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Operation Paperclip

November 19, 2019

November 19, 2019

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I grew up in the 50’s as the daughter of a physicist and newspaper reporter.  My parents were big fans of Tom Lehrer when I was a kid so I was raised on his songs.  I found one of them, Wernher von Braun, especially confusing.  I couldn’t understand why Lehrer was so critical of one of “our” scientists.

Recently, while pursuing Atomic Energy Commission documents I found information that shed some light on my childhood puzzle. Von Braun was one of a number of scientists who immigrated to the US from Nazi Germany following the Second World War.

In today’s anti-immigration political climate Operation Paperclip seems like an unlikely flight of fantasy, but at the end of WW2 the US government was more concerned with countering the Soviet Union’s influence than considering the morality of bringing enemy scientists into the country.  The Soviets had their own program to capture Nazi scientists for their defense programs so rather than allow them to scoop up all the scientists, Operation Overcast was born to bring as many scientists as possible to the US.  The thinking promoted publically was that the scientists could launch new civilian industries and create jobs.  However, there were also military reasons for the US wanting these scientists in the US.

The program’s name soon morphed into Operation Paperclip because paperclips were used as a type of an interagency code to tag the files of problematic scientists with strong Nazi ties.  Under Operation Paperclip about 1,600 scientists, with their families, immigrated to the US. At first the scientists were only allowed a temporary stay but this changed along the way and many became permanent residents based on the value of their work and their loyalty to the US.  The rules and decisions made under Operation Paperclip were often contradictory. While the program was supposed to eliminate Nazis from entering the country this did not always happen.  Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein opposed the program.

Von Braun was one of these scientists.  Towards the end of the war he and his colleagues hid much of their German rocket research in caves and mines for them to retrieve at the end of the war to use as a bargaining chip with the US.  The story is that he and other scientists stole a train using forged papers and hid in an Austrian village hiding from the Nazis and Soviets and waiting for the Americans. After Hitler’s suicide, in 1945, von Braun’s brother, Magnus, waving a white flag, told American forces where the scientists were hidden and waiting to surrender.  The hidden documents on V-2 rockets were also recovered.  All were transported to the US as part of Operation Paperclip.

Von Braun became instrumental in the development of the US space program.  In 1960 he was named as the first director of the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville Alabama and under his guidance the US sent Alan Shepard into space.  He also masterminded the development of the Saturn V rocket.  He received the National Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford in 1975.

History is often messy.  Operation Paperclip is one example of the balancing act between pragmatism and morality.  And I finally understand Tom Lehrer’s reservations about Wernher von Braun.