Should the U.S. glorify Nazi scientists?

What would happen if the U.S. government were involved in re-inventing someone by ignoring his past?  Two books, Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip and Eric Lichtblau’s The Nazis Next Door, explore how the U.S. government covertly brought Nazi scientists to America, discounting the possible war crimes committed. 

Many have heard of Wernher von Braun and Dr. Hubertus Strughold and consider them instrumental in helping the U.S. succeed in the space race against the Russians.  In total, there were thousands of Nazis brought to America to aid in the Cold War effort.  As World War II was coming to an end, there were those who were more concerned about the next great conflict, the threat of Communism.  What comes to mind is the moral question of whether the means justify the ends: the cost of harboring Nazis versus national security gains.

Both authors point out that there was a solid argument in recruiting the Nazi scientists to avoid the Russians from gaining access and information.  Lichtblau commented, “There was this blind spot of the benefit of having them help in the Cold War effort.  Remember the Allen Dulles quote that went something like this, ‘I would deal with the devil himself if it would help national security.’”

American civilian and military leaders chose to look the other way and in some cases re-invented these scientists to use their expertise.  It became a quid pro quo, where these important assets had their Nazi past whitewashed.  Take for example Wernher von Braun, who achieved celebrity status over the years.  No one questions the contributions of scientists such as von Braun, the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle and a contributor to landing a man on the moon.  However, what is greatly ignored was that during World War II he was the technical director of the V-weapons development and head of the Mittelbau-Dora Planning Office, a division within the SS.

It became obvious that the U.S. government in writing his resume attempted to omit von Braun’s Nazism and never questioned his involvement.  He was dubbed “The Father of the space age,” with no attention paid to the fact that he rose to become a major in the SS and used slave laborers from the Buchenwald concentration camp to build the V-2 rockets.  On his website, von Braun never takes responsibility and insisted that his visits lasted only hours, or at most one or two days, and that he never saw a prisoner beaten, hanged, or otherwise killed.  Lichtblau does not buy into the spin, especially since in the book, The Rocket Team, there is a photograph of the slave laborers with the photo credit given to Wernher von Braun.  Lichtblau wonders if “the rocket scientist had apparently kept the photo as some sort of macabre souvenir.”  Jacobsen argues that it would have been physically impossible for von Braun not to see what was happening.  She relates it to walking into the produce section of a market and not seeing any apples.  Both authors unequivocally believe that the U.S. government knew of these facts as they either downplayed or classified the material so it would never come to light during von Braun's lifetime.

Another glaring example is Dr. Kurt Debus, a top scientist in the U.S. space program.  His accomplishments include heading the Space Center in Florida from 1962 to 1974.  The “Father of the Kennedy Space Center” also had his past covered up.  Even today, the NASA website does not include Debus’s Nazi past in his biography; instead, NASA gives out a prestigious award in his name.  Jacobsen told American Thinker, “Debus was for all purposes a believer in Nazism, going as far as proudly wearing his brown SS uniform to work during World War II.  This glorified scientist also turned in a fellow German to the Gestapo for making disparaging remarks against Hitler and refusing to give Debus the Nazi salute. I consider him a hardcore Nazi ideologue.”

Lichtblau regards Dr. Hubertus Strughold, M.D. as one of the most controversial scientists brought to America.  He rose to head the School of Aviation Medicine and became celebrated as “the father of space medicine.”  But during the war he was the director of the Aviation Medical Research Institute for ten years of Hitler’s twelve-year rule.  He was listed on the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security suspects as well as having his name mentioned sixty-one times at the Nuremberg medical trials.  Lichtblau noted to American Thinker, “There is plenty of evidence showing that Strughold knew about the horrific human experiments conducted by the Nazis on camp prisoners at Dachau, including subjecting victims to high altitudes and freezing them.”

Because of their past, Albert Einstein refused to work with these scientists.  He felt that the Nazi scientists should have followed his lead in renouncing their citizenship and immigrating to America.  Once they worked for the Nazi machine, the U.S. military and government could have allowed them to stay and work here, but these men should never have been given a free pass. 

Should some middle ground have been established?  Both authors acknowledge that the Nazi scientists brought to this country were a valuable asset to America’s national security.  Yet they do not believe their past should be ignored, and they should definitely not have been glorified.  For example, in Huntsville, Alabama, a museum gives these scientists celebrity status. 

As David Gergen said in 1976 when there was talk of awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to von Braun, “Sorry, but I can’t support the idea of giving this medal to a former Nazi whose V-2 was fired into over 3,000 British and Belgium cities.  He has given valuable service to the U.S. since, but frankly he has gotten as good as he has given.”

In reading these two books, Americans need to consider: did the costs far outweigh the benefits, and could the ideas of these scientists have been embraced without rewarding the men by overlooking their pasts?

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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