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War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race [Paperback]

Edwin Black
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 27 2004
In War Against the Weak, award-winning investigative journalist Edwin Black connects the crimes of the Nazis to a pseudoscientific American movement of the early 20th century called eugenics. Based on selective breeding of human beings, eugenics began in laboratories on Long Island but ended in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Cruel and racist laws were enacted in 27 U.S. states, and the supporters of eugenics included progressive thinkers like Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Ultimately, over 60,000 "unfit" Americans were coercively sterilized, a third of them after Nuremberg declared such practices crimes against humanity. This is a timely and shocking chronicle of bad science at its worst — with many important lessons for the impending genetic age.


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The plans of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis to create a Nordic "master race" are often looked upon as a horrific but fairly isolated effort. Less notice has historically been given to the American eugenics movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although their methods were less violent, the methodology and rationale which the American eugenicists employed, as catalogued in Edwin Black's Against the Weak, were chilling nonetheless and, in fact, influential in the mindset of Hitler himself. Funded and supported by several well-known wealthy donors, including the Rockefeller and Carnegie families and Alexander Graham Bell, the eugenicists believed that the physically impaired and "feeble-minded" should be subject to forced sterilization in order to create a stronger species and incur less social spending. These "defective" humans generally ended up being poorer folks who were sometimes categorized as such after shockingly arbitrary or capricious means such as failing a quiz related to pop culture by not knowing where the Pierce Arrow was manufactured. The list of groups and agencies conducting eugenics research was long, from the U.S. Army and the Departments of Labor and Agriculture to organizations with names like the "American Breeders Association." Black's detailed research into the history of the American eugenics movement is admirably extensive, but it is in the association between the beliefs of some members of the American aristocracy and Hitler that the book becomes most chilling. Black goes on to trace the evolution of eugenic thinking as it evolves into what is now called genetics. And while modern thinkers have thankfully discarded the pseudo-science of eugenics, such controversial modern issues as human cloning make one wonder how our own era will be remembered a hundred years hence. --John Moe --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In the first half of the 20th century, more than 60,000 Americans-poor, uneducated, members of minorities-were forcibly sterilized to prevent them from passing on supposedly defective genes. This policy, called eugenics, was the brainchild of such influential people as Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegie and Margaret Sanger. Black, author of the bestselling IBM and the Holocaust, set out to show "the sad truth of how the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted on Long Island" at the Carnegie Institution's Cold Spring Harbor complex. Along the way, he offers a detailed and heavily footnoted history that traces eugenics from its inception to America's eventual, post-WWII retreat from it, complete with stories of the people behind it, their legal battles, their detractors and the tragic stories of their victims. Black's team of 50 researchers have done an impressive job, and the resulting story is at once shocking and gripping. But the publisher's claim that Black has uncovered the truth behind America's "dirty little secret" is a bit overstated. There is a growing library of books on eugenics, including Daniel Kevles's In the Name of Eugenics and Ellen Chesler's biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman of Valor. Black's writing tends to fluctuate from scholarly to melodramatic and apocalyptic (and sometimes arrogant), but the end result is an important book that will add to the public's understanding of this critical chapter of American history.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Mira de Vries TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Black tells a totally different history of The Holocaust than the one that is in current academic fashion. An investigative journalist, he and his team of international researchers have diligently dug up thousands of documents and adroitly connected the dots.

What were the factors that led up to The Holocaust? Anti-semitism and racism of course, but there was nothing new about those. The other much overlooked factor is a false science.

Its methods were "guesswork, gossip, falsified information and polysyllabic academic arrogance" justified by a copious collection of records and "mathematical acrobatics". It was advocated by esteemed professors and elite universities. It was funded by the wealth of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and railroad magnate Harriman among others. It was endorsed by big names like Alexander Graham Bell, famous for inventing the telephone. It was sanctified by politicians, legislators, educators, social workers, and judges including Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendall Holmes. Its philosophy claimed to draw on the work of the well-known monk Mendel and his experiments on the heredity of pea pods. The writings of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer also influenced it. By the way, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase "Survival of the fittest". It was Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who gave this pseudo-science its name: Eugenics.

It was also Galton, still today revered as a medical innovator, who suggested "wed[ding] ... biology to government action" starting with "a highly regulated marriage licensing process." Galton, too, was the one who advocated twin studies of mengele infamy. Galton's passion was collecting statistics, a field that today dominates medicine. Black calls him "a clever and compulsive counter".
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5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating and important Oct. 26 2003
Format:Hardcover
This book is a fascinating account of the eugenics movement that flourished in the United States during the first third of the twentieth century. With the help of an international team of researchers the author details the movement's history: creation of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island; the leadership of poultry researcher Charles Davenport; extensive Harriman, Rockefeller, and Carnegie funding; state laws legalizing compulsory sterilization; widespread acceptance by college presidents, clergymen, mental health workers, school principals, and leading progressive thinkers such as Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and Woodrow Wilson; its validation by the United States Supreme Court in 1927 when it voted 8 to 1 to uphold the constitutionality of Virginia's eugenic sterilization law; and much, much more.
The book's most dramatic and controversial conclusion is that the American eugenics movement fueled the triumph of Nazism in Germany and thereby helped bring on the Holocaust. As Black writes in his Introduction, "the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted on Long Island at the Carnegie Institution's eugenic enterprise at Cold Spring Harbor." To his credit he provides a great deal of evidence to make his contention plausible, if not totally convincing.
The extremes to which the Nazis took their eugenics--euthansia killings of "unfit" Germans and the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and others--gave eugenics a bad name from which it never recovered. This important book sheds much needed light on one of the darkest and most bizarre chapters of American history.
Charles Patterson, Ph.D., author of ETERNAL TREBLINKA: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust
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Format:Hardcover
War Against The Weak: Eugenics And America's Campaign To Create A Master Race by Edwin Black, author of IBM And The Holocaust, deals with a history many America's might know about in passing, but who don't know of the ugly details. Black's long history of the eugenics movement in the United States, and its ties to the eugenics movement in Germany, meticulously documents arguably the most racist period of this nation's history.
Black's narrative traces the development of the international eugenics movement from its origins in the study of genetics starting with the rediscovery of the pioneering work in genetics of Mendel in the late 19th century to its heyday in the United States with the founding of the private Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in 1910, and the forced sterilizations of tens of thousands of people deemed human waste by the movement, to the movement's demise in the smoldering ruins of the concentration camps of Nazi occupied Europe. The term "eugenics" was first coined by a British mathematician named Francis J. Galton, but it was in the United States that the notion of genetically engineering a master Nordic race became a well funded movement. The eugenics movement received the support of some of the nation's wealthiest families, including Carnegie, Harriman and Rockefeller. In this sense, the eugenics movement was the quintessential campaign against the poor and funded by the rich.
At the center of the eugenics story in the United States is the movement's two most ardent exponents, Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office. It was these two individuals who lead the movement and never wavered from their support for ending the blood lines of people they deemed "unfit.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Detailed
This is a very detailed book. It's not a book that one could finished in a day or two, it took me a week to finish it, because it's full of so much information and details that you... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Laura O'Reilly
3.0 out of 5 stars Relevant for today
I found this book fascinating and very disturbing. Mr. Black has shone a light on a very ugly side of history and his book should make people think twice before they give opinions... Read more
Published on April 4 2009 by Helen Barnes
3.0 out of 5 stars Very BIG book on eugenics...dispassionate...
Maybe if this was the first book I had read on eugenics, I would have liked it better. There is no doubt that Black did his research... Read more
Published on June 10 2004 by K. L Sadler
5.0 out of 5 stars Chapters trace the roots of the movement to 1904
Edwin Black's War Against The Weak: Eugenics And America's Campaign To Create A Master Race is the story of eugenics and the American campaign to create a master race and is an... Read more
Published on May 6 2004 by Midwest Book Review
3.0 out of 5 stars I just finished the book...
...and have to say it was a GREAT READ! I'm going to keep this short, simple, and to the point; give this book a shot. Read more
Published on Dec 29 2003 by Joe
4.0 out of 5 stars How Not to launch a eugenics program
Edwin Black should have a great sense of satisfaction, as reviewers unanimously express shock, outrage, horror and disgust at this book's revelations of America's complicity in the... Read more
Published on Dec 7 2003 by Stuart Anderson
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read!
It seems so amazing, but I could not put this book down. Everytime I wanted to put it away there was some compelling information that made me want to continue on. Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2003 by shenandoah
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Muckraker Look At American Eugenics Movement!
Many are familiar with the litany of 20th century regarding the plethora of ways in which the Nazi thugs used the much-hyped science of eugenics to gain acceptance for their many... Read more
Published on Oct. 16 2003 by Barron Laycock
5.0 out of 5 stars From Eugenics to Newgenics
You learn something new everyday, here in an important book: the history of the American eugenics movement and its influence on the perpetrators of the Nazi version leading to the... Read more
Published on Aug. 28 2003 by John C. Landon
5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking!!!
Mr. Black has done it again by exposing the complicity of America's "ruling elite" in establishing an intellectual, scientific foundation for sterilization and, ultimately,... Read more
Published on Aug. 25 2003
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