Operation Paperclip

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Podcast Transcript

After World War II, the American forces in Germany implemented a program of de-Nazification in the parts of the country which they administered. The goal was to remove anyone who was a member of the Nazi party from any position of authority. 

However, some of those Nazis were considered valuable, and the Americans wanted them all to themselves. So they implement a secret program to bring them to the United States.

Learn more about Operation Paperclip and how the United States recruited former German and Nazi scientists, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

When the tide began turning in World War II and Germany began to retreat on the eastern front with Russia, the Germans began to reassess their military priorities. 

During the offensive, everything was put into attacking, and many skilled, educated, technical people were put into positions for which they were ill-suited. PhDs and other skilled people might have been working in kitchens or truck drivers. Eventually, they were identified and brought back to work on technical projects for Germany’s defense.

You might be wondering why these people were ever put in such positions in the first place, but that was the state of things in Nazi Germany.

The list of these people was compiled by Werner Osenberg who was the head of the German Defense Research Association. 

In February 1945, as the allies were advancing on Germany, they created a group known as T-Force. While it sounds like a group of mutant superheroes, it was actually a joint American-British group whose mission was to secure German scientific and industrial technology targets, and associated personnel, before they could be destroyed by the retreating German forces. 

This was the same group that captured the German nuclear program that I spoke about in my episode on how close the Nazis came to developing an atomic bomb.

In March 1945, the Osenberg list was found by a Polish laboratory technician at Bonn University in a toilet. He passed on the list to British Intelligence who then passed it on to American Military Intelligence.

The Osenberg List became the basis for the American search for German scientists as they marched through Germany, and later after Germany surrendered when they occupied a large part of the country. This became known as Operation Overcast.

The initial goal was pretty simple and not really controversial. They wanted to interview the German scientists to get as much information as they could to help in the war effort against Japan.

There were a lot of areas where the Germans had superior technology: rocketry, jet engines, synthetic rubber, radio engineering, to name a few, and these were given priority.

The top priority, however, was the rocket scientists almost all of whom worked at the German Army Research Center Peenemünde, a rocket facility near the Baltic Coast. 

Many of the researchers the Americans were looking for were trying to be found by the Americans as well, as they didn’t want to be captured by the Soviets.

The Americans brought the scientists they found back to a facility in Bavaria known as Kransberg Castle, nicknamed Camp Overcast, which was under US administration.

The interviews were very enlightening as they learned about Nazi plans to produce nerve gas as well as to weaponize bubonic plague. 

Soon, locals in the area began referring to the camp by the name Camp Overcast, so the name of the program was changed to Operation Paperclip.

The number one person on the list for the Americans to find was the head of the German rocket program, Dr. Werner von Braun.

He actually managed his surrender before the war ended. He and his engineers all agreed they would rather surrender to the Americans than the Soviets, so they created false papers which allowed them to move their operations west. 

They eventually went to a small town in the Alps, where they were guarded by the SS with orders to kill them rather than let them be captured. However, they convinced the SS officer to stand down. 

Von Braun and some others fled over the border into Austria and on May 2, just days before the German surrender, his brother approached an American private and said “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.”

Von Braun was very open and even spoke to the press after this surrender, having played his cards right. In one interview with the press, he said, 

We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided not by the laws of materialism but by Christianity and humanity could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

As the interrogations continued, it became obvious that simply getting information from them wasn’t going to be sufficient. They might wind up in a neutral country like Spain or Argentina that was sympathetic to the Germans, or even worse, they might end up in Soviet hands. 

They needed to get the scientists to the United States where they could continue their work. 

Needless to say, this was controversial. The country had just fought a war against these people, and now they wanted to bring them back to their country and pay them a salary. 

However, it didn’t take long after the end of the war for the focus to be shifted to the Soviet Union. 

The first batch of scientists was already being sent to the United States in 1945.  On June 20th, Wernher von Braun and several members of his close team were sent to Fort Bliss in West Texas. The approval for the transfer came from Secretary of State Edward Stettinius who approved it on his last day in office. 

There, von Braun and his team were primarily focused on refurbishing captured V-2 rockets, and testing them at White Sands Missle Base in New Mexico. 

It wasn’t until September of 1946 that President Truman approved the general plan under Operation Paperclip to bring most of the German scientists and their families to the United States.  There was a great deal of internal debate before Truman made this decision, and many in the administration who went along with it did so with the understanding that it was a temporary program. 

The total extent program was kept secret from the public even though it was obvious there was some German scientists in the country. 

Truman, however, explicitly forbade any former members of the Nazi Party from coming to the US. 

However, the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor to the CIA, simply overlooked, ignored, or may have destroyed evidence which cast any of the scientists in a negative light. 

Over the course of the next 13 years, approximately 1,600 German scientists and 3,600 family members were transferred to the United States where they could conduct research. 

Von Braun and his team were of course the highest-profile scientists. After Fort Bliss, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama where they worked on new designs for American rockets, in particular the Redstone rocket.

Von Braun felt he was hamstrung and underfunded for most of the 1950s. It wasn’t until the Soviet launch of Sputnik that he was finally given the resources he wanted.

He became perhaps the biggest advocate of the space program and of manned missions to space. He designed the Saturn V rocket which was used during the Apollo missions which sent humans to the moon. 

It wasn’t until 1973, after the last Apollo mission, that Operation Paperclip was made public by President Richard Nixon. Everyone knew about Von Braun and his team working for NASA as that had been very public, but few people knew the extent of the number of Germans scientists brought over. 

Many of them, it turns out, entered the United States via the American consulate in Juarez, Mexico, so they could come in without being noticed. 

The Germans weren’t just working on rockets. There were German scientists working on aircraft design, fuel chemistry, optics, and radio. 

The scientific accomplishments made by the Operation Paperclip scientists were many and significant.

However, the lingering question which has always hung over the program and probably always will, is “were the German scientists who came over guilty of war crimes?”

The vast majority of the German scientists were not in positions of leadership and there is no evidence that they had any involvement with any of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. 

Most, however, is not all. 

Only one of the scientists was ever actually brought up on charges. Georg Rickhey was an engineer, a member of the Nazi Party since 1931, and the manager of the Mittelwerk GmbH factory which produced the V-1 and V-2 rockets. 

The factory used slave labor from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. 

Rickhey was brought back to Germany in 1947 to stand trial. Of the 19 men on trial, he was one of four acquitted. He never returned to the United States. 

Walter Schreiber was a doctor and a general in the Wehrmacht Medical Service. Shortly after his arrival in the US in 1951, the Boston Globe linked him to human experiments conducted at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and he soon left the US for Argentina. 

Arthur Rudolph renounced his US citizenship in 1984 after being linked to the slave labor practices at Mittelbau-Dora and returned to Germany. 

Then there is the case of the Werhner von Braun himself. 

He couldn’t hide behind the excuse of not being in a position of authority. Being the head of the entire German rocket program he had a significant position of authority.

He applied for and was granted membership to the Nazi party in 1937. There are many photos of him wearing a Nazi party pin and there is simply no way he could have had that much authority without being a member of the party. In addition, at the urging of Henrich Himmler, he joined the SS in 1940.

It is without question that slave labor from concentration camps was used in the manufacturing of V-2 rockets. It is estimated that more people died manufacturing the V-2 than were killed by its use as a weapon. 

In a testimony he gave in a trial in Germany in 1969, he testified that he was aware of the working conditions at Mittelbau and had inspected the facilities. He called the conditions there repulsive and was aware that by 1944, there were deaths. 

However, at no point did he do anything or raise any objections. In his own words, he felt as if he was helpless to change the situation. 

Most of the people I’ve read who’ve studied the life of Werhner von Braun tend to believe his sins were those of omission rather than commission. Few believed that he bought into any of the Nazi racial theories or actively contributed to the conditions at the Mittelbau factory.

However, he was so consumed and driven by his work, he was willing to strike a Faustian bargain and overlook everything the Nazis stood for and what they did, and he specifically was willing to ignore the working conditions in the very facility manufacturing the rockets he designed. 

He was more concerned with science than he was with ethics and morality. 

Likewise, the United States government struck its own Faustian bargain by turning a blind eye to the activities of some of the scientists they brought over. 

In 1963, years after he was out of office, Harry Truman reflected on his decision to bringing German scientists to the US, and he said he had no regrets. Given the cold war with the Soviet Union and the space race, he justified the program by simply stating “this had to be done and was done”.

The associate producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener truth squad #2000 on Apple Podcasts in New Zealand. 

My fav podcast

Should have found this podcast sooner! It’s short, snappy and to the point. I like that it comes out daily and is also easy to understand. Addicted to this. Love it, keep the great work up!

Thank you truth squad #2000. I’m glad to be your favorite podcast but sad to see it was only a three-star review. That is a brutal grading curve you got there. 

Remember if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.