Monday, September 08, 2003

Bush, the Nazis and America

[A short series: See Parts 1 and 2.]

3: The Bush ideology

It must be said that none of their business dealings build any kind of case for the contention that either Prescott Bush or George Herbert Walker, the president's forebears, had anything more than a superficial ideological affinity for the Nazis. It is clear that from the majority of these actions that they primarily saw Nazi Germany as an excellent investment opportunity and had not the least hesitation about either doing business with Hitler, nor did they seem to consider the consequences of doing so very grave -- if anything, they were advantageous to their worldview.

This is grossly amoral, of course, but it is on a different plane than the enthusiastic and grotesque support for the Nazi ideology that was trumpeted by other American industrialists, including Henry Ford. Ford, of course, also invested heavily in German industry in a way that was later to haunt America deeply; his German motor plants, after being nationalized by Hitler, were later to produce the engines that propelled Nazi Messerschmitts and tanks.

Tarpley and Chaitkin make much of the Bush family's supposed connections to the eugenics movement, which played a major ideological role in Hitler's eliminationist policies, particularly his anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s. The problem is that they never definitively make such a connection.

It is an unquestioned fact that the Harriman family indeed was deeply involved in eugenics. The matriarch, Mary Williamson Averell Harriman, was one of the original benefactors of Charles Davenport's Eugenics Record Office; her $10,000 grant in 1910 had established the organization. On her death in 1932, Davenport delivered the eulogy at her memorial service, which included this observation:
"As she often said, the fact that she was brought up among well bred race horses helped her appreciate the importance of a project to study heredity and good breeding in man."

This bears a remarkable resemblance to a passage in Tarpley and Chaitkin:
She and other Harrimans were usually escorted to the horse races by old George Herbert Walker -- they shared with the Bushes and the Farishes a fascination with "breeding thoroughbreds '' among horses and humans.

The book cites "among other such letters, George Herbert Walker, 39 Broadway, N.Y., to W. A. Harriman, London, Feb. 21, 1925, in WAH papers," but neglects to detail any of the contents of these letters that could support this characterization. This is, unfortunately, typical of this text's propensity to make damning assertions without supporting evidence. Obviously, we know that the Walkers and Bushes were socially close to the Harrimans, but that does not necessitate that they shared views on race and eugenics. It's not an unreasonable surmise, but there is no hard evidence currently available to assume it is true.

Averell Harriman, too, was a major and reportedly enthusiastic contributor to various eugenics causes, including sponsorship of the 1932 International Congress of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Harriman also personally arranged for Hamburg-Amerika to bring Nazi eugenicists, notably the "scientist" most often fingered for inspiring the Holocaust, Dr. Ernst Rudin, who was then a psychiatrist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Genealogy and Demography in Berlin. (Rudin was elected president of the Congress at the New York gathering.) I have found one report that says Bert Walker was among the lesser contributors, but I have found no substantiation of this.

Beyond this, there has never been any hard evidence introduced that would substantiate any connection between either the Walkers or, particularly, Prescott Bush and eugenics. This has been a particularly persistent myth for the latter; it is common to find anti-Bush rants on the Web which claim that the elder Bush lost his campaign for the Senate in 1950 because his supposed connection to "the eugenics movement" had been uncovered.

This is afactual. What happened was that Bush, who had worked hard to recover his public image through his tireless USO work, had won the Republican nomination. But on the Sunday before the election, nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson intimated that Bush was president of the Birth Control Society, the predecessor of Planned Parenthood.

As the aforementioned Boston Globe profile details:
At the time, Connecticut was one of two states to ban the use of birth control, including condoms. (The other state was Massachusetts.)

Connecticut was then 55 percent Catholic, ''and the archbishop was death on this birth control thing,'' Prescott Bush recalled. Many voters phoned the Bush home, asking whether the story were true. Bush denied it all, but it was too late. He lost the Senate race by 1,102 votes, setting the family standard for razor-thin elections until his grandson, George Walker Bush, was elected president a half century later.

There is an important subtext to all of this: The eugenics movement, from its very origins late in the 19th century, was divided into two wings. "Positive" eugenics emphasized encouraging the healthiest and ablest people to reproduce. "Negative" eugenics stressed culling the "less fit" from the population as a means of improving the common stock.

The latter form of eugenics was that which was practiced by the Eugenics Record Office, which went on to gain notoriety not only for its ideological connection to the Nazis (who, following one of the "model laws" developed by Davenport's ERO colleague Harry Laughlin, established laws that led to the sterilization of 350,000 people in Europe) but for its own record in America, where the sterilization laws he promoted were responsible for the involuntary sterilization of some 60,000 Americans.

Vehemently opposed to this -- and particularly to the racialist orientation that was the thrust of so much of the "negative" eugenics that enjoyed so much popularity -- were the less-known "positive" eugenicists, who soon began abjuring the term altogether to avoid association with their ostensible cousins. Much of this latter philosophy gradually transformed from advocating sound reproduction for the "fit" to emphasizing sound and healthy reproductive choices for everyone, a decidedly more egalitarian approach. It was also, however, far more controversial, since it inherently argued for greater rights for women.

Foremost among these was the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as well as other multiculturalists such as Margaret Mead and Franz Boas. These thinkers specifically and ardently rejected the tenets of white supremacism and "negative" eugenics. Of course, in subsequent years, all of these people have been tarred -- mostly by anti-abortion activists -- with guilt by association to the eugenics movement. (Planned Parenthood has a thorough and well-argued defense of Sanger up on its Web site.) But there was no mistaking the differences between them at the time.

And if subsequent history is anything to go by, Prescott Bush was ultimately drawn to this segment of the eugenics movement, in contradistinction with that favored by his family friends the Harrimans. There is in fact no evidence produced yet that Bush himself participated in the "negative" eugenics popular in the 1930s.

Indeed, Bush had in 1931 set himself apart politically from his father and his partners, who all were Democrats, by announcing that he was a Republican -- which, at the time, was decidedly the more progressive of the two parties on issues of race and civil rights. When his real political affiliations and beliefs became even more manifest in the 1950s and '60s, as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, it was clear that this progressivism was a central feature.

Prescott Bush was, in fact, the model of the patrician "progressive Republican" from the Northeast whose tradition continues in such moderates as Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island. In those days, of course, they were the predominant force in GOP politics; nowadays, in a GOP dominated by the politics of the Southern Strategy and the "conservative movement," they have been relegated to the party's powerless fringes. But in his day, Prescott Bush was an outspoken and effective advocate of civil rights, women's reproductive rights, and a number of other progressive platforms that earned him the enmity of the party's conservative wing. Indeed, it is one of the more grotesque ironies of the presidency of Bush's grandson that it has done its utmost to empower the same kind of religious extremists who once tormented his forebear.

For that transformation, of course, George H.W. Bush's craven capitulations to the religious right beginning in 1988 and throughout his administration are largely responsible. In many ways, it marked the death knell for any genuinely progressive wing of the Republican Party, and finalized the exodus of many former party stalwarts (myself included).

However, before then, George H.W. Bush's politics had primarily been modeled after his father's, which were decidedly progressive in nature. And his own combat service in World War II should lay to rest any questions about his relationship to the Nazis.

In that respect, one of the accusations hurled by the "Bushes were Nazis" theorists -- that George H.W. Bush signed up for service in the Pacific to deflect questions about the family's patriotism -- is fairly bothersome. TakeBackTheMedia put it this way:
To offset their reputation as World War II traitors, former President Bush joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot.

Tarpley and Chaitkin (and others as well) take this a step further: They argue that young Bush was specifically sent to the war in the Pacific because the war in Germany was viewed by many on the right at being against our "friends," while the war with Japan was being billed as a "race war," which would have meshed with the Bush family's ostensible white-supremacist views.

As a matter of fact, the Pacific war indeed was being widely portrayed as a fight against the "Jap race." Consider the following speech from John Rankin, the Mississippi Democrat, on the floor of Congress Dec. 15, 1941:
This is a race war! The white man’s civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism. ... Once a Jap always a Jap. You cannot change him. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. ... I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or on the mainland ... I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii, now and putting them in concentration camps... Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now!

While Rankin was a Democrat, these views were held across the range of American politics. And as one might infer, their broad acceptance in fact played a major (if not the decisive) role in causing 110,000 Japanese-Americans to be interned in concentration camps during the war. This project was clearly bipartisan in nature, and indeed many Republicans played leading roles in it. Prescott Bush, however, was not one of them.

In this regard, it is important to remember that there is no evidence that Prescott Bush himself was either a eugenicist or a racist. He may have been utterly amoral and conscienceless in his willingness to do business with Nazis and his eugenicist friends the Harrimans, but there is even yet no evidence he in fact shared their views. We might be able to surmise such views from the circumstances, but there is no real proof of them.

Likewise, there are no letters or statements even intimating that George H.W. Bush fought in the Pacific for any purpose other than patriotism, and there is no evidence he was shipped there instead of to Europe by any kind of deliberate efforts on his father's part or his own, let alone for any racist reasons. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, a groundless and careless smear.

In the end, it should be fairly clear that the grounds for claiming that the Bush forebears were "Nazis" are thin and largely nonexistent. However, that does not relieve them of culpability, moral and otherwise, for their roles in the rise of the Nazis.

Next: Keeping Conscience

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