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 Wendell 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...