what i'm reading: operation paperclip: the secret intelligence program that brought nazi scientists to america

Many years ago, I wrote about how the label conspiracy theory is used to shut down inquiry and squelch the questioning of authority: two words, part one, two words part two. */**

Never have I been more aware of this than after reading two books about real events that could easily sound like the wacky imaginings of the tinfoil hat crew. 

Both books are impeccably researched and written.

The subjects of both books are incontrovertible fact. 

Both are about programs organized and run by members of the US government, kept secret from most people in government -- something many people believe is impossible to do. 

The first book, I wrote about here: Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. The capsule summary: 

From the early 1950s to at least the mid-1970s, a tiny group of men within the CIA, led by Gottlieb, conducted research into biological and chemical weapons, experimenting on human subjects who lives were considered expendable. 

Without informed consent from their subjects, and usually without the subjects' knowledge at all, these CIA men tortured people (and to a lesser extent, animals) by feeding them LSD and applying other techniques of psychological torture. This went on for decades and involved thousands of vulnerable people -- drug users, prison inmates, psychiatric patients. Gottlieb also invented deadly new poisons and ways to secretly administer them, with the goal of assassinating foreign leaders. The program was known as MK-ULTRA.

The second book, I read earlier this year: Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America. (Unsurprisingly, these two bizarre and shameful pieces of US history intersect.)

These were not easy books to read -- the content is highly disturbing -- but I'm very glad I read both. I wish everyone would.

Here's what happened, in the briefest form possible

Immediately after the end of World War II, a small and highly classified group within the US government began to smuggle Nazi scientists out of Germany and into the United States. 

The program expanded and continued throughout the 1950s. In all, more than 1,600 Nazis were safeguarded this way.

This program was not reserved for the rank-and-file, the "we were only following orders" Nazis. Quite the opposite. Operation Paperclip gave a new lease on life to elite, high-ranking Nazi scientists, men who were part of Hitler's and Himmler's inner circle. 

Paperclip included the highest-level specialists in their fields: biological weapons, chemical weapons, and atomic weapons. They were also sadistic, amoral men who devised and carried out hideous experiments on human beings. They were war criminals. 

The American officials in charge of Operation Paperclip were not Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. They didn't give a fuck about the scientists' politics or what they had used their scientific knowledge for. They had only one, single-minded purpose.

The Nazis were miles -- light years -- ahead of the United States in the development of biological and chemical weapons, and the men of Operation Paperclip wanted their knowledge. 

Some were obsessed with keeping the scientists away from the Soviet Union. (The Soviets had a similar program and were also scooping up Nazi scientists as fast as they could.) Others were obsessed with the military implications of these weapons. All were neutral about something that should defy neutrality.

Some people within the program raised objections. Some within government, and in a position to curtail the program, raised objections. Those men were overruled and excised from decision-making positions.  

In theory, Operation Paperclip screened for war criminals and required the rescued scientists to undergo "denazification". In reality, none of that happened. War criminals were given new identities. Their families were relocated to the US. Many became US citizens. They were treated well and enjoyed comfortable, long lives. 

Content warnings, at least for me

As a child, I was inundated with Holocaust education. I remember coming home from Hebrew school after one of these lessons -- numb, nauseated, and unable to sleep. It's one thing to know this happened. It's another thing to know it would have happened to you

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a series of highly-regarded documentaries about the Holocaust. After watching one of them, I declared myself done. I decided I would never read or watch anything Holocaust-related, ever again. I felt I had nothing left to learn that could possibly do any good, and I was done exposing myself to this personalized horror. 

(This is specifically about Hitler's Holocaust. I have learned a lot about many genocides, in the past and present, and all over the globe.)

I don't know why it didn't occur to me that reading Operation Paperclip (the book) would require me to break that vow, and in a big way. Of course, in order to understand the import and implications of Operation Paperclip (the program), it is necessary to understand what these Nazi scientists did. 

So. I learned something new about the Holocaust. New-to-me details about the system of slavery used by the Nazis that I hadn't known. This was among the worst things I've ever heard of in my life. 

For a while, I didn't think I could continue reading. The details were so hideous; it felt so traumatic. But I was very motivated to read this book, for many reasons, so I continued. I'm glad I did, but/and now I know more things I wish I didn't know. If you read this book, which I hope you do, brace yourself.

Review in a nutshell

This is an outstanding book, an absolute tour de force of investigation and narrative nonfiction. 

One final note

In both Poisoner in Chief and Operation Paperclip, there is reference to something that has never been declassified. Hidden facts that neither Stephen Kinzer nor Annie Jacobsen were able to crack. A location so secret, so deeply classified, that it is still not known what went on there. Given what has been declassified and what is known, this may be the most disturbing idea of all.


* Written before I understood how to use post titles properly

** Posted only weeks before the date after which all comments are wiped out.


James Redekop said...

And, of course, Tom Lehrer wrote an excellent song about the most famous beneficiary of Operation Paperclip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjDEsGZLbio

The "Cautionary Tales" documentary podcast recently did a multi-part series on the V2 rocket, which also gets into Operation Paperclip and von Braun's culpability. The big irony of the V2 being that it actually killed more people in Germany (slave labour working on the project) than it did in England.


laura k said...

Thanks, James. It was the horrific conditions of the enslaved workers building the V2 rocket trenches that was so hideous to read about and shook me so.

laura k said...

A less famous but equally abhorrent beneficiary of Paperclip shows up in MK-Ultra: Kurt Blome.