The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America
“In The Guarded Gate, Okrent shows tremendous insight but also tremendous restraint, letting the alarming rise of racist eugenics unfold in its own time, and painstakingly documenting its increasing influence on American attitudes and immigration policy until its impact on the world at large—as well as its ugly reflection in the current historical moment—becomes painfully clear.”
In the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces Daisy Buchanan’s boorish husband, Tom, as not only an aggressive, aging jock but also a verbally combative white supremacist. Tom asks his wife and his new acquaintance Nick if they’ve read Goddard’s Rise of the Colored Empires, and declares that it’s “a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
Many Gatsby readers know that Tom is talking about a real book, Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. But few are likely aware than Stoddard’s tome was a wildly popular pseudo-scientific racial manifesto publicly endorsed in the “America First”-themed 1920 presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding.
Even fewer readers know that Fitzgerald and Stoddard shared not only the same publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, but the same editor: the legendary Maxwell Perkins, remembered today for discovering Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. In the same period, Perkins also lent his editorial talents to Stoddard (who wrote several books, all published by Scribner and edited by Perkins), and a number of other writers who used spurious science to advance the primacy of a supreme “Nordic” race.
The Guarded Gate, a fascinating and timely new book by Daniel Okrent, author of the intoxicating Prohibition history Last Call, delves deep into the “scientific racism” movement that spawned Lothrop Stoddard. In tracing the arc of that movement, Okrent argues convincingly that America’s progression to the selectively gate-slamming Immigration Act of 1924—which added restrictive quotas for Jews, Italians, and other Eastern and Southern Europeans seeking to immigrate to the United States to existing bans on immigrants from Asia—was a direct result of the popularization of theories about the biological superiority of Northern and Western Europeans and the intellectual, physical, and moral deficiencies of virtually everyone else.
According to Okrent, the sense of urgency in Tom Buchanan’s nativist parlor talk, however ill-received in The Great Gatsby, enjoyed enormous popularity with northeastern bluebloods dating back to the late 19th century. From Beacon Hill to Oyster Bay, Harvard-educated scions of the northeast’s most prominent families, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt, embraced the pseudo-science of racial eugenics, which held that “talent, intelligence, and even morality were bequeathed biologically” or ordered by ethnicity, and that it was not only possible but imperative to stave off “race suicide” through selective reproduction (and prevention of reproduction).
As Roosevelt wrote, “Someday we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”
Lodge, among others, tied the problem of incipient American decline to the infusion of inferior ethnicities from across the Atlantic (as fellow Bostonian Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote, turning the United States into the “cesspool of Europe”), and made the restriction of immigration his principal cause.
These ideas weren’t entirely new—according to Okrent, prominent Americans as far back as Benjamin Franklin could sound almost Trumpian, insisting that newly arrived immigrants “are generally the most stupid sort of their own nation.” But these ideas picked up steam in the early 20th century thanks to the dedication of the country’s leading genetics laboratory in Spring Harbor, New York, to build a scientific foundation for eugenics, and the dogged organizing efforts of the curator of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
As Charles Davenport, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and an increasingly influential figure thanks to widespread publication in respected scientific journals, wrote in 1911, “Unless conditions change of themselves or are radically changed, the population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from South-eastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, more given to crimes of rape and sex-immorality and less given to burglary, drunkenness, and vagrancy than were the original English settlers.”
Unable to contain himself after quoting these lines, Okrent answers Davenport directly with the trademark acerbic wit that made Last Call such an irresistible read: “The horror! Battalions of short, sober, musical rapists were poised on the American doorstep!”
Such biting asides make The Guarded Gate’s darker moments easier to swallow, but Okrent never soft-pedals the horrific consequences of American racism that the book conveys (or its parallels to rhetoric and policy increasingly ascendant in our own time). Perhaps most jarring are his credible estimations of how many deaths of European Jews during the Holocaust would have been avoided if not for the immigration restrictions imposed on them in 1924.
Okrent also makes a convincing case that the quota system applied by the 1924 law, which dramatically reduced the numbers of immigrants admitted from some ethnicities but left others virtually untouched, was even worse than shutting down immigration altogether. “A complete halt might have been extreme, but it would also have been impartial. Instead, the bill’s system of national quotas was aimed, by its very design, at specific ethnic groups.”
Okrent sums up the nativist thrust behind the act with a judiciously chosen quote from American Jewish Committee founder Louis Marshall: “Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant. The hatred of everything that is foreign has become an obsession.”
In The Guarded Gate, Okrent shows tremendous insight but also tremendous restraint, letting the alarming rise of racist eugenics unfold in its own time, and painstakingly documenting its increasing influence on American attitudes and immigration policy until its impact on the world at large—as well as its ugly reflection in the current historical moment—becomes painfully clear.
Everything old is new again.