Okrent, the first public editor of the New York Times, will discuss a dark chapter of American history, including the scientists who argued that certain nationalities were inherently inferior, and the ways in which their theories provided the intellectual justification for the harshest immigration law in American history. As Okrent shows, upper class Bostonians and New Yorkers—many of them progressives—led the anti-immigration movement, using eugenic arguments that helped keep hundreds of thousands of Jews, Italians, and other unwanted groups out of the US for more than 40 years.
Okrent’s history begins in 1895, when Henry Cabot Lodge and other Boston Brahmins launched their anti-immigrant campaign. Then 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. The cast of characters in The Guarded Gate includes Lodge’s closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt; 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; and Margaret Sanger, who saw eugenics as a sensible adjunct to her birth control campaign.
Okrent, whose book Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, 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. He will be in conversation with Bill Goldstein, emeritus programming curator of Roosevelt House, and host of “Bill’s Books” on WNBC-TV.