“If you are a blond, you belong to the best people in the world, but it’s all over with you! Your forebears committed the fatal mistake of intermingling with inferior brunettes, and as a result the great qualities of the blond race, which gave the world the highest type of culture, have been sadly undermined and the predominant traits of the brunettes are asserting themselves more and more until their complete triumph is foreshadowed, especially in the United States.”
Thus begins an October 22, 1916, New York Times feature article based on the newly published book The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, who “in more scientific language” warns of the end of the blond race at the hands of brown-haired whites and, worse, of those with brown hair and dark skin. According to Grant, the problem of Nordic peoples was that they did not enjoy the cold and preferred the heat and sunny warmth of the south, but were only able to subsist in the tropical regions as owners of the land instead of working it. The inhabitants of India still spoke the Aryan language but their blood had lost the quality of the conqueror. Grant, in one of his more moderate conclusions, discovered that the solution lay in the practices of the past: “No ethnic conquest can be complete unless the natives are exterminated and the invaders bring their own women with them… It is quite evident that the West Indies, the coast region of our Gulf States, perhaps, also the black belt of the lower Mississippi Valley must be abandoned to Negroes.”
The ideas of white racial superiority used to explain and justify modern imperialism were common currency during the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic, generations before Communism became the excuse. In the United States, scientific justifications were necessary in order to keep a large Black population in the place (first as slaves and later as segregated second-class citizens) that supposedly corresponded to them according to the rules of order, civilization, and progress.
Well into the 20th century, the memoranda and reports of various politicians, senators and ambassadors continued that tradition. The Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America and later Ambassador to Mexico, Francis White, for decades wrote reports and gave lectures to future diplomats explaining that “With certain exceptions, a general characteristic of most governments of Latin America, especially those in the tropics and having a very small pure white population, is that great dishonesty exists among public officials.” For White, Ecuador was a “very backward country” because its population was only “5% pure white, the rest mixed blood or pure Indian.” His advice to trainees in 1922 was that if they were assigned a non-white country, they should know that “political stability in these countries is more or less in direct proportion to the percentage of pure white inhabitants.”
According to Grant, and according to many others, the white race had survived in Canada, in Argentina, and in Australia thanks to the extermination of the native races. If the superior race does not exterminate the inferior one, the inferior race will triumph. “At the time of the Revolutionary War the settlers in the thirteen Colonies were overwhelmingly Nordic,” but by the mid-19th century “the new immigration […] contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races” from the south of Europe. “These immigrants adopt the language of the [native-born] American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals.”
The Passing of the Great Race did not become an instant best-seller, but it did become one of the classics of scientific racism of the 20th century, and one that would resonate easily with white economic elites and aspiring poor alike. Among Grant’s avid readers can be counted Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ford, the latter a future admirer and collaborator of Adolf Hitler, who had recommended Grant’s book to him. The influential daily newspaper The Boston Transcript concluded that every thinking (which is to say, white) person should read it. The book had a big impact on the ruling class and helped define the categories that elected officials used to draft U.S. immigration laws in 1924: the Nordic race located at the top, below them the Jews, Spanish, Italians and Irish and, even farther down, all those of dark complexion. According to Grant, “race implies heredity and heredity implies all the moral, social and intellectual characteristics and traits which are the springs of politics and government.” And “it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes and going to school and to church do not transform a Negro into a white man.” Grant does not clarify whether the racists originating from the superior races aren’t the inevitable exceptions to the rule, since it is well known that among white people there are also members with acute mental backwardness who, for obvious reasons, do not view themselves that way and are eager to adopt this theory of superiority by association which requires no individual merit.
A few years after its publication, in 1924, on the other side of the Atlantic, a soldier in his prison cell named Adolf Hitler would read Grant’s book with great passion and begin to write his Mein Kampf. Hitler saw The Passing of the Great Race as his Bible. When Hitler became the leader of Nazi Germany, his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, would read with the same passion the book Propaganda, by the Jewish American and double nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays. Bernays did not invent “fake news” but he elevated it to a category of science. Unlike his uncle Freud, he would prove he was right when, in 1954, by request of the C.I.A., he managed to make the world believe that the new president of Guatemala was not a democrat but a Communist. As a consequence of this media manipulation, hundreds of thousands of dead would carpet the earth of Guatemala over the next several decades.
The soldier Adolf Hitler did not have radical ideas. Nor was he a radical thinker, quite the contrary: his ideas and his thinking were commonplaces in his time, above all on the other side of the Atlantic. In the United States, the idea of a glorious Teutonic and Aryan race threatened with extinction by the inferior races was standard currency during the 19th century, from the hooded Ku Klux Klan to presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, including Marines and volunteers who hunted Blacks for sport, raped them and justified rape as a way of improving the race on tropical islands. It is very likely that Nazism finds its deepest roots in the southern U.S., long before losing its memory in the Second World War.
Ten years later, the University of California, Berkley zoologist Samuel Jackson Holmes proposed the forced sterilization of Mexicans in the United States (in the same way that 10,000 “idiots” had been sterilized in California alone) in order to address the serious problem represented by the diminishing quality of the nation’s racial stock. “The children of the workers of today will be citizens tomorrow,” Holmes asserted. In successive articles, he repeated the warning made by Theodore Roosevelt about “racial suicide” that would resonate not only with members of the Ku Klux Klan but with a broad swath of Anglo-Saxon citizens, a warning that would result, during the Great Depression, in the persecution of Mexicans and in the deportation of a half-million U.S. citizens with a mixed-race appearance.