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3:00 pm
Sat February 15, 2014

The Secret Operation To Bring Nazi Scientists To America

Originally published on Sat February 15, 2014 7:18 pm

In the fall of 1944, the United States and its allies launched a secret mission code-named Operation Paperclip. The aim was to find and preserve German weapons, including biological and chemical agents, but American scientific intelligence officers quickly realized the weapons themselves were not enough.

They decided the United States needed to bring the Nazi scientists themselves to the U.S. Thus began a mission to recruit top Nazi doctors, physicists and chemists — including Wernher von Braun, who went on to design the rockets that took man to the moon.

The U.S. government went to great lengths to hide the pasts of scientists they brought to America. Based on newly discovered documents, writer Annie Jacobsen tells the story of the mission and the scientists in her book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America.


Interview Highlights

On the origins of Operation Paperclip

It's just a few months after the landings at Normandy and you have Allied forces making their way across the continent, headed toward Berlin and Munich, and with them, sort of scattered among the soldiers, are these small teams of scientific intelligence officers. And they are searching for the Reich's weapons. And they don't know what they might find.

One example was they had no idea that Hitler had created this whole arsenal of nerve agents. They had no idea that Hitler was working on a bubonic plague weapon. That is really where Paperclip began, which was suddenly the Pentagon realizing, "Wait a minute, we need these weapons for ourselves."

On the U.S. government's efforts to mask the scientists' past

There began a propaganda campaign by the U.S. government to whitewash the pasts of these scientists who we very much knew were ardent Nazis. And it happened on a number of levels, from the bureaucrats in Army intelligence who were asked to sort of re-write the dossiers, on up to the generals in the Pentagon who flatly said we need these scientists, and we're going to have to re-write some history. And that's where it becomes very tricky and very nefarious.

You have to be a Nazi ideologue to move up that chain of command so high. It's almost like someone who is a hedge fund manager in the United States trying to take the line that they don't believe in capitalism, you know? That they're just trying to earn a living for their family. I mean, if you're going to rise to the top of your field, you maintain the party line and that is what I found was the case with Paperclip.

On Wernher von Braun's Nazi past

He is a great example, because you wonder where the deal with the devil really happened in terms of his whitewashed past — because the U.S. government, NASA in particular, was so complicit in keeping his past hidden.

In doing the research, one discovers that not only was von Braun a Nazi, but a member of the SS. And not only was he running the underground slave labor facility where his rockets were being built — he wasn't running the facility but he was in charge of the science there — but when they were running low of good technicians, Wernher von Braun himself traveled nearby to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he hand-picked slaves to work for him as laborers.

When you see that kind of activity during the war, and you have to imagine what he saw and what he knew, it's impossible to excuse him from his Nazi past.

On the fates of the Nazi scientists

They all had different trajectories, but none of them seemed to have been held accountable for what happened and what they were involved in during the war. Dr. Benzinger, who was one of the Nazi doctors, came here, and when he died at the age of ninety-something he had a wonderful obituary in The New York Times lauding him for inventing the ear thermometer. Entirely left out of the story was the work that he performed on concentration camp prisoners.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

Wernher von Braun designed the rockets that took man to the moon. He also designed the Nazi rockets that killed thousands during World War II. Von Braun always portrayed himself as a reluctant Nazi and completely unaware of the concentration camps. That was a lie. But instead of hanging at Nuremburg, von Braun and many other Nazi scientists and doctors, including some who had approved experiments on concentration camp inmates, ended up helping the U.S. war effort.

This was thanks to a secret government program revealed in detail in Annie Jacobsen's new book, "Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America." Operation Paperclip began in the fall of 1944 when the advancing allies began together intelligence about Nazi weapons.

ANNIE JACOBSEN: This is a dark time. This is the fall of 1944. So it's just a few months after the landings at Normandy, and you've got allied forces making their way across the continent, headed toward Berlin and Munich. And with them, sort of scattered among the soldiers, are these small teams of scientific intelligence officers, and they are searching for the Reich's weapons. And they don't know what they might find.

One example was they had no idea that Hitler had created this entire arsenal of nerve agents. They had no idea that Hitler was working on a bubonic plague weapon. That is really where Paperclip began, which was suddenly the Pentagon realizing, wait a minute, we need these weapons for ourselves.

RATH: And so realizing that to understand the Nazi science, they needed the Nazi scientists as well.

JACOBSEN: Absolutely. And there begins the conundrum, because it suddenly dawned on these military officers, wait a minute, I've got Wernher von Braun right here. It was no longer a question of who should be hanged. It was a question of who should be hired.

RATH: And that brings us, I guess, to the central, really nauseating moral tension of this book, which is that these experts, these scientists, are also pretty much ardent Nazis and people who were involved in the mass destruction in Europe and the final solution of the Holocaust. So Paperclip has to figure out how to get these scientists in a way that's morally acceptable.

JACOBSEN: And there began a propaganda campaign by the U.S. government to whitewash the past of these scientists, who we very much knew were ardent Nazis. And it happened on a number of levels - from the bureaucrats in Army intelligence who were asked to sort of rewrite the dossiers, on up to the generals in the Pentagon who flatly said, we need these scientists and we're going to have to rewrite some history.

And that's where it becomes very tricky and very nefarious. You have to be a Nazi ideologue to move up that chain of command so high. I mean, it's almost like someone who is, let's say, a hedge fund manager in the United States trying to take the line that they don't believe in capitalism, you know, that they're just trying to earn a living for their family. I mean, if you're going to rise to the top of your field, you maintain the party line. And that is what I found was the case with Paperclip.

RATH: Let's talk about some of these men in particular. I think a great place to start would be with Wernher von Braun, who I considered him heroic when I was a kid because he was responsible for the rockets that took men to the moon. He said it was always really about the science. He was always thinking about space and he was a reluctant Nazi.

JACOBSEN: I found otherwise. You know, he is a great example, because you wonder where the deal with the devil really happened in terms of his whitewashed past because the U.S. government, NASA in particular, was so complicit in keeping his past hidden. And in doing the research, one discovers that, you know, not only was von Braun an ardent Nazi but a member of the SS.

And not only was he running the underground slave labor facility where his rockets were being built - he wasn't running the facility but he was in charge of the science there - but when they were running low of good technicians, Wernher von Braun himself traveled nearby to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he handpicked slaves to work for him as laborers.

And when you see that kind of activity during the war, and you have to imagine what he saw and what he knew, it's impossible to excuse him from his Nazi past.

RATH: Another thing that's really remarkable in this is that after this rush to acquire the secrets of Nazi biological and chemical weapons, there was a great push to get our own biological and chemical weapons program up and running using these same men.

JACOBSEN: And, you know, through the lens of history, this all seems like one tragedy compiled on another. When you consider that right now, you know, it's - Syria's chemical weapons are being destroyed at great expense, those are the chemical weapons that were developed by the Nazis. And I write about this at length and located some astonishing documents that had never before been revealed, showing that army officers with the Chemical Corps worked and enjoyed working with some of Hitler's closest scientists. I mean, the men who he gave financial bonuses to - that's how much he liked them.

Another example was a Dr. Walter Schreiber who was Himmler's right-hand man on his personal staff, also a chemist. And after the war, we rounded up this group of chemists, Nazi chemists, who had developed sarin gas and tabun gas. And we used their expertise to build up our arsenal, which only, you know, decades later was considered absolutely not something that anyone wanted in this world and was, you know, destroyed.

RATH: You see how the lives of these men play out. And, you know, you mentioned Dr. Schreiber. He ultimately had to leave America but died of natural causes in Argentina in the end, right?

JACOBSEN: They all different trajectories. But none of them seemed to have been held accountable for what happened and what they were involved in during the war. And Dr. Benzinger, who was one of the Nazi doctors, came here. And when he died at the age of 90-something, he had a wonderful obituary in The New York Times lauding him for inventing the ear thermometer. Entirely left out of the story was the work that he performed on concentration camp prisoners.

RATH: You talk about the sign that was over the Buchenwald gate, the concentration camp, Jedem das Seine, which is basically you get what you deserve. And it has a, kind of a dark resonance for you at the end of this book.

JACOBSEN: It really does because, you know, I interviewed some of the survivors of the concentration camp, and Gerhard Mersiowsky(ph) was a 19-year-old boy, spared the gas chamber. And when you speak with someone like that and you see the impact that Nazi ideology had on not only that individual but on this world, it really makes one question and wonder does everyone get what they deserve?

RATH: Annie Jacobsen, thank you so much.

JACOBSEN: Thanks so much for having me.

RATH: Annie Jacobsen's new book is "Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.