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CounterPunch Diary

Zyklon B on the US Border

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Zyklon B came to El Paso in the 1920s. In 1929, for example, a U.S. Public Health Service officer, J.R. Hurley, ordered $25 worth of the material–hydrocyanic acid in pellet form–as a fumigating agent for use at the El Paso delousing station, where Mexicans crossed the border from Juárez. Zyklon, developed by DEGESCH (the German Vermin-combating Corporation) was made in varying strengths, with Zyklon C, D and E representing gradations in potency and price. As Raul Hilberg describes it in The Destruction of the European Jews, " strength E was required for the eradication of specially resistant vermin, such as cockroaches, or for gassings in wooden barracks. The ‘normal’ preparation, D, was used to exterminate lice, mice, or rats in large, well-built structures containing furniture. Human organisms in gas chambers were killed with Zyklon B." In 1929, DEGESCH divided the world market with an American corporation, Cyanamid, so Hurley presumably got his Zyklon B from the latter.

As David Dorado Romo describes it in his marvelous Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An underground history of El Paso and Juárez : 1893-1923 (available from Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso), Zyklon B had become available in the U.S.A. in the early 1920s when fears of alien infection had been inflamed by the alarums of the eugenicists, most of them from the "progressive" end of the political spectrum. In 1917, the U.S. Congress passed and Wilson–an ardent eugenicist–signed the Immigration Law. The United States Public Health Service simultaneously published its Manual for the Physical Inspection of Aliens.

The Manual had its list of excludables from the U.S. of A., , a ripe representation of the obsessions of the eugenicists: "imbeciles, idiots, feeble-minded person, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority (homosexuals), vagrants, physical defectives, chronic alcoholics, polygamists, anarchists, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases, prostitutes, contracts laborers, all aliens over 16 who cannot read." In that same year U.S. Public Health Service Agents "bathed and deloused" 127,123 Mexicans at the Santa Fe International Bridge between Juárez and El Paso.

The mayor of El Paso at the time, Tom Lea Sr., represented, in Romo’s words, "the new type of Anglo politician in the ‘Progressive Era’. Progressive didn’t necessarily mean liberal back then. In Lea’s case, ‘progress’ meant he would clean up the city." As part of his cleansing operations, Lea made his city the first in the U.S. to ban hemp, aka marijuana, as an alien Mexican substance. He had a visceral fear of contamination and, so his son later disclosed, wore silk underwear because his friend, Dr. Kluttz, had told him typhus lice didn’t stick to silk. His loins thus protected, Lea battered the U.S. government with demands for a full quarantine camp on the border where all immigrants could be held for up to 14 days. Local health officer B.J. Lloyd thought this outlandish, telling the U.S. surgeon general that typhus fever "is not now, and probably never will be, a serious menace to our civilian population."

Lloyd was right about this. Lea forced health inspectors to descend on Chihuahuita, the Mexican quarter of El Paso, forcing inhabitants suspected of harboring lice to take kerosene and vinegar baths, have their heads shaved and clothes incinerated. Inspection of 5,000 rooms did not stigmatize Chihuahuita as a plague zone. The inspectors found two cases of typhus, one of rheumatism, one of TB, and one of chicken pox. Ironically, Kluttz, presumably wearing silk underwear, contracted typhus while supervising these operations and died.

But Lloyd did recommend delousing plants, saying he was willing to "bathe and disinfect all the dirty, lousy people coming into this country from Mexico." The plant was ready for business right when the Immigration Act became law. Soon Mexicans were having their bodies checked, daubed with kerosene where deemed necessary and their clothes fumigated with gasoline, kerosene, sodium cyanide, cyanogens, sulfuric acid and Zyklon B. The El Paso wrote respectfully in 1920, " hydrocyanic acid gas, the most poisonous known, more deadly even than that used on the battlefields of Europe, is employed in the fumigation process."

The delousing operations provoked fury and resistance among Mexicans still boiling with indignation after a lethal 1916 gasoline blaze in the El Paso City jail. As part of Mayor Lea’s citywide disinfection campaign, prisoners in the jail were ordered to strip naked. Their clothes were dumped in one bath filled with a mixture of gasoline, creosote and formaldehyde. Then they were forced to step into a second bath filled with "a bucket of gasoline, a bucket of coal oil and a bucket of vinegar." At around 3:30 p.m., March 5, 1916, someone struck a match. The jail went up like a torch. The El Paso Herald reported that about 50 "naked prisoners from whose bodies the fumes of gasoline were arising", many of them locked in their cells, caught fire. 27 prisoners died. In late January 1917, 200 Mexican women rebelled at the border and prompted a major riot, putting to flight both police and troops on both sides of the border.

The use of Zyklon B became habitual. Health officers would spray the immigrants’ clothes. Now, Zyklon B, in gaseous form, is fatal when absorbed through the skin in concentrations of over 50 parts ppm. How many Mexicans suffered agonies or died, when they put on those garments? As Romo recently told the El Paso-based journalist Paul Spike, writing for the online UK daily The First Post: "This is a huge black hole in history. Unfortunately, I only have oral histories and other anecdotal evidence about the harmful effects of the noxious chemicals used to disinfect and delouse the Mexican border crossers–including deaths, birth defects, cancer, etc. It may well go into the tens of thousands. It’s incredible that absolutely no one, after all these years, has ever attempted to document this."

The use of Zyklon B on the U.S.-Mexican border was a matter of keen interest to the firm of DEGESCH. In 1938, Dr. Gerhard Peters called for its use in German Desinfektionskammern. Romo has tracked down an article Peters wrote in a German pest science journal, Anzeiger für Schädlingskunde, which featured two photographs of El Paso delousing chambers. Peters went on to become the managing director of DEGESCH, which handled the supply of Zyklon B for the Nazi death camps. He was tried and convicted at Nuremberg. Hilberg reports that he got five years, then won a retrial that netted him six years. He was re-tried in 1955 and found not guilty.

In the U.S.A., the eugenicists rolled on to their great triumph, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which doomed millions in Europe to their final rendezvous with Zyklon B twenty years later. By the 1930s, the eugenicists were mostly discredited, though many–particularly in the environmental movement–remain true to those racists obsessions to this day. The Restriction Act, that monument to bad science married to unscrupulous politicians and zealous public policy for the sake of unborn generations, stayed on the books unchanged for 40 years.

In 1918, disease did indeed strike across the border, as Romo points out. Romo quotes a letter from Dr. John Tappan, who had disinfected thousands Mexicans at the border. "10,000 cases in El Paso and the Mexicans died like sheep. Whole families were exterminated. This was "Spanish" flu, which originated in Haskell county, Kansas.


Dream Tickets for 2008

Bloomberg-Schwarzenegger
Sheehan-Nader

Two facts give political traction to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he’s quitting the Republican Party and registering as an Independent and won’t convinicingly deny that he’s planning a presidential bid in 2008. One, he’s a billionaire. Two, in 1992 another billionaire, Ross Perot, ran for the presidency as an independent and it cost George Bush Sr. a second term in the White House.

Here in America, running as a Third Party presidential candidate is like exercising the right to go on strike. It’s legal to try but the law simultaneously makes it almost impossible to win. In 2004, Ralph Nader ran for the second time as a Third Party challenger against George Bush Jr and John Kerry. The Democrats, probably wrongly, blamed him for Al Gore’s loss to Bush in 2000, when Nader got 2.7 per cent of the vote. By September of 2004 Nader was fighting enormously expensive courtroom battles for access to the ballot in over a dozen states. Skilled Democratic lawyers tied him up in litigation and wore him down. He got 0.4 per cent of the vote.

Though he was far more obviously a deadly threat to Bush than Nader was to Gore or Kerry, Republicans at the time and in the years thereafter have never never evinced the obsessive loathing for Perot as Democrats had and still have for Nader. The Democrats have always thought, quite simply, that Nader had no right to be a third party challenger, endangering their man. To their credit, Republicans are more relaxed about Third Party challenges.

Perot got nearly 20 million votes in 1992, 19 per cent of the turnout. Clinton got 43 per cent, Bush 37 per cent. Though Democrats claim Clinton would have won the electoral college even if Perot hadn’t run, the math isn’t persuasive in their cause. Perot did well because many Republican and independent voters were mad at Bush for raising taxes despite a pledge to the contrary. Bush had also offended the influential Jewish constituency by openly attacking the Israel lobby–something his son has never forgotten. Both Bush and Clinton were pushing for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perot had the vigorous opposition to NAFTA all to himself. He was also very good at presenting himself as the Mr Fix-It who would rise above partisan politics and get things done.

Bloomberg has got that last role nailed down, as has the California governor he was visiting with, just before his announcement, Arnold Schwarzenegger. That would be a fun fusion ticket, a Jew and a Nazi, reprising the old Jabotinsky-Hitler alliance of the war years. Of course under present constitutional law, Arnold cannot be president. But he could run for the veep position, and then President Bloomberg could force through a constitutional amendment so Arnold could succeed him (though Bloomberg might worry about premature Termination.) Neither Schwarzenegger nor Bloomberg give a toss for party labels or loyalties. After humiliation in the referendum, Schwarzenegger, being an actor, shifted effortlessly from his disastrous initial role as a Reaganite trying to rewrite California’s constitution, into a born-again New Dealer espousing big government, vast public expenditures and, of course a crusade against global warming.

Bloomberg was a Democrat until he decided to run for mayor and switched parties, and since his first narrow victory in 2001–he was resoundingly reelected in 2005–he’s always stressed, rather persuasively, that he’s not a conventional politician. He’s widely regarded by New Yorkers and the press as having been a successful mayor of New York, which spikes one of Giuliani’s guns.

In the wake of his announcement on Tuesday, the pundits have been drawing intricate scenarios about the likelihood that a Bloomberg presential run would be bad for the Democrats. This is nonsense. After eight years of Bush all Democrats are going to unite around their candidate who, on current early showing, will be Hillary Clinton. There’s no sign of a third party challenge from the left, unless–CounterPunch’s devout hope — the anti-war militant Cindy Sheehan, who recently announced her disgust with the Democrats, decides to run with Nader in just two vital swing states, Ohio and Florida.

Many Republicans–particularly those of libertarian bent, who defected to the Democrats in the midterm elections last year — loathe Bush Jr the way they did his father, albeit for different reasons, most particularly the war in Iraq. At present the maverick libertarian Republican Ron Paul is the only Republican candidate denouncing the war. He’s won plenty of support but he hasn’t the money to last into next year. By running as an antiwar Independent, Bloomberg could doom any Republican nominee, whether it be Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or John McCain.

Bloomberg would also be able to scoop up the large, mostly tacit chunk of voters chafing at the Israel lobby. In the mid-90s this Jewish American told Jerusalem Report, an Israeli magazine, that he had "no particular desire to visit Israel," that "’I'm not terribly religious …. I don’t spend time davening [i.e., praying]. If I don’t call God, he won’t call me" and ‘I won’t give too much money to the United Jewish Appeal,because of the hold the religious have on Israel. I have one wish: Shoot all the clerics."

Eugenics and Global Warming

Just as I was absorbed in Romo’s history, discussed above, and re-reading in consequence one of my favorite books, Allan Chase’s The Legacy of Malthus, about the eugenics movement in the United States and its appalling consequences, I was directed by a helpful CounterPuncher to a very interesting essay by Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at M.I.T., and one of the most prominent skeptics about the anthropogenic origins of global warming and about the actual dimensions of the "crisis". In 1995 he published an essay, "Science and Politics: Global Warming and Eugenics". I offer some excerpts here, with a reference to the full essay at the end of this column:

"The particular problems of this and other environmental issues stem, as far as I can tell, from the interaction of science, nominally science based advocacy, and politics. The credibility of the first is something the remaining two cannot resist exploiting, while the power and publicity wielded by the second pair are frequently irresistible to the first. The situation is complicated by the fact that there is no clear definition of who is a relevant scientist. Advocacy groups characteristically use information to gain special influence over the political process. Their trophies, so to speak, are legislation, regulation, and treaties, and it would appear that their existence is an automatic feature of the political system.

"We’ve been through all this before. The interaction of genetics, eugenics, and the politics of immigration in the early 1920′s The primary actors in this story are a biology community that had embarked on the study of human genetics, an advocacy movement, eugenics, that was intent on applying human genetics immediately to the betterment of the human race, and a political configuration concerned with America’s alarm over immigration.

"Briefly, segments of the biology community studying human heredity began, in the early part of this century, to consider the possibility that ‘feeble-mindedness’ might be a simple Mendelian genetic characteristic characterized by a single recessive gene. The eugenics movement seized on this as the basis for a variety of practical actions including forced sterilization. During World War I, primitive intelligence tests were administered to army inductees that suggested rampant feeblemindedness in the population as a whole (47% of all Caucasians), and claims were made that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were particularly affected. A general anti-immigration mood found support in the more noble notion of preserving America’s genetic quality from foreign pollution with enthusiastic encouragement from the eugenics movement. Congress seized on the issue of genetics as an objective rationalization for immigration restriction, and passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. There was even some public opposition from the scientific community to theHowever, the scientific opposition was mild, and easily ignored or coopted.

"For present purposes, there are obvious analogies between fears of environmental degradation and fears of genetic degradation, the environmental movement and the eugenics movement, and environmental legislation and immigration legislation.

"In what follows, I can only sketch what appear to me to be characteristic features of this interaction.

"The assumption of high moral purpose by an advocacy movement.

"’The best minds of today have accepted the fact that if superior people are desired, they must be bred; and if imbeciles, criminals, paupers, and [the] otherwise unfit are undesirable citizens they must not be bred.’ Victoria Woodhull, The Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit, 1891.

"’Is it Utopian to hope … that the ethical conscience of the average man will come more and more to include in its varied content ‘a feeling of responsibility for the healthfulness of succeeding generations?’, J. Arthur Thomson (British biologist) in Heredity, 1912.

"As Ludmerer 1 notes, ‘Eugenicists’ strong feeling of moral purpose understandably contributed to their marked self-assuredness and sense of self-righteousness in discussing the eugenics program. …… When they (the eugenicists) campaigned for legislation, officials and other citizens could not help but heed the fervent, impassioned pleas of so many eminent persons.’

"Scientists, themselves, were not impervious to the moral fashion established by the advocates. Nor did they object to the public recognition given them and their field by the advocates.Advocates generally extract a payment for this recognition by assuming the right to represent the science in the manner they wish. However, it is worth noting that the publicly perceived exercise of ‘scientific responsibility’ amounted to accepting the position of the eugenicists. Eugenics worked its way rapidly into college curricula, and remained there long after much of its basis had been discredited.


"It would appear that for a nominally science based issue to catch on, there must be an almost trivial picture of the underlying scientific principle that can be widely ‘understood.’ Mendelian genetics satisfied this need; the sophisticated statistical analyses of the biometricians did not. A similar role exists in the global warming issue for the simplistic picture of the greenhouse effect wherein the increase in gases which absorb heat radiation (i.e., infrared radiation) must inevitably lead to warming. It is apparently irrelevant that the simple process described is not only very seriously incomplete (the actual greenhouse effect is only about 25% of what the illustrated mechanism would produce), but leads, by itself, to very little warming from projected increases in CO2.

"Translating such ‘understanding’ into legislation and policy ultimately requires popular support transcending the advocacy groups alone. It appears that ‘events’ are the method of choice for achieving this. By ‘events’ I mean some finding, relevant or not, true or not, which can dramatize the issue and generate, if possible, a degree of public hysteria. The hot summer of 1988 served this function in the global warming case. The finding of rampantly increasing feeblemindedness served a similar function for eugenics movement. The claim that southern and eastern Europeans were particularly affected was used to imply that immigrants were instrumental in the ‘epidemic’ and that their continued admission into this country was a threat to our future.For the most part, ‘events’ don’t just happen. Enthusiasm within the environmental movement for control of carbon emissions arose during the early 80′s, but it was quickly recognized that one would have to await an ‘event’ in order to mobilize the public. In 1912, Irving Fisher, a professor of economics at Yale, and prominent in the eugenics movement, wrote to Charles Davenport, a prominent geneticist, ‘The stresses of immigration alone provided a golden opportunity to get people in general to talk eugenics.’ When immigration came to the fore of the political agenda, the eugenics movement was ready to provide the ‘scientific’ foundation.

"The final element in this brew appears to be the establishment of scientific credibility for the advocacy movement and the suppression of opposition. In the global warming issue, the IPCC and its forged consensus has been the dominant mechanism. The situation with eugenics was somewhat more primitive.

"The interaction of science, advocacy and politics in both the global warming and eugenics cases share a number of characterisics:

"Powerful advocacy groups claiming to represent both science and the public in the name of morality and superior wisdom.Simplistic depictions of the underlying science so as to facilitate widespread ‘understanding.’

"’Events’, real or contrived, interpreted in such a manner as to promote a sense of urgency in the public at large. Scientists flattered by public attention and deferent to ‘political will’ and
popular assessment of virtue.

"Significant numbers of scientists eager to produce the science demanded by the ‘public.’

"Given the automatic tendency of our educated elites to form advocacy groups, the above interactions would appear to have a certain inevitability, and the advantages of advocacy groups over individual scientists in communicating with the public will inevitably give advocacy groups an opportunity to dominate the presentation of the science. This represents a fairly discouraging prognosis for the interaction of science and politics. Nevertheless, even in the case of human genetics and eugenics, the situation eventually self-corrected, though it involved a hiatus in human genetics for about a decade. Politicization generally involves its own mechanism for self-correction. Politicization causes decisions to come increasingly to depend on partisanship rather than science, and with the inevitable alternation of parties, there comes eventual deemphasis of the underlying issue. We can see this at the moment with respect to global warming.

"Before ending, we should perhaps mention two aspects of scientists’ attitudes towards nominally science-based issues. Scientists characteristically suppose that when science is claimed as the basis for political action, that the action will be subject to frequent review as the science evolves. It is, therefore, worth repeating that the political ‘product,’ the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, remained unchanged for 40 years–well beyond the demise of the underlying ‘science.’ The point is that political actions are rarely simply a ‘product’ of science, and that once science has served its supportive function, its political role is essentially over.

"Also, although ideally science is independent of moral fashions, in practice there is undoubtedly an influence. Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to consider whether moral fashions are robust. In the case of eugenics, it is evident that the progressive moral fashion of one era later came to be regarded as morally repugnant. Whether the same fate awaits today’s environmental ethos is impossible to predict, if only because of the ambiguities of the environmental ethos. However, to the extent that the current environmental ethos calls for restricting the economic prospects of the world’s poorer countries, it is by no means inconceivable that it too will come to be regarded as repugnant by future generations."

Lindzen’s stimulating essay can be read in full here. R.S. Lindzen: Science and politics: global warming and eugenics. in Risks, Costs, and Lives Saved, R. Hahn, editor, Oxford University Press, New York, 267pp (Chapter 5, 85-103). [pdf]

Talking of cashing in on the environment, I asked Amazon for an exciting looking book called Lost Gold of Rome by Daniel Costa, and the best Amazon could come up with was Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage by Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winston (Hardcover – Oct 9, 2006.). Costa had emailed CounterPunch this alluring synopsis of his work, which is actually available from Amazon UK. "The little known saga of the barbarian king Alaric and his secret tomb filled with the gold of pagan and Catholic Rome serves as a vehicle to the epic story of the survival of late ancient-early medieval Rome. The book presents Rome in an original way: it weaves the description of many sites into the captivating account of those mysterious and fateful centuries. It also chronicles the rise of Islam and its violent collision with the European society of the early Dark Ages, a story reminiscent of today’s confrontation between the jihadist warriors/terrorists and Western world. The disastrous effects of Christian disunity during the Dark Ages are illustrated convincingly and disquietingly." I shall report further to CounterPunchers when Dr Costa’s book arrives from Browse for Books, in the Isle of Man.

Footnote: a shorter version of the first item appeared in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.