Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen

This week I'm taking another look at World War II with Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip, which was actually read by the author in this audio book. Although to me it wasn't read with the same level of passion as say, The God Delusion or The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I always appreciate it when an author is able to take the time to read their book for the audio edition. Furthermore, this is a very serious subject matter so I can understand why the author might not take a terribly light-hearted or conversational tone when it comes to talking about the subject material.

To provide some background for those of you who aren't aware, Operation Paperclip was a program run by the United States right after World War II, which was initially to retrieve military technology from the Nazis to help equip America's arsenals for the next war, assumed to happen with the Soviets within a matter of years. This very quickly expanded to a project of retrieving the actual scientists and technicians themselves and bringing them to America, giving them employment contracts with the U.S. government. There had been protests both within the government and from among the public who were aware former Nazi scientists were being hired, but these protests were soon drowned out by the interests of national security.

Jacobsen talks about three main areas where Operation Paperclip concentrated its focus: chemical warfare, biological warfare and medical research, and aerospace engineering with jet engines and rockets. These were three areas the Nazis invested considerable time and resources for development and, more horrifically, utilized large portions of unwilling test subjects or slave labor to contribute to the war effort. Thousands of political prisoners, forced into slavery by the Nazi regime, were worked to death in underground factories assembling Wehrner von Braun's V-2 rockets. Thousands more were worked to death at the chemical factors of I. G. Farben at Auschwitz, or were used for tests of nerve gases. And many more people met their deaths in horrific medical experiments at Dachau, experiments devoid of any morality. And yet the United States was all too eager to utilize not only the information gleaned from these atrocities, but also bring back the scientists who perpetrated such atrocities and place them in government employ.

One of the biggest challenges behind researching this topic is the amount of white-washing that has occurred over the past seventy years. Intelligence officials were well aware the United States ''officially'' had a policy against granting immigration visas to former high-ranking Nazis and if the records of many Operation Paperclip recruits had been thoroughly examined they never would have been accepted. So the recruiters purposely omitted certain details and provided sanitized histories of hundreds of scientists to help ease their entry to the United States. In interviews with the public, scientist such as Wehrner von Braun perpetuated this myth, claiming they'd been forced to join the party against their will and were interested in science rather than politics. The paperwork proving this wasn't the case was buried under a smokescreen of misinformation and to this day remains difficult to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act or, perhaps also likely, it was intentionally lost decades ago. If there is no other reason for this book, it's to remind people that Americans compromising moral values for short term gains in ''national security'' is hardly a new thing. It in fact has a long and depressing history in the United States.

I think the worst thing about it was this program was sold to the American people as promoting American industry through peace technologies. In fact, at least within the focus of Jacobsen's book, the researchers they recruited were almost entirely for military purposes. Certainly there are peaceful uses for the medical research performed by Nazi scientists, especially in the areas of aeronautical medicine and hypothermia research. (Which isn't to downplay how truly horrific that research was under the Nazis.) But research and production of deadly nerve gases and mind-altering drugs, as well as the weaponization of biological contagions hardly has very useful peace purposes. Thankfully the tons of nerve gas manufactured by the United States was never used, but there's a certain irony that we spent a great amount of money manufacturing it, only to spend even more money safely disposing of them.

The most visible, and probably memorable, use of Nazi technology was the budding space program which eventually culminated with American missions to the moon. However, even this had military purposes, at least initially. Wehrner von Braun argued stridently that the United States should weaponize space before the Soviet Union did and advocated the construction of a space station capable of launching nuclear weapons from orbit. Thankfully these plans never came to pass, but it certainly takes some luster off of the American space program.

Although the bulk of the book talks about the researchers in the fields of rocketry, biological, and chemical warfare, Jacobsen also spares some time to talk about the Nuremberg Trials and operations such as Camp David and the Gehlen Organization after World War II. Although much press is made over the high-ranking Nazis who were convicted and some of whom were executed at these trials, there were many others who were quietly acquitted because they were needed for the interests of ''national security''. And some war criminals were released after serving laughably short prison sentences considering the enormity of their crimes. It tragically undermines the morality the Nuremberg trials were supposed to espouse, making them seem more and more like the show trials of victorious nations. On top of that, the CIA pioneered the use of blacksites, sometimes with former Nazis employed as agents, at Camp King in Germany, beginning yet another unsavory part of American history.

Overall this book is rather depressing but extremely necessary. All too often we like to think of America, especially during World War II, as being nothing but good guys. However as the Cold War began America proved there were no depths they weren't willing to stoop to in the sake of keeping the world ''safe'' for democracy. Unfortunately, even today we're all too willing to compromise principles for the sake of national security, which I'm sure will have unfortunate consequences for us in the future.

- Kalpar

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