The guarded gate : bigotry, eugenics, and the law that kept two generations of Jews, Italians, and other European immigrants out of America

by Daniel Okrent

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Scribner, 2019.


NAMED ONE OF THE "100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF THE YEAR" BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW "An extraordinary book, I can't recommend it highly enough." -Whoopi Goldberg, The View By the widely celebrated New York Times bestselling author of Last Call--the powerful, definitive, and timely account of how the rise of eugenics helped America close the immigration door to "inferiors" in the 1920s. A forgotten, dark chapter of American history with implications for the current day, The Guarded Gate tells the story of the scientists who argued that certain nationalities were inherently inferior, providing the intellectual justification for the harshest immigration law in American history. Brandished by the upper class Bostonians and New Yorkers--many of them progressives--who led the anti-immigration movement, the eugenic arguments helped keep hundreds of thousands of Jews, Italians, and other unwanted groups out of the US for more than 40 years. Over five years in the writing, The Guarded Gate tells the complete story from its beginning in 1895, when Henry Cabot Lodge and other Boston Brahmins launched their anti-immigrant campaign. In 1921, Vice President Calvin Coolidge declared that "biological laws" had proven the inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans; the restrictive law was enacted three years later. In his characteristic style, both lively and authoritative, Okrent brings to life the rich cast of characters from this time, including Lodge's closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt; Charles Darwin's first cousin, Francis Galton, the idiosyncratic polymath who gave life to eugenics; the fabulously wealthy and profoundly bigoted Madison Grant, founder of the Bronx Zoo, and his best friend, H. Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History; Margaret Sanger, who saw eugenics as a sensible adjunct to her birth control campaign; and Maxwell Perkins, the celebrated editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. A work of history relevant for today, The Guarded Gate is an important, insightful tale that painstakingly connects the American eugenicists to the rise of Nazism, and shows how their beliefs found fertile soil in the minds of citizens and leaders both here and abroad.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
Intellectual history of exclusionist racism and the rise of eugenic justifications that ultimately led to the incredibly racist restrictive immigration policies of the early twentieth century, the ones that weren’t removed until the 1960s. But it was always cultural anxiety and racism, not science; the restrictionists happily borrowed from science when they could but never were bound by that.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
Okrent traces the history of eugenics, first as an outgrowth of Darwin's theory of evolution and then its gradual development into a caricature of science as it is overwhelmed by opportunists, nativists and xenophobes. His focus is on how the eugenics movement became intertwined with and the weapon of the anti-immigration movement in the early Twentieth Century. Some of the language sounds familiar today, unfortunately. This is not the history of enforced sterilization but it is a cautionary tale of how scientific trappings can be used to push through unjust laws like the restrictive immigration laws passed by the US Congress in the early 1920s.… (more)



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