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  • Reconceiving International History
  • Erez Manela (bio)
Matthew Connelly. Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. xiv + 521 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $35.00.

Few who read Matthew Connelly’s important new book will forget the opening scene. It is June 18, 1877, and the trial of freethinker, socialist, and women’s rights activist Annie Besant has just begun at the Queen’s Bench Court in London. Besant and her associate, Charles Bradlaugh, are on trial for circulating an “obscene pamphlet” by the American birth control advocate Charles Knowlton, which included explicit descriptions of sexual anatomy and contraceptive techniques such as condoms, sponges, douches, and withdrawal. Rising in her own defense, the twenty-nine-year-old Besant, “beautiful and brilliant,” explains why she did it. Without birth control, she warns, England would become as overpopulated as China and suffer the same fate: war, famine, and disease (pp. 18–9). That very same year, Connelly notes, famine struck in both India and China and nativist riots against Chinese immigrants broke out in California.

This startling juxtaposition of events forms the starting point of Connelly’s original and wide-ranging exploration of the history of the movement to control world population. This book joins a small but growing body of literature that is putting to rest the common perception that work on the history of international organizations and NGOs is bound to be a soporific alphabet soup full of indecipherable acronyms and mind-numbing dissections of institutional mission statements. Connelly has mined a vast array of NGO and international organization archives, including those of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as a plethora of private papers, to distill a story full of dramatic encounters, striking discoveries, intriguing interpretations, and global historical significance. Fatal Misconception is not the first work to focus on the role of non-state actors in the history of international society.1 But Connelly’s methodological sophistication, narrative skill, and provocative arguments will no doubt energize the field and serve to encourage further work in it. [End Page 69]

The narrative begins in the late nineteenth century, when ruling elites in emerging nation-states in Europe and elsewhere regularly thought of populations in the aggregate as yet another resource to be managed and utilized by the state, and when scientists, officials, and intellectuals worked to measure and control both the quality and quantity of that resource. Connelly defines “population control” broadly, as encompassing not only the interrelated concerns with the quality and quantity of populations but also with its movement, and his opening chapters weave a wide-ranging narrative involving anti-immigration movements, social Darwinism, scientific racism, phrenology, and the rise and influence of such concepts as the “Yellow Peril”, Lebensraum, and “race suicide.” Connelly’s main task, he writes, “is to discover, specifically, how such protean concepts evolve into norms, practices, and institutions that empower people or manipulate them, enrich or impoverish, give life or take it away, sometimes all at the same time” (p. 8).

The demographic devastation of World War I intensified the fears of the West’s demographic decline, and in the ensuing decade Lothrop Stoddard’s warnings about “the rising tide of color” echoed even as Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of “birth control”—a term she coined in 1914—was gaining momentum. This was the age of eugenics, and Connelly reminds us that the term, associated today with pseudoscience and the Holocaust, was in its day often viewed as a progressive cause and supported by figures ranging from W. E. B. Du Bois to John Maynard Keynes. This period also saw the first international meetings on population, where ideas were debated, plans hatched, and connections made. For Connelly, these gatherings were pivotal in the development and operation of the movements to control world population. His account of the first such meeting, the World Population Conference convened in Geneva in 1927 by the International Labor Organization, introduces several of the story’s main themes. One is the marginalization of women, both as activists and as “targets,” by paternalistic, careerist male “experts” who populated the positions...


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