Book Report: Operation Paperclip

anniepapercliplr“The employment of German scientists was specifically and strategically aimed at achieving military supremacy over the Soviet Union before the Soviet Union was able to dominate the United States. Attaining supreme military power meant marshaling all the cutting-edge science and technology that could be culled from the ruins of the Reich. In the eyes of military intelligence, the fact that the scientists happened to be Nazis was incidental – a troublesome detail. It had no bearing on the bigger plan.” (Operation Paperclip – p193)

Title: Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America

Author: Annie Jacobsen

Publisher: Back Bay Books

Publication Date: 2014

Origin: I spotted Operation Paperclip, while taking a walk around Chapters. I absolutely loved Jacobsen’s previous book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, so I didn’t pause for a second before grabbing this one. Plus, I’m generally aware of Operation Paperclip (the project) already, so I knew Jacobsen’s work would fill in the blanks for me..

Summary: Operation Paperclip was an intelligence program that brought more than sixteen hundred of Hitler’s technologists – chemists, aerospace scientists, biological weapons specialists, and industrialists – many of whom are guilty of war crimes, to the United States, where they worked for the U.S. military and private industry and became U.S. citizens. This book profiles in detail twenty-one of these men, all of whom are now deceased.

In Jacobsen’s words, “This is a book about Nazi scientists and American government secrets. It is about how dark truths can be hidden from the public by U.S. officials in the name of national security, and it is about the unpredictable, often fortuitous circumstances through which truth gets revealed.”

Again, in Jacobsen’s words, speaking of the twenty-one:

“Enterprising achievers as they were, just as the majority of them won top military and science awards when they served the Third Reich, so it went that many of them won top U.S. military and civilian awards serving the United States. One had a U.S. government building named after him, and, as of 2013, two continue to have prestigious national science prizes given annually in their names. One invented the ear thermometer. Others helped man get to the moon.”

In Operation Paperclip, Jacobsen presents a straightforward, comprehensive, and not sensationalized description of the military intelligence and recruitment program of the same name. She takes us through the closing months of the war, when many Nazis started to determinedly plan for their post-war careers, and explains the story of each of the twenty-one men she profiles in as much details as available records permit.

In this chilling story, we are taken through the Nuremberg trials, to concentration camps, to military installations throughout Europe and the United States, and we become privy to the frequently surreal circumstances that saw the U.S. military fawning over the very scientists and engineers who had designed the very lethal technologies against which the allies waged war.

We see how motives evolve, hypocrisy is rampant, and how paranoia and pragmatism trump morals and ethics.

We see how paranoia and pragmatism trump morals and ethics.

My Take: I very much enjoyed Operation Paperclip, in the sense that I’m thankful for knowing the story and am awed by the level of detail. It’s not an easy story to research, or to tell coherently, but Jacobsen has done a fine job. That said, the events within are disturbing to the utmost. I also felt a bit awkward reading a book with a swastika prominently on the cover, especially since 100% of my reading was done in The Netherlands, England, Italy, and Switzerland – or on flights between those countries – countries for whom the war was very real.

For some folks, Operation Paperclip will simply be a detailed account of a disgusting and reprehensible program. For others, it will be a thoughtful examination of the circumstances, and it illustrates how seemingly reasonable people can be forced (in their perspectives) to make deals with the devil as (in their views) the best available option.

There is no doubt that many positive developments came out of the intelligence operation, and one could argue that it actually prevented the cold war from becoming a full-on World War 3. Nevertheless, one wonders how people can consciously look the other way when they’re working alongside scientists who deliberately murdered thousands of people in ghastly (so-called) medical experiments, or who literally worked tens of thousands of people to death.

Read This Book If: You want to have your eyes opened to the horrors of World War 2, and the lengths to which governments will go to increase their own war-making capabilities while simultaneously crippling their enemies.

In today’s age of secrets, lies, and denials, we would do well to understand the past.

In today’s age of secrets, lies, and denials, we would do well to understand the past.

Notes and Quotes:

“While Germany faced imminent collapse, its scientists, engineers, and businessmen had their futures to think about.”

  • Ever the pragmatists, p24, describing the closing months of WW2: “And while Germany faced imminent collapse, its scientists, engineers, and businessmen had their futures to think about.”
  • Regarding Tabun poison gas, after describing how even a drop to the skin is fatal, p55: “The millions of gas masks England had distributed to city dwellers during the war would have offered no defense against a chemical weapon as potent as this killing agent was.” I just can’t imagine living and functioning in an environment in which the threat of chemical or biological attack against you is even a possibility, let alone a very real one. Thankfully, the Nazis’ vast reserves of Tabun, Sarin, and other chemical and biological weapons were never used. Unfortunately, Zyklon B was.
  • p84: “The future of war and weapons hung in the balance. What would happen to the Nazi scientists? Who would be hired and who would be hanged.”
  • p84 continues: “In May 1945 there was no official policy regarding what to do with any of them. Over the next few months, critical decisions about what to do with Hitler’s former scientists and engineers would be made, almost always based on an individual military organization’s needs and justified by perceived threats. Official policy would follow, one version for the public and another for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A headless monster called Operation Paperclip would emerge.”

“Official policy would follow, one version for the public and another for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A headless monster called Operation Paperclip would emerge.”

  • p89, we can see some of the initial motives; quoting U.S. General Wolfe: “‘America needed to hire the ‘German scientists and engineers’ who had created the weapons and put them to work in America. ‘If steps to this end are taken, the double purpose of preventing Germany’s resurgence as a war power and advancing our own industrial future may be served.”
  • p122 talks about how Nazi ideology explains that some humans aren’t humans at all, but ‘Untermenschen’ (sub-humans). So, according to Nazi ideology, since these people aren’t people, you can do unspeakably horrific things to them. Labels are powerful things, and we should be extremely cautious in our use of them.
  • p178 (Operation Overcast was the precursor to Operation Paperclip): “In Washington, Operation Overcast had been approved as a ‘temporary’ program, but (Wernher) von Braun, ever the visionary, had the foresight to see that many of the rocketeers and engineers were heading to America to stay. We felt no moral scruples about the possible future use of our brainchild,’ von Braun later told New Yorker magazine writer Daniel Lang. ‘We were interested solely in exploring outer space. It was simply a question of how the golden cow could be milked most successfully.”
  • p187, something to keep in mind…discussing a Nazi officer who seemed very willing to pass on information, and quoting a veteran intelligence officer: “Basing oneself on experience with enemy agents who confess plots freely, one may come to the conclusion that a lesser secret has been admitted to deflect the investigation from a more important secret.”
  • p193…the motivations continue to evolve: “The employment of German scientists was specifically and strategically aimed at achieving military supremacy over the Soviet Union before the Soviet Union was able to dominate the United States. Attaining supreme military power meant marshaling all the cutting-edge science and technology that could be culled from the ruins of the Reich. In the eyes of military intelligence, the fact that the scientists happened to be Nazis was incidental – a troublesome detail. It had no bearing on the bigger plan.”

“In the eyes of military intelligence, the fact that the scientists happened to be Nazis was incidental – a troublesome detail.”

  • p202 touches on just one attempt to defend the program in the public mind, tying it into economic benefits and capitalism: “‘Klaus had said that bringing Hitler’s former scientists to America for weapons research and development gave the impression that the army and the navy were willing to make deals with the devil for national security gains. Henry Wallace’s economically minded endorsement changed all that. It gave the German scientists program an air of democracy, offering counterbalance to what could be perceived as an aggressive military program.”
  • Beside this passage on p220 I simply wrote “Hm.”: “Two personal changes in von Braun were afoot. The first was that he joined an Evangelical Christian church and became ‘born again,’ something he rarely discussed in public. The second was that he decided to marry his first cousin.”
  • p226: “On March 4, 1946, SWNCC Paper No. 275/5 went into effect. German scientists could now be admitted to the United States in a classified program that was in the ‘national interest.’ This shifted the focus from whether or not someone was a Nazi to whether they were someone the Russians would be interested in.”

“This shifted the focus from whether or not someone was a Nazi to whether they were someone the Russians would be interested in.”

  • So, where does the term Operation Paperclip come from? p227 explains: “The thorniest issue had to do with getting the State Department to approve certain individuals who had clearly been Nazi ideologues, including members of the SS and SA. Also at issue were those men who received high awards for their important contributions to the Nazi Party. These were people that by regulation were entirely ineligible for (U.S.) citizenship. The meeting resulted in a clever workaround. Army Intelligence offers reviewing the OMGUS security reports of certain scientists could discreetly attach a paperclip to the files of the more troublesome cases. Those files would not be presented to the State Department right away. Instead, those men would remain under military custody in America, most likely for a longer period of time than some of their fellows. As a result, the Nazi scientist program got a new code name.”
  • p228 mentions “the legendary Long Telegram,” written by George F. Kennan, America’s diplomat in Moscow. “After analyzing the Soviet’s ‘neurotic view of world affairs,’ Kennan warned his bosses at the State Department that ‘in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence’ with the Soviet Union. The two nations were destined to become steadfast enemies, Kennan said.”
  • p232…classic: “The man diagnosing the bioweapons threat, George Merck, was also the man whose company might sell the government the solution to combat the threat. In 1946 this was not looked upon with the same kind of scrutiny as it might have been decades later, because America’s military-industrial complex had yet to be broadly revealed.”
  • p246, discussing the Nuremberg trials and their results: “So it went, just one year and a few months after the end of World War II. Some Nazis were hanged. Others now had lucrative new jobs.”

“So it went, just one year and a few months after the end of World War II. Some Nazis were hanged. Others now had lucrative new jobs.”

  • p248 gives a lesson in public relations, after the New York Times ran a report explaining that Nazi scientists were now living and working in America: “Rather than deny the story, the War Department decided to go public with a sanitized version of its program. An open house was organized with army censors releasing details and photographs that would foster the appearance that all of the German scientists in the United States were benign.”
  • p250 continues: “To be invited to the open house, a reporter had to agree in advance to clear his or her story with army censors before going to press.”
  • p378-379: “It was President Eisenhower who, in his Farewell Address to the nation in 1961, coined the phrase. Eisenhower cautioned Americans to be wary of ‘the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.’ Eisenhower’s famous warning is well known and often paraphrased. But he also delivered a second warning in his farewell speech, not nearly as well known. Eisenhower told the American people that, indeed, science and research played a crucial role in national security, ‘Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ Herbert York, as both ARPA chief and director of the Research and Engineering Department at the Pentagon, worked closely with President Eisenhower on matters of military science during the last three years of Eisehower’s presidency. He was deeply troubled by Eisenhower’s words in his Farewell Address. ‘Scientists and technologists had acquired the reputation of being magicians who had access to a special source of information and wisdom out of reach of the rest of mankind,’ said York. In the mid-1960s, York went to visit Eisenhower at the former president’s winter home, in the California desert. ‘I asked him to explain more fully what he meant by the warnings, but he declined to do so,’ York said. ‘I pressed this line of questions further by asking him whether he had any particular people in mind when he warned us about the danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ York was surprised when Eisenhower ‘answered without hesitation: (Werhner) von Braun and (Edward) Teller [father of the hydrogen bomb].'”

“(Eisenhower) also delivered a second warning in his farewell speech, not nearly as well known. Eisenhower told the American people that, indeed, science and research played a crucial role in national security, ‘Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.'”

  • p397 talks about a Disneyland TV broadcast in which Wernher von Braun appears, talking about space. Thanks to the Internet, we can watch those videos.
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Posted in Books, Everything, Math and Science
One comment on “Book Report: Operation Paperclip
  1. […] The Pentagon’s Brain, having thoroughly enjoyed Jacobsen’s earlier books: Area 51 and Operation Paperclip. I always emerge better for knowing more about history, and about the political and technological […]

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