John D. Rockefeller III’s 1958 swing through Asia had momentous consequences for the cultures of the world. For the scion of the Rockefeller family came back from a close encounter with Asian poverty convinced that population control, not economic development, was the cute. And he returned ready to put his millions to work towards that end. The peasant societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America would never be the same.
By the late sixties, American family planning field workers bearing boxes of contraceptives were a common sight in many countries. The villagers they approached, residents of a calmer, more congenial world, rarely rejected these gifts outright. “[The workers] were so nice,” one Indian man later remarked “And they came from distant lands to be with us. All they wanted was that we accept the [foam] tablets. I lost nothing and probably received their prayers. And they, they must have gotten some promotion.”
This villager’s shrewd guess could not have been closer to the mark. From the beginning, the success of population control programs has been measured not by declines in fertility, but by the numbers of “acceptors” it generates. Those workers who meet their quotas of acceptors are promoted; those country programs that meet their targets are expanded. Since those that fail on either count are terminated, there is little incentive to make sure that all this contraceptive largess is used for its intended purpose. One villager used his free boxes of vaginal foaming tablets, their contents undisturbed, to build a little temple in his living room to the local Hindu deity.
The leaders of newly independent states had little use for this new wave of secular missionaries or the anti-natal religion they preached. It seemed to many that a new and insidious form of cultural imperialism was being unleashed on them by their former colonial masters. Had they known of the existence of National Security Study Memorandum 200, a remarkably chauvinistic document produced by the US National Security Council in 1974, perhaps they would have barred the condom bearers entirely.
Written in near-apocalyptic terms, this secret report declared continued world population growth to be a grave threat to US national security. If the peasant hordes of Asia, Africa and Latin America were allowed to multiply, it declared, their search for social justice would inevitably lead them to communism. This would limit America’s access to strategic minerals and other raw materials, both directly through the action of hostile regimes, and indirectly because of greatly expanded local consumption.
Thus was population control declared to be a weapon in the cold war. The immediate result was a huge jump in population control spending by the US and its allies. Dozens of countries around the world were targeted, especially those which were considered to he vulnerable to communist insurrection (such as Thailand), and those sitting on top of valuable metals (such as the southern tier of Africa).
The programs themselves also became more sophisticated, especially in the use of surrogates. To answer the charge of cultural imperialism, local elites in targeted countries were recruited to serve as the public face of these new programs. To avoid the appearance of neo-colonialism, US population control funding was increasingly funneled through international organizations like the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Having muted, or at least neutralized, many of its developing world critics, the stage was set for a war on population. The National Security Council, in a follow-up study, issued specific guidelines on how this war should be fought.
“[P]opulation programs,” this report noted, “have been particularly successful where leaders have made their positions clear, unequivocal and public, while maintaining discipline down the line from national to village levels, marshaling governmental workers (including police and military), doctors and motivators to see that population policies are well administered and executed. Such direction is the sine qua non of an effective program.”
The NSC report might have been describing the enforcement mechanism of China’s Draconian one-child policy, which relies upon a “well administered and executed” program of forced abortion, forced sterilization, and forced contraception to eliminate excess births. While passing over China’s obvious reliance on coercion in silence, the report did find overall trends in its program to be “encouraging.” “Encouraging” was also used to describe the programs of two other countries now well known for abuses, Indonesia and India.
At the time the NSC report was written, India was in the middle of its infamous “compul-suasion” campaign. Although this strange word was an amalgam of compulsion and persuasion, the emphasis was definitely on the former. No longer was our congenial Indian villager merely to be given boxes of contraceptives with which to build temples. Instead, he was to be sterilized. Governments officials were assigned vasectomy quotas, and denied raises, transfers and even salaries until they had sterilized the requisite number of men.
At the same time it was privately commending India’s programs, the NSC strongly cautioned against public praise. “We recommend that US officials refrain from public comment on forced-paced measures such as those currently under active consideration in India … [because that] might have an unfavorable impact on existing voluntary programs.” Indeed, the NSC cynically advised US officials to pretend a complete lack of interest in population control. “[A]void the language of ‘birth control’ in favor of ‘family planning’ or ‘responsible parenthood,’ with the emphasis being placed on child spacing in the interests of the health of child and mother…”
With the US looking benignly on, several million “compul—suasion” sterilizations took place in India. The program was wildly unpopular, especially among untouchables and Muslims, and riots followed. For the rumor (later verified as fact) had spread that the Hindu majority was deliberately targeting low caste and minority groups for sterilization in an effort to reduce their numbers.
Such an obvious and callous display of racial and religious bigotry is easy to condemn. But how can we possibility claim the moral superiority to do so? For our own government more than twenty years ago set in motion a policy designed to eliminate our own version of low caste and minority groups — the poor Africans, Latinos, and Asians of the world.