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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Operation Paperclip

In 1949, the "Bumper-WAC" became the first human-made object to enter space as it climbed to an altitude of 393 kilometers (244 miles). The rocket consisted of a JPL WAC Corporal missile sitting atop a German-made V-2 rocket. The V-2 was developed by Wernher von Braun's team of German researchers, who surrendered to the United States at the end of World War II. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

When the existence of Operation Paperclip was first revealed to the American public in 1946, the general consensus in the country was that it was a bad idea. Prominent figures, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were vociferous in their disapproval. The United States had, after all, just fought a world war against the Nazis. They were the bad guys.

For the architects of Operation Paperclip, it wasn’t so cut-and-dried. In the larger terms of US national defense, the criteria for who could be classified as “the enemy” was quickly changing. Even before the fall of Berlin, American intelligence agents had begun quietly tracking down and recruiting Nazi scientists and engineers with expertise in electronics, medicine, aerospace, rocketry, chemistry, and other wartime technologies — expertise that could give the Western powers a greater edge in the burgeoning Cold War. In all, more than 1,600 Nazis were given safe haven in the United States so their skills and knowledge could be exploited to maintain American military superiority.

After The New York Times and Newsweek broke the news about Paperclip in 1946, government officials assured the American public that the individuals recruited in the operation were the “good Nazis,” insisting that none of them had been complicit in the atrocities committed by Hitler’s regime. In reality, however, there were a number of known war criminals among them, including some who had conducted human experiments, used slave labor, and even overseen the systematic murder of thousands.

German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (arm in cast) surrenders to US Army counterintelligence personnel of the 44th Infantry Division in Reutte, Bavaria, in May 1945. Von Braun later played an integral role in the US space and rocket programs. Photo courtesy of NASA.

It was Moscow’s own version of Operation Paperclip that had sent the US scrambling to enlist as many Nazi scientists and engineers as it could. Washington was willing to overlook their egregious crimes because the battle lines were shifting. With the defeat of Hitler, America’s World War II ally, the Soviet Union, had instantly replaced the Third Reich as its primary enemy, and the two sides were now locked in a technological arms race that would ultimately bring the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

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