They used slave labor. They experimented on humans. They worked in concentration camps. They were involved in tens of thousands of deaths. And when World War II ended, they were recruited to come to the United States and continued their scientific work in the service of American interests in the Cold War.
These were the Nazi scientists — and in a number of cases high-ranking officers, many of them close to Hitler or those in his inner circle — of Operation Paperclip, the secret effort to keep German military-technology and expertise out of the hands of America’s new Soviet rivals.
Shards of this sordid story have emerged from journals, histories, and newspapers. With Annie Jacobsen’s “Operation Paperclip’’ for the first time the enormity of the effort has been laid bare. The result is a book that is at once chilling and riveting, and one that raises substantial and difficult questions about national honor and security.
This is the story of 21 of the 1,600 secret contracts the United States offered German scientists in a program that, as Jacobsen put it, “had a benign public face and a classified body of secrets and lies.’’ It is tale at once reprehensible and understandable — an account of spy intrigue and scientific inquiry, of rockets and weapons of mass destruction but mostly of acts of mass deception. It is also, Jacobsen argues, “without precedent, entirely unprincipled, and inherently dangerous.’’
Many of these scientists were not only Nazis but also members of the SS and SA. Some stood trial at Nuremberg. Many helped win the conflict in the Pacific and, in time, the Cold War.
Theirs was a complex time, and even today it is difficult to sort out the opportunistic from the optimal or to weigh the consequences for the United States if these men, war-criminal pasts notwithstanding, had ended up in Soviet Russia.
Most of the German principals in this book are virtually unknown to Americans today — Wernher von Braun, architect of the mighty Saturn V rocket, is the exception — but the American principals were men of power, including John J. McCloy, who granted clemency to Germans convicted at Nuremberg.
Operation Paperclip grew out of the acknowledgment that the Germans, who employed slave labor in their underground V-2 factories, were as much as two decades ahead of America in rocket science.
Knowing that, von Braun was thinking ahead, and before the war even ended he was laying the groundwork for offering his expertise to the Americans, who were then moving toward Germany’s borders and victory. He hid away his most vital classified V-2 documents.
And so amid the rubble of the war, American agents raced to gather the war’s most valuable gleanings, the rocket men. The British did, too, led by a spy commando named Ian Fleming.
The allies knew their quarry: a list of Germany’s top scientists was found in a toilet in Bonn, another in a scientists’ house outside Hannover, a third (a list of telephone extensions) was tacked on the wall in the V-2 factory. It did not matter that targets such as von Braun, himself a high-ranking SS officer, had initiated the use of slave workers, thousands of whom perished in underground tunnels. Along with the scientists, huge payloads of documents and rocket parts were shipped here.
So at war’s end it came to this: Would the Nazi scientists be prosecuted — or hired? The United States largely chose the latter, and the first load, including von Braun, was flown to the naval station at Squantum and then to an island in Boston Harbor, where they busied themselves playing Monopoly.
One criterion applied in the selection: If the Soviets want him, we’ll take him. Some of them got away to Soviet Russia, and some, like Dr. Kurt Blome, whom American officials had tried to convict of war crimes, never made it but worked for the United States from Germany.
German science allowed American consumers to consume fruit juices without heat sterilization and women to wear hosiery that didn’t run. The cost was sheltering men like Otto Ambros, convicted and imprisoned for managing the slave-labor factory at Auschwitz for IG Farben. He later worked for W.R. Grace.
The Korean War raised the stakes of harnessing the creative power of Nazi science and accelerated the process of moving German scientists out of the reach of the Soviets.
McClure commuted 10 death sentences, including for men who were responsible for 90,000 deaths in Ukraine and 33,000 at Babi Yar in Kiev. One of them was the chief administrator of the Nazi concentration camps. Others moved gracefully to the United States, including Dr. Walter Schreiber, who was accused of being involved in medical war crimes and whose past was outed in part by a Globe reporter.
This book is a remarkable achievement of investigative reporting and historical writing, but it is a moral force as well as a literary tour de force. It reminds us, unforgettably, about the wages of war — and the price of victory.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.