OPERATION PAPERCLIP by Annie Jacobsen

At the conclusion of her new book, OPERATION PAPERCLIP: THE SECRET INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM THAT NAZI SCIENTISTS BROUGHT TO AMERICA, Annie Jacobsen discusses her battles with American military and intelligence authorities in trying to obtain documents relating to the employ of Nazi scientists by the United States Army and other government agencies following World War II.  In her discussion a common theme reaches fruition in 2012 as the Department of Defense finally declassified a 1945 list of Nazi doctors who were sought for “mercy killings and medical murder cases.”  On that list were seven Nazi doctors who were employed by the U.S. government even though “U.S. Army intelligence knew all along that these doctors were implicated in murder yet chose to classify the list and hire the doctors.” (437)  These doctors were hired as part of Operation Paperclip a postwar program designed to use the technological and medical knowledge of Nazi scientists for the benefit of American policy as the Cold War was burgeoning.  This raises a number of moral questions, the most important of which is when does a government draw the line in working with individuals who are guilty of directly or indirectly causing the death of tens of thousands of concentration camp victims, slave laborers, or innocent civilians.  In the case of the United States following World War II that line was invisible no matter what evidence existed that the individuals that the government was interested in had either engaged directly or indirectly in genocide.  For American officials following the war it was easy to dismiss evidence because in their eyes American national security interests trumped any documents that might interfere with their goal of using Nazi technological and medical advances to further the American agenda against the Soviet Union.

Anne Jacobsen has written a detailed and deeply researched study that raises numerous moral and philosophical questions as she explores the origin, implementation, and eventual downfall of Operation Paperclip.  She leaves no stone unturned as she ferrets out the stories and experiences relating to Wernher von Braun, the director of the German Army’s V2 rocket program and headed the Mittelbau-Dora Planning Office that oversaw experiments that resulted in the death of 30,000 out of 60,000 slave laborers he “hired” from the SS.  Other subjects include, Dr. Walter Schreiber, the Surgeon General of the Third Reich who carried out medical experiments on concentration camp victims for gas and bacterial warfare; Georg Rickhey, the General manager of the Mittlewerk slave labor facility; Otto Ambros, chemist and co discoverer of sarin gas and manager of IG Farben’s slave labor factory at Auschwitz; Dr. Kurt Blome, Deputy Surgeon General of the Reich; Major General Walter Dornberger who was in charge of V-weapons development and the technical officer in the Nordhausen slave labor tunnels; and Dr. Hubertus Strughold the wartime director for aviation research for the Reich.  These are just a few of the individuals that Jacobsen’s narrative exposes.  All are war criminals, and all participated in Operation Paperclip and developed important programs that the US military came to rely on during the Cold War, for example, Kurt Debus, an ardent Nazi and V-weapons flight test director who later became the first director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Jacobsen follows Operation Paperclip from its inception in 1945 as American authorities had to decide what to do with Hitler’s former scientists and engineers.  Proponents of Operation Paperclip decided to use Nazi scientists to assist in the war against Japan.  However, once the Japanese threat ended in August, 1945 and relations with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate the race to acquire as many scientists and technological experts before the Soviet Union could capture them gained momentum.  Jacobsen does an excellent job describing certain Nazi scientists and why their particular specialty was so important to the United States.  US policy for hiring German scientists was supposed to be based on the condition that “provided they were not known or alleged war criminals,” however this caveat was easily overlooked.  I found the mini-biographies that Jacobsen provides to be fascinating.  The author discusses many individuals that people with knowledge of World War II will easily recognize, i.e.; Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, and Heinrich Himmler, but the character studies of those not easily recognizable are the most fascinating.  Dr. Leopold Alexander, a Boston psychiatrist and German Jew left Germany in 1933 for a fellowship in China and never returned to his homeland.  He ended up working in a mental hospital outside Boston in 1934 and returned to Germany after the war to try and determine which of his former colleagues and students were guilty.  Alexander was shocked by the deviance of Nazi science and noted they did not practice science, but a “really depraved pseudoscientific criminality.”  Dr. Alexander also investigated crimes committed in the name of neuropsychiatry and neuropathology and in this capacity he came face to face with the odious Nazi belief of “untermenschen” that was the core of Hitler’s ideological framework and those individuals who implemented the murder thousands under the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring carried out by Dr. Karl Kleist, a former neurology professor of Alexander.  We also meet Americans such as John J. McCloy who was in charge of setting up war crimes programs, but also coordinated policy regarding the transfer of Nazi scientists to the United States which he supported at the end of the war and later when he became High Commissioner for the American occupation zone replacing General Lucius Clay in 1949.  Not all Americans that Jacobsen integrates into the narrative were guilty of facilitating Operation Paperclip.  There were people like John Dolibois, a G2 Army intelligence officer who was sent to Dachau after its liberation to interrogate Nazi suspects and to investigate whether any important Nazis were hiding among the general prison population.  Dolibois was shocked by the reaction of the men he interrogated as they could not believe they were being prosecuted and they used the excuse that they “were only following orders.”  To their credit many State Department functionaries argued repeatedly to keep Nazi scientists who were proven criminals out of the United States, but the military establishment was difficult to defeat.

Jacobsen’s discussion of IG Farben and their development of sarin and tabun gases are eye opening especially when the same scientists are the ones who helped develop it for the United States.  Farben’s research reflects the depravity of the Nazi scientists, the same men whose expertise the US would use, rather than having these men face the prosecution and punishment they deserved.  It was not just chemists the US was interested in.  When the Washington Post uncovered “freezing experiments” conducted at Dachau were by men would be tortured, then frozen for a period of time, then Nazi doctors would try and revive them.   The fact that the Nazi biologists involved were already working for the US was kept from the public.  Throughout Operation Paperclip officials had to work just as hard recruiting scientists as they did keeping information away from Congress and the American public.  This led to covert programs to smuggle scientists into the United States or the American zone in what became West Germany on many occasions.

Perhaps the most interesting and disturbing chapter was entitled, “Science at Any Price,” which explained how the military was able to maneuver the State Department out of the business of approving visa for the Nazi scientists that they opposed admitting to the United States.  From that point on the Joint Intelligence Objective Agency (JIOA) that had been created by the War Department was in charge of Operation Paperclip and the policy became; any scientist the Russians were interested in would be of interest to the US.  By October, 1946 there were 233 German scientists in US military custody.  At the same time the New York Times made the public aware of Operation Paperclip, the army had to go on a charm offensive by bringing out the most “wholesome looking German scientists they had working for them.” (250)

Jacobsen artfully describes army cover-up tactics when one of their “new” employees had their Nazi past catch up to them, i.e., Georg Rickhey who oversaw production and the hanging of prisoners at Nordhausen, a rocket factory housed in a salt mine.  When Rickhey was arrested he was acquitted in the Dora-Nordhausen trial as the judges were military and the future of the American missile program took precedence.  Jacobsen weaves her narrative nicely with the use of trial transcripts and documents to support her thesis and reflects American angst that the Soviet Union was ahead in the “chemical warfare race.”  In fact Karl Krauck, IG Farben’s head chemist and Goering’s main advisor on chemicals was being recruited by the US at the same time he was on trial.  America’s rational was simple, “when working with ardent Nazis American handlers appear to have developed the ability to look the other way.  Others…..looked straight at the man and saw only the scientist, not the Nazi.” (300)

The Berlin Crisis that began on June 24, 1948 gave Operation Paperclip further momentum as the newly created CIA joined forces with the JIOA and led to the employ of Major General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of  Nazi intelligence operations against the Soviet Union.  The US made a deal with the devil and put Gehlen’s organization at the forefront of the Cold War and made the Major General head of the entire American anti-communist intelligence operation.  Jacobsen also zeroes in on the cases of Otto Ambros, Dr. Walter Schreiber, and Dr. Kurt Blome exploring their Nazi past, their involvement in war crimes, and how they came to work for the United States.  Jacobsen follows that discussion with that of John J. McCloy’s commutation of Ambros’ and others sentences when he became High Commissioner, in part because of pressure from West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the outbreak of the Korean War.  A new shift in US policy evolved as it was now more important to be anti-communist as opposed to anti-Nazi.

The saga of Dr. Walter Schreiber as described by Jacobsen is emblematic of the American governments experience with former Nazi scientists after the war.  Schreiber was involved with medical experiments at Ravensbruck among his other crimes, but yet he was never prosecuted at Nuremberg.  In fact he became a Russian witness against his former colleagues at the trial.  His journey to the United States and his final eviction in 1952 is a twisted voyage that brings to the surface the role of the Air Force, CIA and other agencies that did everything they could bureaucratically to allow him to remain in the United States so that we could employ his knowledge of Nazi and Soviet chemical experiments.  In 1952 when his presence in Texas reached the Boston press and went national, the fear of scandal that could reach the highest levels of the Truman administration finally saw the government force him to emigrate to Argentina with his family.  What is evident is that being an anti-communist trumped being a Nazi war criminal.   If you could assist in the Cold War battle any past crimes could be glossed over and explained away in the name of national security.

Jacobsen completes her study by discussing the case of Arthur Rudolph, a man who oversaw slave labor at the Dora-Nordhausen complex where he was involved in working prisoners to death and a number of public hangings.  Rudolph had worked for the US military and NASA for thirty-eight years when he was finally expelled, but even as his role in the Third Reich became known in 1983 there were elements in NASA who claimed the Justice Department was engaged in a witch hunt.   Jacobsen’s magnificent study concludes by asking “What does last?  The desire to seek the truth? Or, in the words of Jean Michel, the ability to take a stand against the monstrous distortion of history when it gives birth to false, foul and suspect myths?”  This for me is the epitaph of Operation Paperclip, one of the most disturbing policies that the United States government has ever pursued.

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