Book Review: Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America - Annie Jacobsen
by Bruce Brager
Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (January 20, 2015)
ISBN No.: 978-0316221030
The I Was Not a Nazi Polka
Operation Paperclip and the American Employment of German Scientists
Bruce L. Brager
Each and every German dances to the strain
Of the I was not a Nazi Polka
All without exception join in the refrain
Of the I was not a Nazi Polka
This is a verse from a 1965 satirical song by the folk-singing The Mitchell Trio. The song writer was writing of denial, among elements of the German population, of Nazi sympathies during World War Two. I laughed at the time, though then I was not aware of the connection the polka had to this country.
Back in 1965 I had not heard of Operation Paperclip. The only Nazi scientist of whom I had heard, along with most Americans alive at the time, was Werner von Braun. Von Braun played a major role in the American space program during the Cold War and the race for moon. His saying was à¡ for the stars.Ï¦ course, in the words of Mort Saul, his V2 rockets just happened to hit London.
Operation Paperclip was the effort, in the years after World War Two, to bring German scientists to the United States to work for us á®¤ deny their services to the Soviet Union. The operation got its names from paperclips used to mark files of promising individuals. The scientists had to offer something of value to the United States, yet not have gone overboard in war crimes and atrocities, nor be too high profile. Adolf Eichmann and Albert Speer would not have found a place in Operation Paperclip.
Many scientists took part in the project. These included rocket men like Von Braun and his boss, the head of the V2 program, General Walter Dornberger. At least one of the co-developers of sarin gas, Otto Andres (the A in sarin, named after its developers) came to this country. Other chemical and biological weapons developers were brought here, as were support technicians for all three fields. Adolf Hitler apparently did not approve of biological weapons, though whether this was due to the risk of wind, in the relatively crowded European theater, carrying disease back to Germany is not made clear.
The Nazi state was never 100 percent perfectly controlled, and at least one scientist claimed the bioweapons program was done behind Hitlerà¢¡ck. These scientists had no problem with bioweapon research, or with chemical weapons, or with such things as freezing concentration camp victims to death in ice water, to see if they could learn anything to help Luftwaffe pilots survive winter shoot-downs over water.
Why the Germans did not use chemical weapons is unclear. One story is that an intelligence error convinced them that extensive Allied stocks of DDT were chemical weapons and there would be a risk of heavy retaliation. The Germans seemed only willing to use chemicals against people who could not retaliate.
This book is well-researched, and well-sourced. To the extent that any 450-page book is an á³¹ readä¨©s book is such a read. The story is a fascinating one, and in many ways a horrifying one. The author seems to want to tell a story and to let readers make their own moral judgments about the program. I cannot fault this. When I write history I try to focus on telling a story, with a few comments on my own views at the end.
The two primary moral issues of the program include one mentioned by the author, in the prologue,
"Does accomplishment cancel out past crimes"? The second is whether ends ever justify means and to what extent. German medical experiments in World War Two produced virtually no good science é®£ompetent as well as monstrous. German rocket scientists did achieve success. The bio and chemical weapons folks seem to have helped us prepare for possible use of these weapons by our seemingly mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. American renounced all use and possession of bio weapons under Richard Nixon. Chemical weapons have been banned by world treaty.
Does a good result justify bad things done to achieve the result? There is no evidence that the Nazi scientists did evil things while working for this country, outside of the uncertain morality of work on these weapons. But should their backgrounds have made them illegible to work for America? We have to remember that in the early years of the Cold War we saw the Soviets as being an existential threat to this country, close to the level of the Nazis. We failed to recognize that the Soviets more at least as much opportunistic as actively aggressive. They would take advantage of any mistake the West made. Communist ideology always said a communist victory over capitalism was inevitable. Why risk blowing yourself up when you were going to win in the end anyway. Be patient.
The West could make active errors, such as hanging on too long to colonies. Even the Vietnam War was an almost direct outgrowth of the French trying to restore their Vietnam colony. But the United States and its allies could also make passive errors, errors that would convince the communists that successful military action might just be possible. This is pretty much what happened in Korea in 1950 when American foreign policy errors, convinced the Soviet Union and North Korea that Korea could be unified, under communism, by military force.
The United States, and to a lesser extent Britain and France á®¤, donà¦¯rget, the Soviet Union ä©¤ not hire the architects of the Holocaust. But we did hire those Germans who took advantage of the holocaust à²©soners on whom to experiment, without their consent, or slave labor to build rockets. Should we have hired these people?
Based on what we knew at the time, not on information available in the light of history, could we have found a better way? This is the question this valuable book raises, and one I am not sure I can answer.
Review written by Bruce Brager.
Copyright â°±5 Bruce Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 01/25/2015.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.