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Daniel Okrent joins us to discuss how the “science” of eugenics was the basis of the rationale for the Immigration Act of 1924.

Daniel Okrent joins the show to talk about his new book, The Guarded Gate, which tells the tells the story of the scientists who argued that certain nationalities were inherently inferior, providing the intellectual justification for the harshest immigration law in American history. Brandished by the upper class Bostonians and New Yorkers—many of them progressives—who led the anti‐​immigration movement, the eugenic arguments helped keep hundreds of thousands of Jews, Italians, and other unwanted groups out of the US for more than 40 years.

What was the Chinese Restriction Act? What is eugenics? When was eugenics applied to certain racial groups? Who was Samuel Gompers? What scientific reasoning did eugenists use? Did the Nazi’s follow American scientists? What does eugenics and birth control have in common?

Further Reading:


00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times and the author of many books, including 2010’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. His new book is The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:28 Daniel Okrent: Happy to be here. How are you today?

00:30 Trevor Burrus: Thank you. Doing well. So in terms of the genesis of the book and reading it, and I had read Last Call years ago, but it seemed like possibly you encountered the story when researching the progressives and their effect on Prohibition because it’s some of the same, at least social movement and story around the same time. So is that one way that you got connected with the story?

00:53 Daniel Okrent: A little bit, because as with Prohibition, the anti‐​immigration coalition was a real group of strange bedfellows. You had northeastern progressives together with midwestern KKK members, the AFL leadership of the labor movement, all gathering on one side of this issue and much as similar groups got together surprisingly to support Prohibition.

01:23 Trevor Burrus: And in terms of the progressives, which I think this is a really important point, because we use that word today to describe a modern political movement, but we also use it to describe one of the first few decades of the 20th century. Can you really say that they’re the same people or should we understand them in a totally different way?

01:43 Daniel Okrent: No, I think it’s important that to see that they are different. In some ways they’re the same, which is to say that both believe in using the power of government to effect a social and economic change. But the progressives of the turn of the last century, of the early 2000s, they were a profoundly anti‐​democratic movement in many, many ways. So there were certain democratic reforms that they put in. They really believed in the wisdom of experts and the application of expertise to solving social problems. And included in the problems that they sought solutions to, one was to educate and to train the immigrants who had come to America and at the same time to keep more immigrants from coming.

02:31 Trevor Burrus: And then of course the use of science. I think that’s another theme that is… I’m putting science in scare quotes here. There’s a lot of scare quotes that will be happening actually, which you won’t be able to see, when we talk about science and race and all these things, but the use of, as you said, experts. But in Prohibition too, we saw this movement for, public health people saying, “People shouldn’t be drinking for these reasons.” And we see the same thing with how many of certain races or anyone should be let into the country. So what was the situation like with immigration, popular attitudes about immigration, say in the 1890s, but before this whole thing kicks off?

03:13 Daniel Okrent: Well, immigration and Americans’ reaction to it, it’s been a sine curve from the beginning of the Republic. Benjamin Franklin wrote in extremely derogatory terms about the Germans coming into Pennsylvania in the 1750s and 1760s and he really wanted to keep them out. And then we go into a period of open doors. And then when the Irish arrive in the 1840s, there’s a sudden, the Know Nothing movement comes. During the Civil War, our arms are open again because there’s a need for labor. And this keeps on cycling back and forth. By the 1890s, we entered a new cycle of anti‐​immigration, really pushed mostly by a number of northeastern aristocratic progressives, primarily in Boston and New York. And they did in time discover scientific justification for or so‐​called scientific justification. But they began, I think, with simple prejudice, frankly.

04:05 Aaron Ross Powell: A lot of anti‐​immigration sentiment today is framed in terms of race, like the immigrants that the populace today seem to be most upset about are ones that we can talk about in racial categories. But the examples you offered in answer to Trevor’s prior question were Germans and Irish, who we don’t typically think of in racialized categories. So at this time when this shift was happening and the emergence of the Progressives and these arguments, was immigration seen at all in racialized terms?

04:36 Daniel Okrent: It began to be. It certainly starts in 1882 with the patches of the Chinese Restriction Act when it was clearly directed against the nationality and ethnicity, keep these people out of the country. And it was an extremely draconian act that closed the door to more Chinese. But in the 1890s, the immigration threat as it was perceived was coming from somewhere else. It was coming from Eastern and Southern Europe, largely in the form of Italians and Eastern European Jews, but also Hungarians and Greeks and Turks, Poles, the Slavic countries. There was a view that these people, they were different. They were not like us, whomever the us was speaking were the people who really ran the country at the time.

05:22 Trevor Burrus: And you mentioned the Bostonians and northeast elites who get this going. And you alluded to the fact that the Immigration Restriction League, but when that ramps up, at that point eugenics hadn’t really, at least it flowered in the way it would in the next few decades. So what is the story of eugenics when that comes in and then starts flowering?

05:46 Daniel Okrent: What basically happens, Trevor, is that the effort to stop the immigration that begins in the 1890s fails over and over again. Henry Cabot Lodge is the leader in Congress, the first Henry Cabot Lodge, and he introduces and effects passage of a literacy test that he specifically said during congressional debate was designed to keep out the people from Eastern and Southern Europe. But then it gets vetoed by Grover Cleveland and he keeps on reintroducing it to Congress after Congress. 1912 it gets passed again, and it’s vetoed by William Howard Taft. 1913 passed again, vetoed by Woodrow Wilson, and it’s not working. Their effort to close the immigration doors keeps getting forded on the shoals of politics, particularly as the immigrant vote is growing around this time. And it’s not until 1915, 1916 that they come across something else that will enable them to make their case. It’s no longer prejudice. They’re able to say, “It’s science.” And that’s eugenics, the so‐​called science of eugenics.

06:50 Trevor Burrus: And where does that come from?

06:52 Daniel Okrent: It’s really, it starts right out of the Darwinian revolution in England, in the middle of the 19th century. When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, published in 1859, until then, the almost universal view of the origin of mankind was we all came from Adam and Eve. But once Darwin’s theory of evolution catches fire, then comes the realization that we don’t all come from the same parents, and if we don’t come from the same parents, then we’re different from one another. Then if we’re different from one another, some are better than others. And this gives birth to the idea of eugenics, which is put forth by, as it happens, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, the gentleman scientist who has the idea that if government can arrange the mating of particularly genetically strong and handsome and intelligent people, that we can have a better country.

07:45 Daniel Okrent: And he goes so far as to suggest that the UK find the 5,000 best young people and match them in arranged marriages, marriages arranged by the state, have a wedding take place, a mass wedding at Westminister Abbey, presided over by Queen Victoria. And then each of these families would get a subsidy to keep, to produce children, rather than to have to go to work, to make a better Britain. This loopy idea crosses to the US around 1900, 1905 and begins again as first the effort to say, we can improve the population by controlling breeding. And the other side of that is that we stop those who are not intelligent or who are morally suspect from breeding, that can improve things. And then in 1915, 1916, this idea is applied to ethnic groups. And it happens in a book by man named Madison Grant, who was a wealthy New Yorker, who was the leading conservationist of the era, he single‐​handedly saved the Redwoods of California, he was the founder of the Bronx Zoo. And he publishes a book that applies these ideas of eugenics to racial and ethnic and nationality groups, and that changes everything.

08:58 Aaron Ross Powell: What do these arguments that these eugenicists and the anti‐​immigration people are making look like in practice? So is this simply like, if we let these people in, they’re going to cross‐​breed with our fine stock and we’re gonna end up in civilizational decline. Is it more that they’re gonna take jobs or they’re gonna cause… What on the ground are the arguments that they’re making to try to pass this stuff?

09:26 Daniel Okrent: Well, all of the above, but primarily the eugenic change, is the first one. There had been… The labor argument had been popular back in the 1880s and 1890s. Lodge’s closest ally in support of this was Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL, himself an immigrant, as it happens. But he was absolutely, with Henry Cabot Lodge, whom he otherwise despised. But then when eugenics comes in with Grant’s book, it can be reduced really to a paragraph that Grant wrote, in which he makes the case that we know through science, that the mating of any two groups in the animal kingdom or among humans, any mating of the two groups will produce progeny that revert in time to the lower group, to the lesser group.

10:11 Daniel Okrent: And he writes, he says, “Therefore the mating between a Nordic… ” and the Nordics were the finest of them, of Americans coming from Northwestern Europe, “Mating of a Nordic and an Alpine will yield an Alpine. And the mating of an Alpine and the lowly Mediterranean will yield a Mediterranean. And the mating of any of the three European groups and a Jew will yield a Jew.” So he was saying precisely that, that if we allow these people in, and they intermarry with us, we will be welcoming the decline of American civilization because of eugenics.

10:48 Aaron Ross Powell: What kind of scientific reasoning is this based on? [laughter] ‘Cause I don’t imagine that they have robust social science and survey data that they could draw on. They’re not administering like IQ tests on a large scale. Is this really just like, it feels like, is this more just guys who read Darwin and kind of think they understand it and then have some prejudices, just like armchair marrying the two of them together. Or do they think… Is there is something that even remotely looks like actual research or science that they’re stumbling towards?

11:21 Daniel Okrent: Well, there was research and this does coincide with the beginning of the IQ testing movement which begins in the US in 1908, 1909. And a man named Charles Davenport, a very widely and appropriately respected animal geneticist, he begins to apply the Galtonian ideas to America. And he conducts endless numbers of interviews and surveys, sending out really untrained college students to talk to people and find out what their background was, and what their neighbors’ background was and three generations ago, what do you know about that person? Well, he was a drunk. Therefore, really shoddy, shoddy information supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, by the Harriman family, to a degree by the Rockefeller family, and it was accepted at its time as scientific.

12:07 Daniel Okrent: When this all ended and all of this data, and Davenport had data on nearly a million Americans, was given to a genetics institute of the University of Minnesota, the director of that institute said it was all worthless. But at the time it carried the aroma and the aura of real science. So for the anti‐​immigrationists, they could say, “Hey, we’re not prejudiced. It’s the scientists who are telling us that, and there’s the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller family and Harvard and Princeton, and the American Museum of Natural History and all these important academic institutions, where people are saying, that this is scientific fact.”

12:46 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it’s, and throughout your book, you’ve obviously to read a bunch of stuff that was difficult and also just laughable to read about this as masquerading as science. But there’s always that undercurrent and you kind of address it directly a couple of times of are these people evil, stupid or scoundrels or they’re nefarious or are they true believers? Obviously, it depends on who we’re talking about, but as you point out, on page 132, about the field work from the Eugenics Records Office, some traits the field workers were asked to identify were obviously genetic, hair color, skin color, hair texture, less obvious perhaps, but potentially pertinent, disease history, hair, lips, speech impediment. Then the coding went off the rails. Interviewers were expected to determine subjects’ ability to retain urine, whether they were quote excited then depressed by alcohol, if they were quote easily offended. Did the subject suffer from backwardness or mythomania or wanderlust, all these were thought to be genetic.

13:43 Trevor Burrus: And it just, it just seems to me that, this isn’t that long ago, I mean, really, it’s not that long ago, my great‐​grandma was alive at this time, and I knew my my great‐​grandma. So do you have a conclusion, say, with, I mean it’s probably per individual person, so Charles Davenport has people doing this, was he, nefarious, was he good…

14:04 Daniel Okrent: I think he was naïve.

14:05 Trevor Burrus: Naïve, okay.

14:05 Daniel Okrent: I think he was naïve. I think that he has learned a great deal in his studies of poultry genetics, particularly, that he thought he could just lift and apply to human, to the human species. He also really misinterpreted Mendel’s discoveries. Mendel’s papers discovered in 1900, and it has in it, this idea of the unit characteristic, the classic unit characteristic is color blindness, so that if two people who both have the recessive gene for color blindness mate, then the child would be color blind. But Davenport said, “Well, that applies to intelligence, it applies to singing ability, it applies to morality, it applies to our propensity toward drunkenness, it applies toward criminality.” He went nuts! And he found a lot of support. I think there was opposition, the leading oppositionist was the great anthropologist Franz Boas, who was dismissed by Grant and others, because… Well, of course he doesn’t like this, he’s a Jew himself, but it is shocking to the degree, is shocking to our modern sensibilities, to the degree that this was accepted science for a period.

15:06 Daniel Okrent: And I think that the lesson there is that science only knows what it knows today, it doesn’t… Hasn’t yet learned what it is going to learn. And what seems preposterous now, made sense at the time. Just as it made sense 400 years earlier to think that the earth was flat, ’cause how could it be round… We’d be falling off. Scientists can only know so much, and the progressive faith in science was so ardent that it was easy for them to pick this up and run with it. And then for the…

15:39 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, I was just gonna ask, then, how did the movement from, so you’ve got these eugenicists, and you’ve got these anti‐​immigration people, but how that got picked up into progressivism writ large? So some of it makes sense in the terms of there’s the social engineering aspect and this fits in, but how did this become kind of a broader part of progressivism?

15:56 Daniel Okrent: Well, I think, that’s a little bit of a back formation. The progressivism came first and it was accompanied by anti‐​immigration. By the time they get the eugenic idea, it’s not really that much of a progressive thought, except insofar as it relates, as it does, in eugenics, to the birth control movement, to Margaret Sanger, who was herself, for many years, an active eugenicist, so the idea of social control, to presumably to improve society, that made sense, but the progressives and many not‐​so progressives, like Grant, who embraced the anti‐​immigration movement, they used eugenics to accomplish something that had nothing to do with their progressivism or non‐​progressivism, it had to do with their prejudice.

16:42 Daniel Okrent: Joseph Lee was the leading progressive in Boston, a man, he supported settlement houses. He paid for… Keep the schools open, so that children could learn, the immigrant children could learn English, he brought doctors and dentists into the schools, he actually, he was host of folk dancing festivals, and then in his private life, he was financing the entire anti‐​immigration movement. His progressive notion was once they’re here, we have to civilize these people, but let’s keep them out if we possibly can.

17:11 Trevor Burrus: And you point out that for some of these people, it does seem, like maybe not Davenport, who is naïve, but that definitely if you were a racist, this gave you an out, an ability to just argue that you weren’t a racist and they actually started saying, “Change your language, don’t use race‐​based terms”, say, “We’re just trying to get the best people”, and trying to hide that kind of racism that was, at least for some of them, what was really animating this whole drive.

17:41 Daniel Okrent: Right. And anti‐​immigration laws, the various immigration restriction laws that were passed and enacted in 1917, 1921, 1924, race or nationality are never mentioned, there’s not a single word in the 30,000 words of the 1924 Act, which was in place for 41 years, and was clearly the most race‐​driven piece of legislation of the 20th century. Not a word that mentions any of those things, it wasn’t necessary by that point. You know, in 1921, an article appears in Good Housekeeping magazine, and says that, “Now that science has proven, through biological laws,” that’s a direct quote, “biological laws that these people are inferior, we have to keep them out.” And the author of that was Calvin Coolidge, a month before he was sworn in as Vice President. By 1921 this was the accepted view that this eugenic genetic view of race and nationality, that’s what America believed.

18:35 Trevor Burrus: And that’s Good Housekeeping, which is kind of an interesting… And also the Saturday Evening Post, like Norman Rockwell’s covers were on magazines that contained virulently racist and eugenic stuff.

18:47 Daniel Okrent: The editor of the Saturday Evening Post, Lorimer, was, he had been a progressive and then World War I turned him in a different direction. And it was week after week, and this was the most influential periodical, the most influential news medium, this is very early days of radio in the country… Sending reporters to Europe to describe the awful circumstances in which these people live, and attributing it not to their economic opportunity or to their education levels, but attributing it to their nationality and race.

19:23 Trevor Burrus: Now, what about Teddy Roosevelt? He kind of, he’s not a main player in the book, but he shows up at different times, and one thing you mentioned Franz Boas being someone who actually resisted this but, there aren’t many people who are clean in this story, I think, who didn’t at least endorse or passively just at least say that, “that sounds like a good idea,” these abhorrent ideas.

19:45 Daniel Okrent: No, that’s absolutely right. Now, you are right about Roosevelt, he was a… He did believe in this concept that he pushed very hard of race suicide, race suicide was if we, the good people, the presumably the Protestant upper classes, don’t reproduce we will be outnumbered by the bad people. And this was a pretty awful concept, he did carry it, but he didn’t really carry it that far into the political arena, it was more in his writings, and in his relationships with various friends and colleagues. The degree to which this kind of thinking really infected American minds, I think, is best illustrated by some of the people who in opposing the 1924 Immigration Act, people like Fiorello LaGuardia who was in Congress then, representing the most ethnically diverse congressional district in the country, arguing, “Well, we should let these people in because they’re like us, but no, we have to keep the Asians out.”

20:45 Daniel Okrent: Basically saying, “Well, we’re white, they’re not. Let’s keep them out.” And you find many, many, particularly Jewish and Italian members of Congress, and some political groups saying, “Let us in, don’t let them in.” This is a horrible, never‐​ending story that every group seems to have to have another group to look down upon.

21:07 Aaron Ross Powell: How did this, we don’t still accept this stuff today. There are some turgid corners of the internet where this kind of thinking is still the hip thing, but by and large we’ve rejected this. So what did the turn away from it look like? And when did that start to happen?

21:28 Daniel Okrent: It starts to happen when a couple of the scientists do begin to re‐​examine their own work in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. But the real change, it occurs in Berlin when the Nazi party takes over Germany, and begins to use the same arguments that had been used by the eugenicists, anti‐​immigrationists. And in fact, Hitler, in 1923, 1924, when he was imprisoned after the Beer Hall Putsch, he reads Madison Grant’s book in jail, he quotes from Madison Grant in several speeches in his career. And many of the American scientists, Davenport included, had close relations with the German eugenicists who would become the race scientists whom Hitler depended on to put forward his racial theories. So back in the States, if you’re the Carnegie Institution, or the Rockefeller Foundation, or the American Museum of Natural History, you say, “Oh, my God, look what we’ve done, look what we’ve unleashed.” And they begin to run away from it, as does the academy. So that by the end of the ‘30s, Hitler has utterly discredited racial eugenics.

22:38 Daniel Okrent: But 1946, the doctors trial, the German doctors who were charged with war crimes, they said, “You know, this wasn’t original with us. We were working with your scientists, with your American scientists all along.” And as I write in the book, we’re used to the phrase, “Well, I was only following orders,” when in fact they could have said, and many did say, “I was only following Americans.”

23:04 Trevor Burrus: Well, you brought up Germany. And I think one of the interesting thing, I think it’s in one of the second or third edition of Madison Grant’s book, which is called The Passing Of The Great Race, by the way, for listeners, that he always was dividing up Europe into the good stock and the bad stock. But World War I made them have to suddenly be like the Germans are no longer good stock, they were good Teutonic stock and now they’re not. And then there’s this weird movement to make them into Asians, they’re always trying to make everyone into Asians.


23:34 Daniel Okrent: Well, just as the Italians were really Africans. So, another irony.

23:36 Trevor Burrus: Exactly.

23:38 Daniel Okrent: That it was an invasion from Africa through Sicily. Yeah, Grant was a very gifted writer and polemicist, and he knew the language of anthropology and of history, but he had no training and he was making up a lot of stuff. So in 1916, he’s still hailing the Germans, and we enter the war and we don’t like the Germans anymore. So the Germans whom he had hailed as Nordic or Teutonic, now he realizes suddenly in 1919, the new edition, well, in fact only 10% of the present‐​day Germans are Nordic or Teutonic. The rest have come from the steppes of Asia. This came out of nowhere, total invention on his part.


24:22 Trevor Burrus: I wanna go back to Margaret Sanger. I think you had some really interesting parts where you, ’cause she’s still a live thinker, because abortion is such a live debate in this country, but and the pro‐​life people will usually be the first people to say that she was a eugenicist and then trot out some racist quotes that often get trotted out with her. I think you do a good job of taking an honest assessment of that.

24:44 Daniel Okrent: Yeah, Sanger, the thing about Sanger, I think, is that she was so passionate or so insanely committed, depending on your perspective, to her cause, birth control, that she would make an alliance with anybody who supported what she believed in. So she had allies reaching from left to right, reaching across racial and religious groups, and anywhere she could get them, anywhere she could find them, she would adopt them as her own. And if you stop to think about it, eugenics and birth control do have something very much in common, which is to say, planned breeding. We do not leave it to the accident of love, or nature. That we are planning things in such a way that we are determining what the next generation is. So it was not a huge leap for her. And she mostly used eugenics in her own arguments when she looked at the slums, the ethnic slums, and say, “See, see how these people live. We have to bring them birth control, so we don’t have more of this in this country.”

25:46 Aaron Ross Powell: When we look back on people like her, or the people caught up in this, in general, is it, we want to assign blame, right? We wanna look back and say that these were bad people. But how much of an opportunity to see the error of their ways was there? So I guess what I’m asking is, would it have been difficult to see around these ideas at the time or were they so pervasive and so accepted by all of the important people who you look to for validation that it would have been exceptional not to buy into them?

26:26 Daniel Okrent: Well, I think that if you were free of prejudice, and which of us is totally free of prejudice? It’s a very hard thing for humans to do. You would have seen immediately that there’s a flaw in this thinking, but if you have a predilection to believing that there are differences between national groups, then this was reinforcing your own prejudice, your own… It was a way of confirming that which you already believed. So though the evidence was there, and there were some scientists, Boas primarily, but others as well, who were standing up and screaming, “No, no, no, this is bogus, this is why it’s bogus.” Those who had already made up their mind on the consequences of the science, which is to say, the creation of hierarchies of racial and ethnic background, they weren’t hearing the ones who were shouting alarm.

27:22 Daniel Okrent: So you have a man like the eminent geneticist, Herbert Spencer Jennings at Johns Hopkins, testifying before Congress before the 1924 law is passed. And he absolutely eviscerates the arguments of the eugenicist scientists, and when he’s done with his testimony, the chairman of the committee who wrote the 1924 Act says, “Well, now that we know that the biologists agree that this is true, we have to go ahead with the legislation.” It hasn’t changed a lot in that way. You get a congressional hearing and the parties who wanna hear one thing only hear that thing and they don’t hear what the other people say. Minds don’t get changed that easily.

28:00 Trevor Burrus: So that ramp up that say, starting in the early ‘20s we have… ‘Cause the story in your book, I mean, it’s from about the mid‐​1890s and the slow kind of growth of the immigration restriction movement with eugenics. But in those first years right before the 1924 Act, what caused… Can you identify anything that caused momentum to shift? I mean, we had the war, and then we have maybe just an increasing awareness of just sort of bigotry, because so many immigrants had come in that people, bigots had more of a opportunity to see people that they didn’t like and vote for lawmakers who were gonna be immigration restrictionists, or something else that caused that to kind of switch.

28:41 Daniel Okrent: Well, as you said that, World War I certainly intensified anti‐​European, really anti‐​immigrant views, the demonization of the Germans, the Austrians, and the other enemies of America in that war was complete. So you begin with that, and then you add on top of that the fact that from 1914 to 1918 during the European war, immigration had come, from Europe, had come to a virtual standstill for all sorts of obvious reasons, who’s crossing the continents by train to get to a port to get on a boat to cross the ocean, when there’s war going on. But then in 1919, 1920 suddenly big crowds, big… The vast increase of immigration is another reason for people to be aware of it. Then you have Sacco and Vanzetti and the Red Raids of the 1920s, and the demonization of Italians and Eastern Europeans as radicals and as terrorists. So all these factors are coming together. I’m convinced that there would have been anti‐​immigration legislation without the eugenics argument, but what the eugenics argument did was make it respectable. It made it something more than mere prejudice, and it was a cloak that those who drove the movement were able to wear with pride, and, they thought, impunity.

30:06 Trevor Burrus: Then you had Harry Laughlin, seemed like he almost just moved to DC and worked in the staff who worked for the Eugenics Record Office, and who I, in my writings on Buck v. Bell encountered him and some of these people before too, and he was just constantly testifying on the eugenics side.

30:24 Daniel Okrent: Yeah, he was a professional testifier and he testified throughout the ‘20s, and he got more and more… He believed himself more and more, the more he was celebrated by the anti‐​immigrationists who were in Congress. And his career ends with him accepting an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936, shortly after they had purged the Jews from the faculty, and he’s honored as the foresightful leader of racial thinking in America. So the path to this, so the path to Nazism is quite direct.

30:56 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah. So what was in the 1924 laws? Was it completely shutting down immigration? Did they name it by countries?

31:04 Daniel Okrent: No, no need to name by countries, what they had figured out by then was that there were other means that could be used. Now, there’d be… The eugenic argument didn’t even have to be present in the law, there was the agreement that immigration had to be cut and it had to be cut from certain countries, but let’s not name the countries. So they came up with the idea of a quota, the quota worked if 10% of the people living in America could trace their origin to country A, then 10% of the immigrants coming in in any given year could come from country A. First, they cut the number of immigrants allowed in to 162,000, there had been as many as a million, not that many years before that. And then they divided up that 162,000 based on this national origins idea.

31:51 Daniel Okrent: But here comes the most cynical, the most racist, the most horrible aspect, I believe, of all of this legislation. They didn’t use the 1920 census to determine where the American population came from, they didn’t use 1910 or even 1900. They went back 34 years to the 1890 census and it was based on the composition of the American, the ethnic composition of the American population in 1890 that they made these determinations. Why 1890? That was before the big immigration from Italy and Greece and Poland and Russia and the rest of Eastern and Southern Europe, began. So you see the Italians, there were as many as 220,000 Italians coming to the US in a single year, in the new… Under the new law, it was fewer than 5,000 were allowed in, in a single year. Because they were basing it on the American population in 1890.

32:46 Aaron Ross Powell: What was then the result of this, in terms of actual restriction? So if you had, you said 200,000 Italians coming in, and then you set a quota that only 5,000, did the number of Italians coming in drop to 5,000? Or did we just see…

33:00 Daniel Okrent: Yes. No, absolutely it did. I mean, the quota was hard and firm and it was honored for 41 years. Of course, there were exceptions.

33:09 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I mean, did we see undocumented immigration pick up the slack?

33:14 Daniel Okrent: No, we did not. There’s no measurement of it, undocumented, doesn’t… They don’t pass through Ellis Island, but how were they getting here? How would Italians come into the country? Some go to Canada and then come through, probably. But no, and the composition of the American population, the proportion of foreign‐​born plummets between 1920 and the 1970s, because the immigration has fundamentally stopped. And then you see something happening late in 1939 as the murderous intent of the Nazis is becoming clearer and clearer, a bill is introduced into Congress to allow 20,000 German‐​Jewish children into the country outside of the quota. It gets voted down. Even then, it wouldn’t be relaxed, so that the numbers coming in were radically, radically reduced… The people… What they wished to accomplish, they did accomplish.

34:08 Trevor Burrus: What were you… And you kind of try to play a what could have happened, counterfactual game, especially with the looming crisis of Nazi Germany, of course they didn’t know that at the time, but that would be coming up, of how many people we might have saved if we hadn’t put this law in 1924 especially attacking some of the people who were most hurt by first the Nazis, and then actually the Soviets, I guess too.

34:34 Daniel Okrent: And then the Soviets as well. Yeah, so that’s exactly the part of the world… Italy I guess is a little bit different, but there was simply horrible poverty and the ruins of war that people suffered from. But if you look at that long swath of territory between Germany and Russia from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, those are the people who might have come to the US, but were unable to come to the US. Now, can we count how many exactly or even roughly would have come? No, it’s impossible, but you know it’s in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, if not of the hundreds of thousands. And it can all be traced to this law.

35:14 Trevor Burrus: I liked in the epilogue you discuss the ’65 Immigration Act, which a lot of people today are complaining about, which did away with this system, but also I can’t remember his name, the member of Congress who was there when Johnson signed the ’65 Act, who had been there in ’24.

35:32 Daniel Okrent: Emanuel Celler. Emanuel Celler was a congressman from Brooklyn. Jewish, Columbia and Harvard educated, and he was the only member of the House Committee on Immigration who voted against the 1924 Act. He was in his first term in Congress. 41 years later he’s still in Congress, he is the Dean of Congress, he’s the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he is the co‐​author of the bill that finally revokes what his fellow committee members had put in place 41 years earlier.

36:02 Trevor Burrus: Now, of course this book is well‐​timed for the kind of immigration discussion that’s happening now, and you don’t get into it in the book, about… But, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it came out at this time [laughter], or that interested you at this time, but what are some of the lessons do you think that we can learn from this that maybe we can look in the mirror today and not go down a similar path?

36:27 Daniel Okrent: To me there’s one primary lesson. I believe that it is reasonable for a nation to limit immigration. How you come up with the number of people you wanna let into the country, I don’t know how you do that. But, borders are borders for a reason, and depending on economic and other circumstances, I think it’s not unreasonable for nations to say, we’re only gonna let in 500,000, 700,000, a million. 70,000, who knows what the number is, but decide on the basis of the individual, and not on the basis of the individual’s race or religion or nationality. So when we hear the president saying we have to keep people from coming from these seven Muslim countries, or we have to stop the rapists from Mexico or the Hondurans as a national group, that’s when we’re getting into trouble. That’s when we’re getting back to 1924. Limit immigration if you wish, but limit it on the basis of who the person is, and not where he or she is from.


37:36 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.