Although Nazi science failed to produce an atomic bomb during the Second World War—thank God—Hitler’s scientists surged ahead in many other aspects of military technology. They built substantial leads in rocketry and aeronautics, human physiology, and chemical and biological warfare. Fortunately, Nazi wonder weapons appeared too late to affect the war’s outcome. The German surrender set off a mad scramble among the victorious Allies to capture the fruits of Nazi science. The biggest prizes were the scientists themselves, but among the ashes of the Third Reich, it was impossible to draw a clear distinction between scientist and war criminal because so much of Nazi Germany’s scientific and technical “progress” had hinged on the exploitation of slave labor and experiments inflicted on unwilling human subjects.
The title of Operation Paperclip, veteran journalist Annie Jacobsen’s latest exposé (she also wrote Area 51), refers to the secret US government program under which 1,600 German experts—many of them committed Nazis closely associated with Third Reich atrocities—were brought to the United States, provided with generous employment contracts, and given a clear path to citizenship. The US military and intelligence communities sponsored Operation Paperclip in the name of “national security,” and its principal justification was to stop the Russians from harnessing the Nazi scientists to their own ends. The project gained “long-run momentum” after the Soviet Union’s Berlin blockade tipped the uneasy postwar peace into the dangerous Cold War rivalry that would dominate world affairs for the next forty years.
To air Operation Paperclip’s secrets, Jacobsen plain, direct, thoroughly researched, and compelling story spotlights 21 Nazi scientists who worked for the United States in the postwar period. Probably due to her complex cast of characters, Jacobsen doesn’t hold to a strict chronological narration, a choice that makes for smoother storytelling but does limit Operation Paperclip’s effectiveness as a lens through which to witness postwar and Cold War developments. And although it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the individual members of her rotating cast, it’s always obvious that they’re a particularly repugnant group. All were ardent, long-time Nazis. Many had won the Golden Party Badge honoring the Nazi elite. Eight of the 21 had at some point worked side-by-side with either Adolf Hitler, Herman Göring, or Heinrich Himmler. Six were tried as war criminals at Nuremberg. Some served as SS officers. A half dozen were Nazi doctors involved with perverse experimental research that killed the majority of their test subjects.
One American war crimes investigator described Third Reich medical research as something “out of a dark German fairy tale,” and wrote his wife that it seemed “as if the Nazis had taken special pains in making practically every nightmare come true.” As Ms. Jacobsen elaborates, Luftwaffe doctors had used “murder in the name of medicine” to research the effects of high altitude, cold, thirst, and salt water on human physiology. Jacobsen relates the war crimes trial testimony of a medical experiment survivor who identified the Nazi doctor (and Operation Paperclip participant) who had extracted part of his liver—without anesthetic. Every one of the Operation Paperclip doctors Jacobsen describes were at least circumstantially linked to such horrors. One of them, Dr. Hubertus Strughold, had served as the Luftwaffe’s chief of aeromedical research. He worked for the U.S. Air Force and NASA through the 1950s and ‘60s and is today remembered as the father of US space medicine.
The most famous Operation Paperclip participant, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, one of the prime movers of the V2 project and of American rocketry from Redstone to Apollo, joined the Nazi party in 1937, had his SS membership sponsored by Heinrich Himmler himself, and personally procured Buchenwald concentration camp inmates with “good technical educations” for his underground V2 assembly plant—a factory in which about half of its 60,000 slave laborers were worked to death. Regardless, von Braun lived out his life as a wealthy and famous man, one of the heroes of the Space Race. Another V2 scientist brought to the United States by Operation Paperclip finished up as a vice president of Bell Aircraft.
Some Cold War advantage certainly accrued to the United States through the services of such men. The long run of history will judge whether those contributions merited the nauseating moral compromise their employment entailed. Ms. Jacobsen certainly left this reader with the impression that a good number of those ex-Nazis who ended up living comfortable lives in the United States should have been tried as war criminals.
Indeed, throughout Operation Paperclip, it’s appalling to witness the United States so carelessly squandering what, in the long run, are probably the two most decisive weapons in its arsenal against fascists, communists, terrorists, and other totalitarians—the moral high ground and the rule of law.