In beginning of part 4 of this series, I mentioned the “magical gem,” with the gem obviously representing the benefits we enjoy resulting from space technologies. The scientists and engineers of the United States have done great and historic accomplishments, including landing on the moon. The magical gem of space technology has proven very fruitful. But it’s good to understand the history of those accomplishments and the price, the immense number of lives sacrificed, that was paid for them.
Leave the Fatherland, or Stay?
After World War II, there was an explosion in science and technology in the US, with a corresponding growth in the number of scientists and engineers working in the US. But some of the scientists and engineers didn’t start their rocketry careers in the US. Some of these scientists and engineers started off their careers in Germany. Still not a surprise—the Germans were at the forefront of particular sciences after all, so why not let them become productive American citizens. Albert Einstein is perhaps the most well-known example of a German becoming an American citizen. It seems he didn’t think he’d do well under Adolf Hitler’s leadership, and left Germany well before World War II broke out. He wasn’t the only German to do so. This indicates there was an public awareness of what would happen when Hitler obtained power.
There were other Germans who worked in the US after World War II, though. Germans who thought staying in Germany and working for Hitler was a jim-dandy idea. And so they did, right up until the end of the war. Would it be too much of a stretch to call them NAZI scientists? Or NAZI engineers? Wernher and Magnus von Braun, Walter Riedel, Hermann Steuding, Rudolph Hermann, Ernst Steinhoff, Arthur Rudolph, Klaus Riedel, Kurt Debus, and Walter Dornberger to name a few. If this list sounds familiar, it’s because a few of the names on it worked at Peenemuende and was written about here. And of course Huntsville, Alabama keeps naming buildings after Wernher von Braun, too.
It’s interesting they worked for the US after the war, if only because American law at the time should have prevented their employment by the US. They never should have entered into the US, except perhaps as prisoners. How did these NAZI rocket scientists end up living cozy, productive lives in the US? Simple. They (over 100 of their fellow NAZI rocket scientists) were transferred, paid, and promoted under an American program called “Operation Paperclip.”
fear and Hiring in the USA
“Operation Paperclip” is perhaps one of the most shameful episodes in modern US history. It’s probably hard for a lot of us to imagine the circumstances surrounding the program’s inception. The program was created and used out of fear. Remember, the US still worried about Soviet intentions after World War II. A big US fear was of the Soviet Union attempting to use the NAZI scientists to forge a huge lead in technology and science—particularly rockets and missiles. So one reason for Operation Paperclip’s existence was to deny the Soviets the expertise in those areas by writing contracts with German and NAZI scientists and paying them to work for the US, sometimes offering to move them to the USA. The 100 or so NAZI rocket scientists were a very small part of a bigger migration of NAZI science expertise and people into the USA.
The program was kept secret, because the US Army and federal government didn’t want US citizens–particularly citizens who had fought against the NAZIs–to find out details like: the US was hiring NAZIs (but since they’re scientists, they really are amoral, right?) to work in the US. Operation Paperclip, like many government programs, was prone to abuse, with some very questionable decisions made regarding who was a “good” NAZI versus a “bad” one.
Did the US government succeed in making balanced and moral decisions about these NAZI scientists? That will be discussed in the next post.