" ... The founder and first president of the American Eugenics Society, Irving Fisher, was an economics professor at Yale. Fisher once wrote, 'We could make a new human race in a hundred years if only people in positions of power and influence would wake up to the paramount importance of what eugenics means… we could save the bloodstream of our race from a needless amount of contamination.' ... "
In 1940, Yale University gave 125 children of Oxford academics refuge from the Nazis. Jonathan Freedland reveals how leaders of the eugenics movement may have planned to repopulate a devastated Britain with a 'superior’ breed of human.
By Jonathan Freedland
Telegraph, 7:00AM 12 Feb 2012
At first glance, it is an utterly benign and heart-warming story, a tale of child-rescue and salvation, of friendship across the ocean at a time of war. And for those involved, especially the children sheltered from Hitler’s bombs by one of America’s most prestigious universities, it was no more complicated than that: an act of altruistic, life-saving generosity. And yet this story might have a twist, a suspicion that somewhere behind this deed of great kindness lurked a darker motive.
The story – which forms the backdrop of my new novel, Pantheon, published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne – begins in the mid-summer of 1940, with Britain isolated and alone against the Nazi menace. The nations of Europe had fallen in succession to the Germans, with the Low Countries and France conquered a matter of weeks earlier. To an extent that is barely appreciated now, Britons felt they were near-certain to be next, that it was only a matter of time before there were Nazi jackboots on British streets.
That was certainly the fear among the fellows and dons of Oxford in June 1940, as they received an unexpected letter from their counterparts across the Atlantic at Yale. It came from a new entity calling itself the Yale Faculty Committee for Receiving Oxford and Cambridge University Children and it offered nothing less than a haven an ocean away. While plenty of British children had already been evacuated from the cities to the countryside, this was an offer on an altogether different scale – the promise of complete escape from the war in Europe. Children who went to America would evade not only the Luftwaffe’s bombs but the dread prospect of German invasion.
What followed was what one Oxford parent, Dr Ronald Macbeth, would later describe as a period of intense “soul-searching”, as mothers and fathers weighed up their responsibilities. In meetings on hot summer afternoons at Oxford’s Rhodes House, they debated how they should respond to Yale’s invitation. “Some of us felt strongly that we would not wish to have our children subjected to Nazi occupation,” wrote Macbeth. “Others in the en felt that the trauma of separation would be too great.” Still others believed that fleeing across the Atlantic smacked of defeatism, tantamount to a white flag.
In the end, the parents of 125 Oxford children decided to say yes to Yale. With just weeks to prepare, there was, wrote the historian AJP Taylor, “an unseemly scramble” until on 8 July 1940 the SS Antonia set sail from Liverpool, carrying the children and 25 of their mothers through thick fog and out into a stormy Atlantic, bound eventually for New Haven, Connecticut.
Among them was five-year-old Juliet Phelps Brown, now Juliet Hopkins, whose parents were convinced that Britain was about “to become a province of Germany” and who could not countenance living in such a place: “How could academics live with people who burned books?”
Now 77 and herself an accomplished academic still teaching in her specialist area of child psychotherapy, Hopkins remembers standing on the deck as the ship pulled out into the Mersey, holding the hand of a three-year-old girl who needed consoling after she had dropped her teddy bear over the side. “It was a dreadful voyage,” she says. “Everyone was very seasick.” And no one had any idea when they would be coming back.
In this, they were not so unique. By one estimate, some 5,000 children sought refuge from the war in the US, with another 6,000 fleeing to Canada. As with the Yale-Oxford evacuation, they were not the beneficiaries of a government scheme but of spontaneous private initiatives: US companies Hoover and Kodak, for example, offered refuge to the children of their British employees.
Among those who saw out the war in North America were the future Shirley Williams, as well as Martin Gilbert, later to become Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Eric Hammond, later a combative trades union leader, novelist Lynne Reid Banks and a couple of Bonham Carters. The young John Julius (now Lord) Norwich was at the centre of a Westminster row as his father, Conservative politician Duff Cooper – then Minister of Information and therefore responsible for maintaining public morale – was criticised for despatching his son to safety in Canada instead of letting the boy take his chances back home along with everyone else.
Looking back, the Yale evacuees – greeted by the local newspaper with the punning declaration: “Refugees Find New Haven in Land Holding Promise of Peace” – have bittersweet memories of those American years. They recall missing their parents and longing for home, yet gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the new world that had opened its doors to them. They had left behind a country fighting for its life, a blackout Britain drab and grey with wartime austerity and rationing. Now they were in America, a land of peace and plenty, where they could marvel at the long, mysterious cars called station-wagons, and taste exotic new delicacies such as Coca-Cola, popsicles and Eskimo Pie, to say nothing of hamburgers and hot dogs. The boys began to forget cricket and football as baseball and basketball took their place.
There were other adjustments to make. Their new schools were co-ed and more informal than the Oxford children were used to. “No one stands up when a teacher comes into the room,” the young Ann Spokes wrote in a letter home. Others felt awkward when the American Revolution was taught in history lessons: “We Brits felt somewhat personae non gratae,” recalled one. Defiantly, most kept their English accents. But in plenty of other respects over the five long years till 1945 they became little Americans, enjoying an idyllic, outdoor childhood of skiing, skating, summer camps and comic books. And saluting the Stars and Stripes.
Officially, the Yale sojourn was the product of what Ann Spokes – now Ann Spokes Symonds, long-time chronicler of the evacuation and still active as a historian – refers to as the fellowship of scholars, “the camaraderie between educated people” that connected two great universities. Yale simply empathised with Oxford’s plight and wanted to help.
But others suspect that is not the whole story. Juliet Hopkins had such fond memories of her time at Yale, she went back there to do postgraduate work, initially staying with her old foster family. Still, she is among those who have long nurtured a suspicion, not about the families who opened their homes to the sons and daughters of strangers, but about the organisers of the Yale effort. Put bluntly, they wonder if their rescue was motivated in part by an idea that today makes most of us shudder: eugenics.
In the pre-war period, the belief that society should strive to breed a better quality of human stock was utterly mainstream, on both the Left and Right, in both Britain and America. Eugenics, one of whose leading evangelists was Charles Darwin’s son Leonard, saw the human race as no different from any other animal: just as a farmer raising livestock seeks to breed more of the strong and weed out the weak, so human society should aim to do the same.
According to the eugenicists, whose number in pre-war Britain included some of the luminaries of the age – Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and others – those deemed superior in intellect and of greater moral worth should be encouraged to have more children; those branded inferior should be urged, or even coerced, to have fewer children or none at all.
Could this kind of eugenic thinking have prompted Yale’s decision to offer a haven to those Oxford children? Was Yale hoping to save the offspring of the British academic elite, protecting those 125 children because it saw them as a future leadership class especially deserving of preservation? Is it true that, as Hopkins puts it, “They wanted to save the gene pool”?
It is striking that Yale’s offer was made exclusively to the children of Oxford and Cambridge. Note the words used by Dr John Fulton of Yale Medical School, a prime mover behind the effort, who declared that his rescue committee hoped to save “at least some of the children of intellectuals before the storm breaks”.
It seems Cambridge had suspicions of its own, on precisely these grounds. It rejected Yale’s offer, fearing that, in the words of Sir Montague Butler, then Master of Pembroke College, “this might be interpreted as privilege for a special class”.
Crucially, eugenics was not just mainstream in pre-war Yale, it was, in the words of Gaddis Smith, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale and the author of a forthcoming history of the university, “red hot”.
The founder and first president of the American Eugenics Society, Irving Fisher, was an economics professor at Yale. Fisher once wrote, “We could make a new human race in a hundred years if only people in positions of power and influence would wake up to the paramount importance of what eugenics means… we could save the bloodstream of our race from a needless amount of contamination”.
Yale botanist Edmund W Sinnott was even more direct: “Granting that society can decide just which individuals it wishes to eliminate as genetically inferior… how shall it proceed to eliminate them?”
Meanwhile, Smith describes Yale’s president until 1937, James Angell, as “a fanatic eugenicist in the worst meaning of that word”. According to Angell, who wrote an introduction to Leonard Darwin’s What is Eugenics?, “Modern medicine, unless combined with some kind of practicable eugenic program, may result in an excess of feeble and incompetent stock.” In other words, pre-war Yale was in thrall to an idea that today strikes us as horribly close to Nazism.
Smith is candid that the university was then also “notorious as a bastion of anti-Semitism”. The professor has seen documents that show there was some discomfort at the discovery that one of the Oxford mothers was “a Jewess”.
This, then, was the intellectual climate of the campus in which the Oxford evacuation plan was hatched.
Even without an explicit statement of intent, it seems hard to believe eugenics did not play a key part in the decision to protect those 125 “children of intellectuals”, thereby deeming their lives more worthy of saving than the lives of those other British children who would have been lost.
Once Pantheon was completed, I sent an early copy to Juliet Hopkins. She discovered there something she had never known before – that Ellsworth Huntington, the man who had taken in her brother, her mother and her, the man she still remembers as a kindly, grandfatherly figure so generous he insisted his two British foster children be educated privately at his expense, was not only the Professor of Geography at Yale. He was also a past president of the American Eugenics Society.
And so, seven decades later, the suspicion lingers on.
'Pantheon’ by Sam Bourne is published this Thursday (Harper Collins, £12.99 )and is available from the Telegraph bookshop at £11.99 + £1.25 p&p. To pre-order, call 0844 871 1516 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk