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From Eugenics to Antiracism: The Role of International Conferences and Organizations in the Interwar and in the Postwar
  • David Cook-Martín, Grinnell College

We argue that that the very intergovernmental organizations devised by the United States to consolidate regional dominance in response to geopolitical dilemmas exposed by the Great War (1914-1918) were mobilized by the “smaller powers” to advance anti-discrimination policies beginning in the late 1920s. In particular, the structure of international governance and voting attenuated some of the political asymmetries between participating countries. In addition, the tendency of Latin American countries to oppose U.S. discriminatory policy even when not directly affected gave coherence and a supportive constituency to their initiatives. The rise of Pan American intergovernmental and ancillary organizations and policy discussions coincided with and was very much informed by eugenist ideologies of rational population selection. Indeed, scientifically legitimated notions of biologically distinguishable groups informed notions of modern state-ness and hence immigration policies in the Americas. Pan American organizational networks, however, also channeled criticisms by prominent scientists, policymakers, and professionals from within and outside of eugenics, and reactions to the implementation of eugenist policies in Germany. In the aftermath of these reactions against social policy informed by a hard hereditarian eugenics, Latin American elites in these networks advanced a universalist agenda to constrain negative U.S. policies like full interventions and the threatened inclusion of western hemisphere immigrants in nationality quotas. The 1938 resolution of the Eighth Inter-American Conference of American States marked the beginning of a shift in the hemispheric normative consensus on ethnic discrimination, although a positive eugenics remained operative in government policies well into the 1960s. In immigration policy, this shift was initially expressed in a preference for “assimilable” immigrants that eschewed racial discrimination. Pan American intergovernmental networks then played a critical role in advancing anti-discrimination and human rights provisions in the postwar era.

  • Eugenics,
  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • immigration,
  • intergovernmental organizations
Publication Date
July, 2011
Citation Information
David Cook-Martín. "From Eugenics to Antiracism: The Role of International Conferences and Organizations in the Interwar and in the Postwar" (2011)
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