Do We Want Science At Any Price?

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America by Annie Jacobsen describes how American ambition to win the Space Race and the Cold War with the Soviet Union led to an unprecedented immigration bypass program to extract Nazi Germany’s brightest scientific minds.

Linda Hunt was the first writer to file multiple Freedom Of Information Act requests with different military organizations to access the classified documents pertaining to Operation Paperclip. After more than a year, two lawyers and a threatened lawsuit the U.S. Army finally released the records and billed her $239,680 in so-called search fees (significantly more than $500,000 in today’s money). Annie Jacobsen’s book builds upon Hunt’s revelations and adds hundreds of hours of interviews and declassified intelligence documents. Her paperback stands at 445 pages. It is segmented into five parts. It takes the reader to the end of WWII when the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) come across the Osenberg List. This document was the equivalent to a LinkedIn for scientists and engineers employed by the Third Reich. It served as a target list during Operation Paperclip with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at its top. Jacobsen describes the bureaucratic and moral challenges of a democratic nation when recruiting Nazi war criminals. For example, the case of Walter Schreiber illustrated a nauseating calculus by the US military to contract the former surgeon general of the Third Reich under Operation Paperclip despite tacit knowledge of his contributions to war crimes. Another example is the case of Hubertus Strughold. He rose to academic fame and received the nickname “Father of Space Medicine”. A San Antonio library bore his name and a plaque was put on display to honor his scientific work in complete ignorance of his human experiments on concentration camp inmates. Needles to state that in both cases, the inconvenient, dark truth of their participation in Nazi war crimes eventually imbued and drowned these men’s careers. Although they were never held accountable.

The Paperclip extractions surrounding medicine and chemistry appear to dominate Jacobsen’s book. However the lines are blurred between the different areas of expertise of the German scientists. And the density of information opens a many rabbit holes for the curious history buff. One of the more captivating things about the entire program is its historical impact that can still be observed today. For example, the program went from its original call sign “Overcast” to “Paperclip” to “Defense Scientist Immigration Program” whereby the CIA renamed its involvement the “National Interest” program. This particular terminology recently reappeared in the Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest (MAVNI) program and later slightly amended during the State Department’s effort to facilitate travel for highly qualified applicants during COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel bans.  Furthermore, Operation Paperclip created the foundation for other highly classified, ethically and morally obscure intelligence operations such as “Operation Bluebird/Artichoke” or “Project MK-Ultra”. Another interesting facet to this entire program that is not discussed in the book is the difference in educational systems between the United States and Germany. To this day, I believe the state-sponsored approach to afford all citizens free access to education in Germany is advantageous over the American tuition-based approach that requires substantial financial support. It was a dominant factor to allow the early 20th century Germany to develop intercontinental rockets, advanced nerve agents and other ground-breaking technology. Then, the United States was not only lacking a competitive educational system but it lacked advanced military technology to keep up with the more progressive nations of the time.   

(The German rocket team at Fort Bliss, Texas, after World War II led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Source: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo/DefenseMediaNetwork)

Annie Jacobsen masterfully presents the moral dilemma the United States government had to resolve in the quickly evaporating environment following the allied victory over Nazi Germany. The well-reserached book is packed with historical facts, contemporary interviews, and portraits of person’s of interest, each material for a separate book or movie. While her writing style is concise and captivating, I found myself progressing slowly due to the aforementioned density of intriguing characters and circumstances that populate each page. This book sheds light on some of the toughest moral and ethical questions. Some of which are still unanswered today. How was it possible that our democratic government looked past the former commitment to Nazi Party ideology of countless scientists, a few even awarded the NSDAP’s Golden Party badge honoring their outstanding services to the Nazi Party or the Third Reich. Can US citizenship be bought by saving the nation millions in research? Was WWII all about extracting scientific and technological advantages at the price of admitting Nazi ideology to our educational and scientific institutions? 

I think the most uncomfortable takeaway from this book is the arbitrary character of the US government. An old German adage goes “Wes Brot is ess’ des Lied ich sing’” (who pays the piper calls the tune). Throughout history this arbitrary character of different US governments casted a shadow on American democracy and the price of freedom.  

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