In the name of scientific gain, we whitewashed Nazi scientists

Review of
The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists
By Tom Bower
Little, Brown Boston; 309 pages; $17.95

(16 May 1988) -- AN AIR OF SECRECY and jealousy permeates the small room set aside for visiting researchers on the 13th floor of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There, in the archive's Modern Military Branch, with its newly declassified files, historians and journalists sit elbow to elbow, hunched over documents, rarely speaking to one another. Exposés are in the making.

Some of the hottest documents scrutinized there in recent years relate to "Project Paperclip," the code name for America's vast, secret postwar program aimed at plundering the brainpower of Germany and Austria after World War II. Officials in the US Defense Department and the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency bypassed a presidential order and other immigration restrictions against bringing in "ardent Nazis" or war criminals. By forging dossiers and suppressing evidence, project directors brought almost 800 specialists, along with their families, to the United States between 1945 and 1955. Files on the chosen scientists were marked with a strategically placed paperclip.

American officials justified the operation as an attempt to prevent Nazi rearmament and to exploit German scientific achievements for American military use. At the time, notes author Tom Bower, the US lagged far behind in aircraft design, rocketry, aviation physiology, and chemical warfare. Soon a third and more important goal emerged, namely, to keep key German scientists away from Russia, which was carrying out its own paperclip-type program called "Operation Ossavakim."

Among the German scientists imported into this country were Werner von Braun and members of his rocket team, some of whom had condoned the use of slave labor in building the V2 rockets. Von Braun himself had been a major in the SS and a member of five other Nazi organizations. Von Braun was to become a bigshot in post-war America, too, playing a significant role as Paperclip gave this country's space program a valuable boost.

The Saturn 5 rocket that took our astronauts to the moon in 1969 was designed by one of Von Braun's Nazi cohorts, Arthur Rudolph. Fifteen years later, under pressure from the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, Rudolph, who had participated in the wartime persecution of forced laborers at Nordhausen, "voluntarily" returned to Germany and renounced his American citizenship. He did, however, retain his NASA pension.

Bower's account is not the first description of Project Paperclip, but it does benefit from the author's access to documents released only a few years ago. Unfortunately, Bower failed to make use of other available sources, and a close examination of The Paperclip Conspiracy reveals that he identifies fewer than 40 imported scientists as dedicated Nazis-about 5% of the total.

Indeed, Bower's book contains several examples of errant scholarship. For instance, Theodor Benzinger; one of Bower's questionable targets as a committed Nazi medical experimenter, did not go to the School of Aviation Medicine with Hubertus Strughold. And the inventor of the electron microscope was the Nobel Prize winner, Ernst Ruska, not Baron Manfred von Ardenne. Bower does not address the question of whether US military authorities were justified in their deceptions to import scientists. Nor does he say much about the imports' positive contributions to science.

Bower's contribution to contemporary history should be read to understand how Paperclip was managed and mismanaged. Eventually someone will write a balanced appraisal of this controversial program.

*Frederick H. Kasten is a cell biologist, medical historian, and professor in the Department of Anatomy at Louisiana State University Medical Center, New Orleans. © Copyright 1988, The Scientist, Inc.


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