Reviewed by William Wade
When World War II in Europe came to an end with German surrender in the spring of 1945 hundreds, even thousands, of German scientists and technologists suddenly emerged from the secret laboratories and factories where they had been devising weapons of war. The fact that the Soviet Union was vigorously recruiting these individuals for their own purposes caused Britain and the United States to energize themselves in attempting to round up as many scientists as possible lest they fall into the hands of Stalin.
But this matter of recruiting those who had very recently been our vigorous enemies raised many questions and doubts among American leaders, particularly as postwar revelations told of horrendous activities perpetrated in Nazi concentration camps. It was felt that many of these men should be put on trial for violations of human rights rather than courted for their expertise. After the American army had seized some of these scientists, General Eisenhower asked the War Department for guidance as to how they should be treated. No answer was forthcoming from the Pentagon, for the fact of the matter was that high government leaders were themselves hopelessly divided over the issue, and the result was that decisions were made on an ad hoc basis. Often the army acted quietly and secretly without informing political leaders of what they were doing, and by 1946 over two hundred German scientists were in the United States working on weapons development, generally unknown to the public.
Operation Paperclip is the story of this program, based on documents residing in the Pentagon for over half a century and only recently brought to light through the Freedom of Information Act. Many of these scientists were from a technical standpoint illegal aliens, never documented according to the prescribed laws of the land. Some had been very clever. Werner von Braun, realizing that the German Reich was doomed, fled to the West taking vital documents about the German rocketry program. These he secreted in a cave, allowed himself to be taken by the Americans with whom he negotiated a deal – his status in exchange for revealing the trove of documents.
These German experts brought to the United States a wealth of information in varied specialties – rocket research, jet engines, advanced aircraft, poison gas, nasty little secrets of biological warfare, considerable knowledge about the human body and its ability to withstand torture and suffering, information gained from research with inmates of the concentration camps. Much of it was of a gruesome nature, but some Americans appeared to be interested in it use because Japan had not yet surrendered.
This is not an easy book to read; it details activities of individuals and whole governmental programs which seem to go beyond the limitations we like to think apply to civilized conduct. You may learn things you would just as soon not know. But it is important, not simply because it reveals what happened seventy years ago, but because it asks us today whether a civilized people can effectively establish ethical positions of such firmness and rigor that we would draw the line on barbarous activities that transcend those limits.
Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2014. 575 pages.
Note: Holly's review of Owlknight will be posted the first Friday in February.