientific dabblings addressed such subjects as séances and telepathy, was a leader of the Immigrant Restrictionist League who asserted that Jews were an Asiatic race; Lothrop Stoddard, whose “Rising Tide of Color,” anticipated a global racial war pitting the Nordic race against Asians and Africans, as well as the lesser-enhanced Mediterraneans and Alpines of Europe, together with such sub-groups as Jews and Levantines; and the erstwhile chicken breeder Harry Laughlin who vaulted to the post of superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office and led the fight to stifle immigration. In a related enterprise, Laughlin became, in Okrent’s words, “America’s foremost advocate of the involuntary sterilization of defectives.” Under this program, more than 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized through 1963. Both Laughlin and Stoddard were lauded by the Nazis for their contributions to racial policy.
Men such as these had succeeded in hijacking a legitimate science, genetics, for their own ideological purposes. Only later, after the frenzy had passed, did it become clear that eugenics was to genetics as astrology was to astronomy. These ideologues, tricked out as researchers, produced reams of charts and information “proving” the inferiority of unwanted immigrants. Their data was based on “tests” that were little more than pop-culture quizzes, asking immigrants questions pertaining to “where cars were built or who appeared in tooth powder commercials.”
It is little wonder that the scientifically dubious results of such examinations found most immigrants mentally unfit for entry. Okrent writes that testers, led by Henry Goddard on Ellis Island, found that 83 percent of Jews seeking entry were either “morons” or “imbeciles,” with Hungarians following closing at 80% and Italians a notch behind at 79% . When these figures proved absurd even by racial standards, Goddard reduced them to a more acceptable 40% . In another test, Harry Loughlin’s Eugenics Record Office found that “Romanians were 41% more likely than the average American to be criminal, Italians were 57% more likely to be insane,” and Serbs were six times more likely to be “inadequate” than their other fellow ethnics in any category.
One of the more telling revelations in this vein came from Lewis Terman, a member of the American Eugenics Society’s advisory council, who developed the American version of the Benet-Simon intelligence test. In his Study of the Gifted, sponsored by Stanford University, Terman fathomed the intelligence of 300 historical figures and discerned, among other things, that Robert E. Lee had an IQ of 130, Lincoln, 125 and Ulysses S. Grant, 110. Foreigners did a little better: Charlotte Bronte at 155 and Robert Burns at 130. But there were dips, with Cortez at 115 and Cervantes who achieved a mere 105. Pride of place went to the teenaged Francis Galton, the founding spirit of eugenics, who received a whopping 220.
Such information was swallowed whole by Congress which overwhelmingly imposed restrictions in 1921 and tightened them radically in 1924 with the National Origins Act. The legislation’s premise was that individual hereditary traits were stamped by national characteristics. Feeblemindedness or criminality was a heritable quality tied to the ethnicity of the individual. Eugenics provided the scientific basis on which America was to keep its pure blood from being contaminated by foreign strains. The goal was not to end immigration but to restrict the process so that it favored people from Northwest Europe. To achieve this, the quotas were based not on the available 1920 census but the census of 1890 before the wave of mass immigration. This reduced the annual quotas of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe from the already diminished 44% in 1920 to 12% after 1924.
Had the forebears of Stephen Miller, Trump’s hard-line immigration czar, sought entry after 1924, they would likely have been turned away.
In an epilogue, Okrent writes that in the last year before the quotas, 50,000 Jews arrived on our shores. Subsequently, only 9,000 made it through. The difference was more than 40,000 souls annually. If this continued, more than half-a-million Jews — a conservative figure considering the impetus to flee a growingly hostile Europe — might have been saved from Hitler’s grasp. The eugenicists who fostered the laws that barred their entry cannot be blamed for failing to foresee the consequences of their actions. But they can be held accountable for the race theories that inspired the murderers. Hans Gunther, the “race pope” of Nazi ideology received praise in Harry Laughlin’s Eugenical News. And the racially contrived tests alleging the mental inferiority of immigrant soldiers in the US Army of the Great War won high praise from German eugenicists who used them in their own “definitive” German eugenics tome on race “hygiene.” As Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess declared: “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”
By the mid-30s, with the rise of Hitler revealing the political consequences of racial “science” together with growing criticism debunking its methodology, eugenics assumed a bad odor and gradually faded into oblivion. But the damage was done. Although the movement dissolved, the discriminatory laws that it fostered remained in place and would prove a death sentence for untold numbers of victims.
It would take more than 40 years before the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 replaced national quotas with a system that prioritized family unification. But with a peaceful and prosperous Europe, accessible air travel and decolonization, different kinds of immigrants appeared — from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America — and with them a resurgence of the earlier nativism in new guises. The old canards of “beaten men from beaten countries” and “race suicide” were reformulated as arguments against “rapists” and “invaders” who would abuse their welcome, take our jobs, debase our culture and “replace us.”
The targets changed but not the playbook.
In defending President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, Kenneth Cuccinelli asserted that his agency was responsible for enforcing the law, “not a poem.” He dismissed the poetry controversy — which he had initiated — as a distraction. But Emma Lazarus’s poem is not a distraction. Rather, it is based on an idea, as was America itself, of a nation founded not on a race or a religion but on a concept of democracy and equal opportunity, and as a beacon of hope for those “yearning to breathe free.” To be sure, we have often fallen short of that vision, but the law that Cuccinelli embraces would only diminish it further by once again keeping out the very people who built America.