THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA by Daniel Okrent

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(Ellis Island, NY)

Recently I learned that the Trump administration finally concluded a tariff deal with Mexico which had a number of components related to illegal immigration into the United States.  Apart from Trump’s stupefying rhetoric surrounding his “wall” and other asinine comments like, “why are we having so many people from these shithole countries come here,” immigration and race have become litmus tests for certain politicians.  This political atmosphere in the United States makes Daniel Okrent’s new book, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA an important contribution to the background history of our current views of people who are trying to escape tyranny and poverty and come to the United States.  Okrent focuses on what he describes as the “perverse form of ‘science’ [that] gave respectability to the drastic limits Imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern or southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.”  It is during this period that some of the arguments and attitudes concerning immigration were formed that still impact us today.

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(Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge)

Okrent’s narrative is scary as it points to the pseudo-science and ignorance employed from the late 19th century that is still exists today.  His history of the eugenics movement and its role in passing the Johnson-Reed  Act of 1924 is very disconcerting as it reflects the racism and bigotry that dominated American thought throughout the period, including historical figures ranging from Margaret Sanger to Woodrow Wilson.  Okrent points out that the key to the development of these ideas was the growing belief that the United States was being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who brought certain traits and attitudes that would blend negatively with the American population.  As millions poured into the United States between 1890 and 1910 politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of Brahmin superiority led the fight to keep these people from entering the United States through legislation that featured literacy tests and other obstacles.  This movement which fostered the Immigration Restrictive League (IRL) which came about in 1894 rested on the works of other Boston types who would come up short in passing their agenda until after World War I.  Once the war ended fears of these immigrants centered on labor union unrest, political radicalism, and racial conflict.  In the end it was Senator Albert Johnson with the assistance of eugenics and anti-immigration elements who was able to gain the passage of restrictive legislation in 1924 that would stem the tide.

In providing a general history of the eugenics movement and its marriage to immigration restriction from 1890 onward, Okrent zeroes in on the development of their convoluted ideas and the diverse personalities who came to be at the forefront of the movement.  A number of individuals emerge that moved the process forward.  In addition to politicians like Lodge who stoked American xenophobia from the 1890s onward as he took on the role of evangelist and propagandist from anti-immigration forces, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also became proponents of many of the racial theories related to Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles and others that were propagated.

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(Charles Davenport)

What is fascinating is how people bought into these ideas and concepts of racial breeding and how the United States was committing “racial suicide” by allowing these ethnic groups to enter. Okrent’s narrative provides a who’s who of those who advocated the selective breeding of human populations to improve their genetic composition.  Okrent reviews the ideas of Francis Galton who coined the term eugenics in 1883, Charles Darwin, the French anti-Semite Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain a proponent of Aryan superiority, and William Z. Ripley, all popular authors in the late 19th century.

Okrent takes it further as he traces the further development of these ideas through the works and ideas of Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist and leading spokesperson for the eugenics movement who set up his “racial laboratory” in Cold Harbor, NY, funded at the outset by Mary Harriman, the heir to the railroad fortune.  In addition, +he focuses on James H. Pattern, an effective congressional lobbyist for the IRL;  Edward A. Ross, the author of THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW that merged eugenics and xenophobia doubling down on the inferiority of Slavs;  Madison Grant, zoologist, lawyer and author of THE RACIAL BASIS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY;  Henry Goddard’s famed Kallikak study convinced thirty states to pass legislation to impose forced sterilization on the “feebleminded;” and lastly Harry H. Laughlin who directed the Eugenics Records Office who advocated for the “involuntary sterilization of defectives.”

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(Harry Laughlin)

What is even more disconcerting is the list of the pillars of society Okrent uncovers that supported these ideas.  The reputable publishing company, Charles A. Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins helped publish the works of a coterie of eugenicists that included Lothrop Stoddard’s THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR AGAINST WHITE WORLD SUPEREMACY, that became a best seller and went through fifteen reprints (interestingly Scribner’s published Okrent’s history).  Samuel Gompers the head of the American Federation of Labor.  The Saturday Evening Posts editor  George Horace Lorimer published stories of the pariahs that threatened American society, even Eleanor Roosevelt, reflecting her aristocratic origins held negative racial views until she grew more intellectually mature and worldly.

Okrent’s work is punctuated with documentary excerpts of the work of prominent eugenicists and their opponents.  He has drilled down in his analysis of their “quackery” and has a firm handle on his source material.  The narrative is excellent considering the topic, particularly how the Johnson-Reed Act became law, especially Johnson and company manipulated census and immigration figures to create quotas and the resulting impact on American history for decades to the detriment of millions. Historian, Linda Gordon writes; “previous immigration restrictions targeted particular groups — notably people from Asia — but this comprehensive law aimed not just to limit immigration but to preserve white Protestant dominance in America. It assigned a quota to each nation, ranging from 51,000 for Germany to 2,000 for Russia to 1,100 for the entire African continent.” (New York Times, “The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants,” by Linda Gordon, May 20, 2019)

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(Fairfield H. Osborn)

What is shocking throughout the book is Okrent’s ability to explore the ideology of eugenics providing primary evidence of their views.  For example, Fairfield H. Osborn, paleontologist and teacher of Mary Harriman told delegates to the National Immigration Conference held in New York City in 1923 that army testing of soldiers during World War I showed 6,346,856 immigrants were “inferior or very inferior.”  He commented further that “if the army tests served to show clearly to our people the lack of intelligence in our country, and the degrees of intelligence of different races who are coming to us [then] I believe those tests were worth what the war cost, even in human life.”  Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, the authors of the definitive text on German eugenics, HUMAN HEREDITY AND RACE HYGIENE argued further that the “Nordic race marches in the vanguard of mankind.”  Interestingly in 1924 Adolf Hitler, then an inmate at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria found the book useful “jailhouse reading.” (322)

The title of Okrent’s narrative, 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? (Washington Post, “When the Government Used Bad Science to Restrict Immigration,” by David Hollinger, May 24, 2019)

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(Maxwell Perkins)

Okrent has taken on an important historical topic as George Santayana has warned “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It took the rise and fall of Nazi Germany discredit eugenics in the United States, but even in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Act Washington continued to show its preference for people from northwestern Europe.  It would take until 1965 to drop that preference.  With a president who calls for the immigration of whites from countries like Norway as opposed to Hispanic types one must wonder where American immigration is headed for today – is race still the major qualification?

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Bucket List Met! Normandy 1944-2019

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Last week my wife and I were part of a crowd of over 10,000 people that assembled at the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 that began the slow arduous process of defeating Hitler’s fortress Europa.  Our presence was part of a long sought after “bucket list goal” of visiting the Normandy beaches that I had hoped to achieve during an over forty-year career as a historian.  Our visit to France, which also included Belgium and Luxemburg encompassed the battlefields of World War I and II, but the highlight for us was speaking with and watching the countless D- Day survivors (about 35) who were on the stage during the June 6th ceremonies.

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(The spot where the Battle of the Bulge was launched by the Germans)

We spent over two weeks on our journey which began in Paris and Giverny visiting the home of French Impressionist, Claude Monet’s garden and numerous paintings.  From that point on we transversed the battlefields of World War I with our historical guides Rich Yoder and Dave Wall of Military Historical Tours out of Woodbridge, Va.  Though I was familiar with much of the history, our guides excellent commentary made what I had studied and taught come alive.  We visited sites that included the Oie-Aise American Cemetery and Memorial where 6,012 Americans are buried who lost their lives in the vicinity in 1918, and Chateau-Thierry, scene of two critical battles in 1914 and 1918.  The First, the Battle of the Marne was one of the opening campaigns of the war that blunted the German drive on Paris,  and the second marked the turning point of the war as the American Expeditionary Force with 250,000 troops played key roles resulting in the death of 30,000 American soldiers.  Next, was the June-July 1918 battlefield at Belleau Wood a “mecca” for US Marines whose victory possibly saved Paris and proved to the Germans America’s tenacity on the battlefield.

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(Cliffs scaled by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc)

World War II was next on our agenda as we traveled through the beautiful French countryside that once was a shell-scarred wasteland crisscrossed with French and German trench lines.  After the Great War the French constructed a fortification known as the Maginot Line to provide a defense against any future German invasion.  The problem was that it only ran up to the Belgium border and the Germans had no difficulty marching around it.  One of the highlights of our visit was spending a few hours inside the Maginot Line at the Hackenberg Barracks and seeing how the 1000-man French garrison lived and prepared to offset any German penetration.  From there we moved on to Batstone, Belgium which served as our focal point for our study of the Battle of the Bulge which was Hitler’s last attempt to defeat the allies as the Nazis engaged in a last-ditch effort pouring through the Ardennes Forest in December 1945.  If you have watched the HBO film, The Band of Brothers you witnessed the tenaciousness and brutality of the fighting that finally resulted in the American victory led by General George S. Patton.

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(Omaha Beach)

The highlight into our foray into World War II was the visit to Normandy.  We were exposed to all the beaches that comprised the allied invasion that included over 23 million acres of material transported across the Atlantic Ocean, 6939 vessels, including over 4000 landing craft, over 200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  The tour focused on Omaha Beach which suffered the greatest number of casualties on D-Day as compared to Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches that included our British and Canadian allies.  For the men who took part, it seemed to be a “suicide mission” that included gliders, C-47 transports for paratroopers, and the armada that filled the English Channel.

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We arrived at Omaha Beach and our first reaction was awe and emotion as we could not fathom how men landed on the beaches knowing full well that the odds of survival from German artillery and fields of fire were almost nil.  Their bravery and fortitude can only be imagined until you see the cliffs.   Pointe du Hoc was key as the 2nd Army Ranger battalion scaled the 100-foot cliffs to eliminate the guns that threatened Utah and Omaha Beach.  Ste Mere Eglise was amazing as it was portrayed in the film “The Longest Day,” and is the site of the American paratrooper who hung from the church spire.  The many museums were a history buff’s dream including the Airborne Forces Museum, the Batstone Barracks Museum among many.  The historical reenactors were everywhere providing a realism that was hard to imagine.  There was no aspect of the trip that could be improved, except perhaps more time at certain locations.  As a historian, the lessons are clear, allies and a shared belief to fight tyranny are the key to success, and a sense of history that must be conveyed to succeeding generations are of the utmost importance.

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(American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach, June 6, 2019)