New Thriller about Eugenics, “the Dirty Little Secret of the Anglo-American Intellectual Elite”

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky March 15, 2012
Biopolitical Times

In 1940, when many feared that Britain would imminently fall to Hitler, a committee at Yale University extended an offer of refuge in the US to the children of faculty members at Oxford and Cambridge. Officials at Cambridge University declined, on the grounds that sending their children to safety when other Britons could not “might be interpreted as privilege for a special class.” But Oxford accepted the invitation, and in July of that year, 125 children and 25 of their mothers set sail for temporary homes with Yale families.

Their hosts in and around New Haven apparently acted out of altruism and kindness. Neither they nor the Oxford children and mothers were told that the Yale organizers were motivated by explicitly eugenic commitments to “saving at least some of the children of intellectuals.”

A fictional story based on this eugenics-inspired program is told in Pantheon, a thriller recently released in the UK (available in the US via online sellers). Author Sam Bourne, the literary pseudonym of prize-winning and left-leaning British journalist Jonathan Freedland, has written four previous thrillers, one of them a New York Times and number one UK bestseller. Pantheon has been reviewed in the UK by The Guardian, The Independent, and the Jewish Chronicle. The Daily Mail responded to its publication with an article about the Yale-Oxford program titled, “Did Yale University plan to create an intellectually superior race of children to repopulate Britain after World War Two?”

Freedland himself, in a Guardian piece written under his own name and in an interview sponsored by Jewish Book Week [UK], contemplates the early responses to Pantheon, and especially to his point that eugenics appealed strongly to elements of the political left as well as the right. Eugenics, Freedland writes, is “one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left.”

It’s all too easy, he notes, for left-liberals today to react as if this “were all an accident of time, a slip-up by creatures of their era who should not be judged by today's standards.” He continues:

[T]his was no accident. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their leftwing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, leftwing reasons.
They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection….If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies?
The UK reviews of Pantheon have been mixed. The Guardian, for example, called it a “pacy thriller” and predicted that “readers will not be disappointed,” but also criticized the book for being weak on character development and subtlety. According to the reviewer, Freedland is “unwilling to trust his readers with the complexities of history." And when it comes to Freedland’s treatment of eugenics, he wrote, “we get crude stereotypes.”

Well, perhaps – or perhaps what we’d now like to dismiss as “crude stereotypes” seemed at one time like common sense. In any case, at least the issues are being discussed in the UK. So far, no major US media outlet has covered either Pantheon or the eugenic ideas that motivated the Yale-Oxford program.

Perhaps this silence can be explained by the book’s not having yet been released in the US. But the US eugenics movement, a powerful force for much of the pre-WWII twentieth century, is on the whole little discussed in this country. And as Freedland writes in an author’s note at the end of Pantheon, it was “in particular vogue at Yale.” One notable adherent was Yale president James Angell (1921-1937), whom eminent Yale historian Gaddis Smith describes as “a fanatic eugenicist.” Neither Angell’s Wikipedia page nor the Yale website mentions his eugenic beliefs.

I liked Pantheon better than did most of the British reviewers, both as a page-turner and as a dramatization of recent histories whose meanings we would do well to ponder. In addition to giving us a vivid account of the Yale-Oxford eugenic rescue operation, Freedland weaves in other episodes from the 1930s and 1940s, offering glimpses of the Spanish Civil War, the “America First” movement, the virulently anti-Semitic Right Club in London, and the early days of the “Ivy League nude posture photo scandal,” another project at elite US universities that was motivated by eugenic beliefs.

Freedland opens his essay in The Guardian, which he says was triggered in part by the early responses to Pantheon, by asking:
Does the past matter? When confronted by facts that are uncomfortable, but which relate to people long dead, should we put them aside and, to use a phrase very much of our time, move on?
I’m with Freedland on this one: While eugenics once appealed to people across the entire political spectrum, those of us associated with its progressive, left and liberal end have a special responsibility to understand what it meant then, and what its legacy is now.