The Nazi Scientists of America
By Christine Gibson, December 19, 2010
After the war, 118 German rocket scientists worked together at Fort Bliss, Texas. (U.S. ARMY AVIATION AND MISSILE COMMAND)
The front page of The New York Times on November 17, 1945, bore a curiously vague headline: “88 German Scientists Reach Here, Reputedly With Top War Secrets.” The scientists had arrived on a converted ocean liner the day before—60 years ago today—and been immediately “whisked away” aboard a fleet of buses. “Unusual precautions were taken to keep the arrival secret, and reporters who went on board the ship and found the eighty-eight men waiting to land … were warned away,” the Times reported. The paper speculated that the group’s arrival was the result of a program announced weeks earlier by the War Department to bring German scientists to America, and in spite of the secrecy, the Times guessed right. Men who just seven months earlier had been at war with the United States were being ushered onto our shores by the government. The purpose: to jump-start American high-tech industry.
And they weren’t the first. The ink was barely dry on the surrender documents before a German missile expert was working 12-hour days under military guard in Washington, D.C. He was followed in the coming decades by as many as 1,600 experts in biological and chemical warfare, submarines, rockets, and aviation. These men and women were in essence spoils of war, taken by the victor to benefit from the vanquished foe’s history of scientific achievement. The majority of Nobel prizes up to 1939 had gone to Germans, and Hitler had been quick to exploit his talented countrymen. He conceived of a military-industrial complex while Eisenhower was still a lieutenant colonel, and by the war’s opening salvos, German ordnance was superior to the Allies’ almost across the board. Their tanks were more impenetrable, their planes flew faster, their bombs fell surer, and their guns shot farther. By the time Germany’s V1 and V2 rockets began raining down on London, Allied leaders realized that technical espionage might not only boost their own scientific capabilities but also help them predict where the Germans would strike next.
So as Allied soldiers battled their way inland from Normandy, teams of technical-intelligence gatherers followed in their wake. Their first real opportunity came after the liberation of Paris, in August 1944, when competition among the Allies-particularly the United States and the USSR, but also Great Britain, France, Argentina, and Yugoslavia—heated up. Rivalries grew fierce in the following months as countries hid information from one another and scrambled to snag the best equipment and talent for themselves.
As the war in Europe drew to a close, more and more German scientists fell into Allied hands. Whether because of pride, pragmatism, or politics, the Germans were eager to talk. Their American interrogators, desperate for any secrets that might help defeat Japan, originally used the scientists to reconstruct the documentary evidence of their research but soon began to realize the valuable role they might play in United States industry if imported—and in Soviet industry if left behind.
Some in the U.S. government staunchly opposed the idea. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. said that “the sum of all the lives saved by German discoveries would represent but a tiny fraction of the lives expended in fighting the two world wars, to which German scientific genius contributed much more than it did to the arts of peace.” Many in the State Department worried about jeopardizing national security by bringing Nazi party members to our shores. An Army major general suggested that the enemy scientists be “confined on some distant island—South Georgia, for example, down near the Antarctic Circle.” But others argued that the best way to control them was to bring them here, where they could work under military guard.
The unfinished Pacific war trumped other concerns. On July 6, 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Operation Overcast, to “exploit … chosen, rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use” to “assist in shortening the Japanese war.” The Joint Chiefs’ order allowed for 350 specialists, excluding known or alleged war criminals, to be brought temporarily to America. They would be shipped back to Europe as soon as they completed their work.
The first Overcast scientists arrived in America in September. The Pacific War was over by then, but by early the next year 150 were working across the country, at locations like Wright Field in Ohio, Sands Point in Long Island, the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and Fort Bliss, Texas. The project should soon have ended, but the scientists knew too much about America’s defense system to be sent home, and the United States didn’t want to free them to help the USSR anyway. Despite a federal immigration law that banned Nazis, President Harry S. Truman in September 1946 authorized Operation Paperclip, as a successor to Overcast. The Paperclip plan was to import up to 1,000 more scientists and technicians, on the condition that “No person found … to have been a member of the Nazi Party and more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism, shall be brought to the U.S. hereunder.” The job of deciding which activities were “nominal” went to a panel of State and Justice Department experts.
The panel was supposed to draw the line between scientists who had joined the Nazi party to avoid persecution and ones who truly believed in it, but the ugly truth was that much Third Reich research had itself been a war crime. The Dora concentration camp had supplied slave labor for the Nordhausen missile works, where prisoners had been fed a single piece of bread a day and literally worked to death by the thousands. Aviation doctors had suffocated gypsies in pressure chambers and force-fed Jews nothing but seawater for weeks to determine what pilots could withstand.
A tug of war began between two sides in the U.S. government—one angling to import German scientists and one readying to try some of the same men at Nuremberg. In the end the Paperclip panel ignored or cleaned up the backgrounds of several scientists they believed too valuable to send to prison. One historian estimates that as many as 80 percent of the 765 scientists imported between 1945 and 1955 were Nazi party or SS members. Three later fled or were deported under suspicion of war crimes, including Arthur Rudolph, who was instrumental in developing the rockets that powered the Apollo missions.
The scientists drew little attention from the American press or public until October 4, 1957, when the Soviets launchedSputnik. Suddenly all eyes were on our rocket team. The assertion that “their Germans are better than our Germans” (variously attributed to Bob Hope, Lyndon Johnson, and myriad presidential advisers) summed up the public’s attitude at the beginning of the decade-long space race. “Our” Germans, led by Wernher von Braun, put a satellite into orbit three months later and of course ultimately triumphed with the moon landing in July 1969. They also made less famous but equally significant contributions to American jet technology, optics, and electronics.
But Paperclip, which continued until as late as 1973, left behind another, darker legacy. The program’s architects were sometimes willing to build on the results of often deadly Nazi research on captive human subjects. Working with Paperclip scientists, researchers hoping to develop a truth serum at the Edgewood Arsenal, in Maryland, tested psychoactive drugs on almost 7,000 unwitting American soldiers between 1955 and 1975. Those experiments, and Paperclip itself, were among the first manifestations of what became a guiding principle of the Cold War, that the ends sometimes justified the means.
Intelligence and government officials faced a delicate moral quandary in 1945—whether it was worth it to give American homes to men who had invented weapons to kill American soldiers, men who in some cases subscribed to beliefs that hundreds of thousands Americans had died to eradicate. In the end they decided it was, if these men could help the United States defeat the Soviets.
— Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.