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After WWII, the U.S. hired Nazi scientists en masse via Operation Paperclip

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Operation Paperclip

What it’s about: After WWII, the victorious Allies carved Germany into four sections (the U.S., U.K., and French sections would be combined to form West Germany; the Soviet section would become East Germany until reunification in 1990). Among the spoils divided up by the Allies was Germany’s brain trust. The U.S. made a major effort to recruit German scientists after the war, partly to bolster America’s capabilities, and partly to keep them out of Soviet (and even British) hands. President Harry Truman forbade the recruitment of any former member of the Nazi party or “an active supporter of Nazi militarism,” so naturally, the intelligence community immediately began targeting former members of the Nazi party, creating false records and often granting our former enemies government security clearance to get around Truman’s orders. This practice was named Operation Paperclip, after the practice of attaching falsified bios of these Nazi scientists to their personnel files.


Strangest fact: We valued Nazi scientists more than Hitler did. Hitler mistrusted intellectuals, and many of Germany’s top scientists and engineers found themselves in grunt roles on the front lines during the war. It wasn’t until 1943, after the invasion of the USSR failed, that Hitler recalled scientists and engineers to work on defense programs, primarily rocketry. Wikipedia quotes Dieter Huzel’s book on German rocketry, Peenemünde To Canaveral: “Overnight, Ph.D.s were liberated from K.P. duty, masters of science were recalled from orderly service, mathematicians were hauled out of bakeries, and precision mechanics ceased to be truck drivers.”

A day at the office for Wernher Von Braun

Biggest controversy: When Nazis are involved, there are plenty of controversies to choose from. But the most relevant one may be P.O. Box 1142, a secret prison run by U.S. military intelligence, on Virginia farmland once owned by George Washington. Operation Paperclip brought to the prison its most famous resident, rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, who would go on to develop rockets for NASA, including the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11. But the secret location also housed soldiers, sailors, and spies. The camp violated the Geneva Conventions because the locations and identities of the prisoners were kept secret. Unlike the modern-day intelligence community, personnel at 1142 drew the line at torture.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The government did at least keep tabs on their former Nazi assets. Operation Paperclip was still in operation as late as 1990, presumably when the last Nazi scientist retired. In total, more than 1,600 Germans were brought over as part of the operation, resulting in patents that generated over $10 billion (not to mention greatly aiding the U.S. space program, as mentioned above).


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Despite Truman’s no-Nazi order, the scientists were disproportionately Nazis. When Germans began seeking out scientists to help the war effort, they made sure they were ideologically sound. Loyal Nazis were recorded on the Osenberg List, and put into service. Socialists or those merely suspected of not being loyal to the Reich were ignored at best. After the war, the Osenberg List fell into Allied hands, and it was from this list the U.S. recruited Germany’s top minds.

Also noteworthy: There were numerous other operations similar to Paperclip. The Soviets and British undertook similar efforts to capture and/or recruit German personnel (the Soviet equivalent was Operation Osoaviakhim), and all three countries attempted to secure manpower and equipment from Germany’s nuclear program. Operation Lusty involved securing Luftwaffe technology. Special Mission V-2 secured 100 V-2 missiles in what would become East Germany, from right under the Soviets’ noses. Less cinematic is Project 63, in which Nazi engineers were placed in jobs with Lockheed and other aerospace firms, even while Americans were being laid off from those same companies.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Operation Paperclip was run by a man named Carmel Offie, a key figure in early Cold War intelligence, who was eventually run out of the CIA by Senator Joseph McCarthy for being gay. Offie leads to a string of historical figures with memorable names that includes Offie’s mentor, William Bullitt, America’s first ambassador to the USSR and friend to Franklin Roosevelt; and Missy LeHand, FDR’s devoted personal secretary with whom he was likely romantically involved.

Further down the wormhole: Ex-Nazis weren’t just recruited to be scientists. Some joined the U.S. intelligence community, among them Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher Of Lyon for torturing French prisoners of the Gestapo. That didn’t stop the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps from recruiting Barbie after the war to help fight communism in Europe. When the French government sentenced Barbie to death for war crimes, the U.S. helped him escape to Bolivia, where he worked for that country’s government. When the Bolivian regime was overthrown, Barbie was extradited for France, tried, and executed. It’s suspected that Barbie had a hand in the Bolivian coup that ended up being his undoing. It’s also suspected he helped the CIA capture and kill Ernesto “Che” Guevara, still beloved by college students with only the vaguest idea of who Guevara was or what he stood for. We’ll examine the man behind the T-shirt next week.


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