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It’s hard to a imagine a greater case of moral compromise than Operation Paperclip, by which the U.S. government delivered a rogue’s gallery of Nazi scientists to America, all in the name of Cold War competition and in the spirit of post-World War II spoil-taking.
This was the cream of Hitler’s crop – the rocket-science geniuses and genocidal doctors who did so much to make the Third Reich what it was: a blitzkrieg-ing, slave-laboring extermination machine, the epitome of 20th-century inhumanity.
Bureaucracies, of course, especially state departments and intelligence agencies, are often tasked with splitting the difference between abhorrent actors and what they can do to advance noble ambitions, and that was the necessary mind-set of Paperclip.
Europe’s rubble had barely begun to smolder when, in 1944, as Allied armies advanced on Hitler’s Berlin, teams of U.S. experts were plundering the abandoned apartments of Nazi scientists. The future of U.S. superiority in everything from chemical and biological warfare to the fruits of its space program depended on gaining these German brains.
Never mind, for the moment, that more than a few of these specialists were behind murderous medical experiments at concentration camps, would be accused of war crimes, stand trial at Nuremburg, and in at least one case – that of Theodor Benzinger – would mysteriously vanish from the defendants’ list. Once released into U.S. Army custody, Benzinger would toil comfortably for the American military for the rest of his long career. He invented the ear thermometer, hurrah.
Such is the essence of Annie Jacobsen’s important, superbly written yet grueling slog through mountains of documentation, much of it obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests and detailed here for the first time.
Operation Paperclip amounts to Jacobsen’s J’Accuse, hurled at the hidden hive of America’s postwar ambition. As history, it certainly outdoes her best-selling exposé, Area 51, which sifted the truths and legends of the top-secret Nevada test site where spy planes were developed and to which rumors of UFO and alien capture will always cling.
With Operation Paperclip, Jacobsen shows how governmental secrecy and its blinkered morality veiled, for so long, the enormity of Nazi crimes perpetrated by the hundreds of technologists who were put on the U.S. payroll.
But does time dull our capacity for outrage over Jacobsen’s accounting? We’ve long known, after all, that a Nazi player such as Werner von Braun — so central to the sky-screaming V1 and V2 rockets, those Nazi “wonder weapons,” or Wunderwaffe, that Hitler launched against Great Britain and northern Europe — was an indispensable factor in America’s space program. Indeed, he was the rock star of NASA’s early days, celebrated by Walt Disney, and much honored.
It’s not exactly news that other lights of the Third Reich were succored on U.S. shores despite their war crimes. Jacobsen’s intense investigation brings to the surface more Nazi names and deeds, and the full extent of Paperclip’s duplicity, at a moment, perhaps, of cultural exhaustion regarding America’s checkered choices.
For as hard as it has been to wrap our minds around the facts of the Holocaust – and, for many of us, it took the artifice of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and the realism of Schindler’s List to do so – it’s even harder to assess the value-to-evil ratio of Operation Paperclip.
Would America have become the world’s superpower, would America’s life-saving advances in science and medicine have been possible without Nazi brainpower? Quite possibly – our Manhattan Project beat Hitler in the race to develop an atomic bomb. But if not, would that have been worth the price of prosecuting and punishing the Nazi eggheads rather than granting them a whitewashed sanctuary?
Jacobsen’s book allows us to explore these questions with the ultimate tool: hard evidence. She confronts us with the full extent of Paperclip’s deal with the devil, and it’s difficult to look away. We need to know these truths, as ends in themselves: that General Malcolm Grow and Colonel Harry Armstrong, who became the first and second surgeons general of the U.S. Air Force, hired the first 58 Nazi doctors for Paperclip.
If we agree that history is written by the winners, Jacobsen asks us to decide what matters in the telling.