Operation Paperclip

The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America

by Annie Jacobsen

Operation Paperclip

Hardcover, 575 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $30 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Details how the U.S. government embarked on a covert operation to recruit and employ Nazi scientists in the years following World War II in an effort to prevent their knowledge and expertise from falling into the hands of the USSR.

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Excerpt: 'Operation Paperclip'

This is a book about Nazi scientists and American govern­ment secrets. It is about how dark truths can be hidden from the public by U.S. officials in the name of national security, and it is about the unpredictable, often fortuitous, circumstances through which truth gets revealed.

Operation Paperclip was a postwar U.S. intelligence program that brought German scientists to America under secret military contracts. The program had a benign public face and a classified body of secrets and lies. "I'm mad on technology," Adolf Hitler told his inner circle at a dinner party in 1942, and in the aftermath of the German surrender more than sixteen hundred of Hitler's technologists would become America's own. What follows puts a spotlight on twenty-one of these men.

Under Operation Paperclip, which began in May of 1945, the scientists who helped the Third Reich wage war continued their weapons-related work for the U.S. government, developing rockets, chemical and biological weapons, aviation and space medicine (for enhancing military pilot and astronaut performance), and many other armaments at a feverish and paranoid pace that came to define the Cold War. The age of weapons of mass destruction had begun, and with it came the treacherous concept of brinkmanship — the art of pursuing dangerous policy to the limits of safety before stopping. Hiring dedicated Nazis was without precedent, entirely unprinci­pled, and inherently dangerous not just because, as Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson stated when debating if he should approve Paperclip, "These men are enemies," but because it was counter to democratic ideals. The men profiled in this book were not nominal Nazis. Eight of the twenty-one — Otto Ambros, Theodor Ben-zinger, Kurt Blome, Walter Dornberger, Siegfried Knemeyer, Walter Schreiber, Walter Schieber, and Wernher von Braun — each at some point worked side by side with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Hermann Göring during the war. Fifteen of the twenty-one were dedicated members of the Nazi Party; ten of them also joined the ultra-violent, ultra-nationalistic Nazi Party paramilitary squads, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squadron); two wore the Golden Party Badge, indi­cating favor bestowed by the Führer; one was given an award of one million reichsmarks for scientific achievement.

Six of the twenty-one stood trial at Nuremberg, a seventh was released without trial under mysterious circumstances, and an eighth stood trial in Dachau for regional war crimes. One was con­victed of mass murder and slavery, served some time in prison, was granted clemency, and then was hired by the U.S. Department of Energy. They came to America at the behest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some officials believed that by endorsing the Paperclip pro­gram they were accepting the lesser of two evils — that if America didn't recruit these scientists, the Soviet Communists surely would. Other generals and colonels respected and admired these men and said so.

To comprehend the impact of Operation Paperclip on Ameri­can national security during the early days of the Cold War, and the legacy of war-fighting technology it has left behind, it is impor­tant first to understand that the program was governed out of an office in the elite "E" ring of the Pentagon. The Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) was created solely and specifically to recruit and hire Nazi scientists and put them on weapons projects and in scientific intelligence programs within the army, the navy, the air force, the CIA (starting in 1947), and other organizations. In some cases, when individual scientists had been too close to Hitler, the JIOA hired them to work at U.S. military facilities in occupied Germany. The JIOA was a subcommittee of the Joint Intel­ligence Committee (JIC), which provided national security infor­mation for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The JIC remains the least known and least studied U.S. intelligence agency of the twentieth century. To understand the mind-set of the Joint Intelligence Committee, consider this: Within one year of the atomic bomb­ings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the JIC warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the United States needed to prepare for "total war" with the Soviets — to include atomic, chemical, and biological warfare — and they even set an estimated start date of 1952. This book focuses on that uneasy period, from 1945 to 1952, in which the JIOA's recruitment of Nazi scientists was forever on the rise, culminating in Accelerated Paperclip, which allowed individuals previously deemed undesirable to be brought to the United States — including Major General Dr. Walter Schreiber, the surgeon general of the Third Reich.

Operation Paperclip left behind a legacy of ballistic missiles, sarin gas cluster bombs, underground bunkers, space capsules, and weaponized bubonic plague. It also left behind a trail of once-secret documents that I accessed to report this book, including postwar interrogation reports, army intelligence security dossiers, Nazi Party paperwork, Allied intelligence armaments reports, declas­sified JIOA memos, Nuremberg trial testimony, oral histories, a general's desk diaries, and a Nuremberg war crimes investigator's journal. Coupled with exclusive interviews and correspondence with children and grandchildren of these Nazi scientists, five of whom shared with me the personal papers and unpublished writ­ings of their family members, what follows is the unsettling story of Operation Paperclip.

All of the men profiled in this book are now dead. Enterprising achievers as they were, just as the majority of them won top military and science awards when they served the Third Reich, so it went that many of them won top U.S. military and civilian awards serving the United States. One had a U.S. government building named after him, and, as of 2013, two continue to have prestigious national science prizes given annually in their names. One invented the ear thermometer. Others helped man get to the moon.

From Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen. Copyright 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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