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Making the World Safe for Eugenics: The Eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin's Encounters with American Internationalism1


Harry H. Laughlin's main claim to fame was as director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, from which position he exerted considerable influence upon early twentieth-century campaigns to restrict immigration and to institute compulsory sterilization of the socially inadequate. Laughlin also had an absorbing fascination for the idea of a single world government. Over the course of forty years, he produced a voluminous body of mostly unpublished work on the subject. In examining Laughlin's musings on internationalism, this article provides a glimpse into how a leading American eugenicist would have projected onto the world stage the policies he was zealously endeavoring to implement at the domestic level. Laughlin sent samples of his work to many of America's leading internationalists. Their responses to Laughlin's ideas reveal much about the character of internationalism in the United States during the era of World War I, especially the extent to which his racist and imperialist assumptions were shared by other members of the internationalist movement. Consequently, this article provides yet another example of how liberal and conservative impulses were neither easily distinguishable nor mutually exclusive during the Progressive Era.

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I would like to thank Hena Ahmed, Marc Becker, and Dan Mandell, all at Truman State University, Julio Decker at the University of Leeds, Kendrick Oliver, University of Southampton, and the journal's anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts. I also thank archivists Amanda Langendoerfer and Jane Monson at Truman State University for assistance locating documents and images.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Julius Paul , “Population ‘Quality’ and ‘Fitness for Parenthood’ in the Light of State Eugenic Sterilization Experience, 1907–1966,” Population Studies 21 (Nov. 1967): 295–96

Donald K. Pickens , “The Sterilization Movement: The Search for Purity in Mind and State,” Phylon 28 (1st qtr., 1967): 88

Philip K. Wilson , “Eugenicist Harry Laughlin's Crusade to Classify and Control the ‘Socially Inadequate’ in Progressive Era America,” Patterns of Prejudice 36 (Jan. 2002): 4967

Peter Filene , “The World Peace Foundation and Progressivism, 1910–1918,” New England Quarterly 36 (Dec. 1963): 484501

J. A. Thompson , “American Progressive Publicists and the First World War, 1914–1917,” Journal of American History 58 (Sept. 1971): 364–83

Robert Accinelli , “Militant Internationalists: The League of Nations Association, the Peace Movement and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1934–1938,” Diplomatic History 4 (Jan. 1980): 1938

Erika Kuhlman , Reconstructing Patriarchy after the Great War: Women, Gender, and Postwar Reconciliation between Nations (New York, 2008)

Charles B. Davenport , “Harry Hamilton Laughlin,” Science 97 (Feb. 26, 1943): 195

Merle Curti , “Jane Addams on Human Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Apr.–June 1961): 240–53

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • ISSN: 1537-7814
  • EISSN: 1943-3557
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-gilded-age-and-progressive-era
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