Winston Churchill, Eugenics and the “Feeble-Minded” (1)

Winston Churchill, Eugenics and the “Feeble-Minded” (1)


I pub­lished in 2010 an account of Churchill’s youth­ful (cir­ca 1910-12) fling with Eugen­ics, a pseu­do-sci­ence pop­u­lar at the turn of the cen­tu­ry. Eugen­ics favored ster­il­iz­ing or con­fin­ing the “fee­ble-mind­ed” to “main­tain the race.”

This drew an irate let­ter from a read­er who said he will nev­er think the same of Churchill, know­ing that he could have sup­port­ed such hor­ren­dous ideas:

No tru­ly edu­cat­ed intel­li­gent per­son, even in those ear­ly years, can have bought into Eugen­ics. Churchill’s was not just a fling of youth or imma­tu­ri­ty but the decid­ed opin­ion of a near­ly mid­dle-aged man. His sup­port of Eugen­ics could only lead to the extrem­i­ties prac­ticed to by the Nazis.

Our arti­cle sim­ply out­lined the fac­tu­al his­to­ry of Churchill’s youth­ful Eugen­ics fling. It cer­tain­ly was a fling, because he aban­doned it quick­ly. So indeed did most intel­li­gent peo­ple, though not all of them. Pro­po­nents includ­ed Oliv­er Wen­dall Holmes, Jr., Louis Bran­deis, Woodrow Wil­son, William Howard Taft. Holmes wrote the famous 1927 Supreme Court opin­ion in Buck v. Bell that “three gen­er­a­tions of imbe­ciles are enough.”

To say that “no tru­ly edu­cat­ed intel­li­gent per­son” could adopt such views reminds me that a ter­ri­ble lot of edu­cat­ed intel­li­gent per­sons quite hap­pi­ly adopt­ed Nazism and Bol­she­vism.

Eugenics in retrospect

That aside, stu­dents of Churchill need always to con­sid­er the wider pic­ture. A good start is the excerpt we pub­lished with that arti­cle, from Paul Addison’s Churchill on the Home Front:

Churchill’s inten­tions were benign, but he was blun­der­ing into sen­si­tive areas of civ­il lib­er­ty. Yet it is rare to dis­cov­er in the archives the reflec­tions of a politi­cian on the nature of man. Churchill’s belief in the innate virtue of the great major­i­ty of human beings was part and par­cel of an opti­mism he often expressed before the First World War.

Pro­fes­sor Addi­son was always a go-to author­i­ty for bal­anced, thought­ful reflec­tions on Churchill. He implies that the First World War tem­pered Churchill’s opti­mism. Cer­tain­ly the Sec­ond did.

To assert that a fleet­ing belief in Eugen­ics dis­qual­i­fies Churchill as a hero is to sur­ren­der his lega­cy. In cur­rent con­tentions, our max­im is: Sur­ren­der noth­ing, lest you lose every­thing. A brief encounter with bad sci­ence is a mis­take many make. Few how­ev­er can sen­si­bly claim to have saved civilization.

Con­clud­ed in Part 2…

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