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Meet Aleš Hrdlička, FDR’s Favorite Eugenicist


Darwin-inspired eugenics and racial pseudoscience are like some sort of insidious, and hideous, household pest. Just when you thought you’ve seen the last of it, more turns up, and often in the most unexpected places.

See, “Eugenics Isn’t Ancient History,” or “China Shows Eugenics Is Not a Thing of the Past.” This is a subject by no means limited to the long ago and far away. That’s a lesson of the forthcoming documentary from Discovery Institute, Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism, which gets its Seattle premiere this Tuesday, May 8, at the Woodland Park Zoo. Register here if you haven’t already.

Human Zoos introduces some shadowed and disturbing aspects of American history, including the figure of  anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), who advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt after an earlier career collecting brains of native peoples at the St. Louis World’s Fair (and elsewhere), and contributing to the eugenics exhibition for New York’s American Museum of Natural History. A lovely individual, no doubt, once you got to know him.

What’s that I said about eugenic “science” turning up where you least expect it? Ah yes, right on time, from the online Jewish magazine Tablet here’s a fascinating article, “New Documents Reveal FDR’s Eugenic Project to ‘Resettle’ Jews During World War II.” It’s pegged to a current show at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Americans and the Holocaust.

FDR, notes writer Steve Usdin, explored a range of possible plans for resettling Jews, keeping them “thin all over the world” — and anywhere but in the United States. This was “the ‘M Project,’ a secret study he commissioned of options for post-war migration (hence ‘M’) of the millions of Europeans, especially Jews, expected to be displaced by the war.”

And guess who Roosevelt’s favored pick was to direct this mission? None other than Aleš Hrdlička.

Roosevelt’s first choice to head the M Project was Aleš Hrdlička, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The two men had carried on a lively correspondence for over a decade and the President had absorbed the scientist’s theories about racial mixtures and eugenics. Roosevelt, the scion of two families that considered themselves American aristocrats, was especially attracted to Hrdlička’s notions of human racial “stock.”

A prominent public intellectual who had dominated American physical anthropology for decades, Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack he’d written to Roosevelt expressing the view that the “less developed skulls” of Japanese were proof that they were innately warlike and had a lower level of evolutionary development than other races. The president wrote back asking whether the “Japanese problem” could be solved through mass interbreeding.

Roosevelt had asked [John Franklin] Carter to recruit Hrdlička, and to tell him his task would be to head up a secret international committee of anthropologists to study the “ethnological problems anticipated in post-war population movements.” Outlining the president’s charge for the committee, Carter told Hrdlička it was expected to “formulate agreed opinions as to problems arising out of racial admixtures and to consider the scientific principles involved in the process of miscegenation as contrasted with the opposing policies of so-called ‘racialism.’” The instructions were consistent with views Roosevelt had expressed for decades.

Hrdlička ultimately refused to participate in the M Project because Roosevelt wouldn’t give him absolute control. Isaiah Bowman, president of Johns Hopkins University and a geographer, was promoted from his role as a member of the committee to the head of the project. Roosevelt knew Bowman well and so was presumably aware of his anti-Semitic views.

Very interesting. This is more of the buried history that the award-winning Human Zoos excavates, and that reveals, among other things, the consequences of Darwinian thinking that haunt both the past and present. What else is hidden down there? We hope to see you at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo on Tuesday night when we’ll find out.

Photo: Aleš Hrdlička, via Wikimedia Commons.