What Is Permissible in the Name of Science, Wartime Expediency, and National Security?

"Our Germans beat their Germans," someone quipped when Wernher von Braun's team of rocketeers put Americans on the Moon, but Operation Paperclip reveals that US involvement with ex-Nazi scientists was far deeper, and far darker.

The United States government has a long history of collaborating with evil men for what seemed, at the time, to be good reasons. Franklin Roosevelt made common cause with Stalin, Dwight Eisenhower propped up Ngo Dinh Diem, and Ronald Reagan armed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for war against Iran in the ’80s. Scores of foreign rulers have benefitted from cynical blessings similar to the one that Roosevelt supposedly gave to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”

Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip recounts one chapter in that story: How, in the closing months of World War II and the years immediately after, the United States government rounded up hundreds of Nazi scientists and engineers from the ruins of the Third Reich, and gave them new lives in America.

There were reasons, of course; there are always reasons. Advanced technology — from radar and supercharged aircraft engines to proximity-fused shells and atomic bombs — had been essential to the Allies’ victory in World War II, and there was no reason to believe that pattern would change. Germany led the world in advanced aerospace technology, and although its cutting-edge “wonder weapons”—the Me-262 jet fighter, V-1 cruise missile, and V-2 ballistic missile—had not altered the outcome of the last war, senior military officers believed that their descendants would likely decide the next one. Atomic, biological, and chemical weapons also figured prominently in plans for the next war, and Nazi scientists had worked on all three.

When British and American forces overran western Germany in early 1945, they discovered fortified bunkers stacked with thousands of artillery shells each painted with three green bands. The shells were filled with a lethal nerve agent called Tabun, capable of penetrating exposed skin and killing within minutes. Operation Paperclip gathered up samples of the shells, along with canisters of uranium oxide, research notes on weaponized diseases, a hundred V-2 rockets in various states of assembly, and technical documents by the ton.

First and foremost, however, agents of Operation Paperclip rounded up people: scientists, engineers, and medical researchers. Some were guilty of nothing more than lending their expertise to their nation’s war effort. Others were morally tainted by their knowledge of, and involvement with, the Nazis’ use of slave labor in weapons plants. Rocket designer Wernher von Braun, for example, had inspected the infamous Mittelwerk facility, where enslaved technicians from throughout occupied Europe were worked to exhaustion and death assembling V-2s.

Still others had overseen atrocities, or committed them with their own hands: enslavement, mass murder, and barbaric medical experiments performed on concentration camp inmates. Some had been fully committed members of the Nazi party, holding high rank in the SS and reporting associates to the Gestapo for disloyalty. A significant number stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg. All, however, were deemed vital to the national security of the United States.

The researchers selected for Operation Paperclip reaped extraordinary benefits, of which expedited visas and transportation to the United States were only the beginning. Trials were suspended, verdicts set aside, and clemency granted in the interests of national security. Official descriptions of their lives were expurgated or whitewashed, and documents relating to their wartime activities marked classified. Once in the United States, they were treated not as prisoners or as defeated enemies, but as respected guests: given jobs, laboratories, budgets, and responsibility for key defense-related research and development programs.

Emil Salmon, implicated in the burning of a crowded synagogue, was brought to Ohio to carry on his aeronautical engineering work at Wright Field. Otto Ambros, the co-inventor of Sarin nerve gas, was convicted of slavery and mass murder at Nuremberg but pardoned under pressure from the War Department. Hubertus Strughold, who authorized the use of epileptic children in potentially lethal experiments simulating high-altitude flight, became a leading figure in the Space Medicine Association in America and the namesake of its most prestigious award. Von Braun became a media personality and space-exploration advocate, famous for designing the rockets that launched America’s first satellite and carried the astronauts of Project Apollo to the Moon.

Operation Paperclip narrates all this in meticulous detail, beginning in 1945 and extending into the early ’50s. Over the course of 450-some pages of text, journalist-historian Annie Jacobsen presents the broadest, deepest history of the program ever published: scores of profiles and hundreds of vignettes drawn from tens of thousands of pages of source material. She applies the techniques, and the style, of modern investigative journalism to the twilit era when World War II gave way to the Cold War: unearthing, cross-checking, organizing and presenting a body of meticulously sourced facts, and then letting those facts—with a minimum of narrative embellishment as possible—carry the story.

The list of sources at the end of the book suggests that few publicly accessible stones have been left unturned. It includes American, German, and British archival collections; published and unpublished government documents; the un-archived personal papers of several key participants, and interviews with other key figures and their descendants. That a number of the documents on which Jacobsen relies were initially classified, and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests how fresh this material is. That many documents she sought remain classified suggests how troubling it is.

Jacobsen, wisely, does not try to organize this mass of material a tidy, unified narrative arc. Operation Paperclip was too sprawling, and too hydra-headed for that. Its initial hunting-and-gathering phase involved too many operations unfolding simultaneously in too many different places; its later distribution-and-resettlement phase reached into too many institutions, government agencies, and secret-weapon programs. Instead of a single, clearly defined goal, it had a constellation of related goals: the Army wanted the Nazis’ rocket technology, the nascent Air Force their supersonic-flight expertise, and the CIA their insights into fast-acting neurotoxins. The biological warfare researchers at Fort Detrick coveted Nazi doctors’ work on weaponized diseases, and the Coast Guard took quiet note of concentration camp experiments that documented the time it took an unprotected man to die when immersed in freezing water. Operation Paperclip is not a single narrative, but a mosaic of many smaller narratives—some chapter-length, some shorter—each of which is clearly framed, briskly narrated, and rich in supporting detail.

Operation Paperclip is a smooth read, thanks to Jacobsen’s skill as a writer, but never an easy one. Many of the German researchers it profiles committed despicable acts during the war, and the decision to bring them to the United States will strike some readers as morally repugnant in its own right. The atomic-, biological-, and chemical-warfare programs to which many of the Paperclip scientists contributed were seen as unambiguous boons to national security at the dawn of the Cold War.

Today, decades after its end, they represent another moral gray area. The integration of ex-Nazi doctors into the aerospace medicine community raises the conundrum of tainted research: whether data gathered unethically (even criminally) can or should be used as a basis for further research. For many readers, raising such issues necessarily raises the related issue of what once-clear moral lines the United States was willing to blur in order to win World War II, or erase altogether in the event the Cold War turned hot.

Jacobsen does not take an overt stand on these moral issues, or even place them at the center of her narrative. This is a book of historical reportage, not of outrage. There is no condemnation of the process, no indictment of those responsible, and no call for redress. It is possible, I think, to read Jacobsen’s own sense of disgust and appalled disbelief between the lines, but she is careful to present the facts and let readers impose their own their own ethical framework—their own sense of what is permissible in the name of science, wartime expediency, or national security. It is an unexpected approach, especially for a book in which Nazi Germany looms so large, but ultimately a fruitful one. It forces readers to consider where, on the broad gray areas she maps, they would choose to draw the bright, sharp boundary lines that no civilized nation can cross, and remain civilized.

RATING 8 / 10
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