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Operation Paperclip, and Essay by Medical Student Elizabeth Adams

German doctors and scientists were perhaps the best in the world prior to WWII. Despite their immoral behavior during the Third Reich, they were highly valued by the victorious allies. The Soviet Union and the United States competed for the services of the best of them, most notably rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who used slave labor in the production of the notorious V-2 rocket that rained death and destruction on the British people during the war.

The US military employed four of the defendants in the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, wavering between prosecution and procurement. Dr. Hubertus Strughold, for example, was father of the American Space Medicine program after he was the father of the German Space Medicine program during WWII. When this fact came to light, the US government attempted without success to prosecute Strughold. In her essay for the Healing by Killing elective, medical student Elizabeth Adams shares her thoughts about Operation Paperclip.


Operation Paperclip: The Great Moral Compromise

By Elizabeth Adams

Following the Holocaust, the United States became a safe haven for many of the persecuted individuals that were targeted under the Nazi regime. The United States also became a safe haven for the persecutors. In fact, we recruited them. Operation Paperclip was a secret program by the United States Office of Strategic Services that ultimately brought more than 1,500 German engineers and scientists onto American soil. Not only did they gift us with the inner ear thermometer and the microwave oven, but they also built our space program.

For example, Dr. Hubertus Strughold was a Nazi scientist that was brought to the United States and ultimately designed the space suit and then launched a rhesus monkey into space. Both were monumental steps in sending astronauts into space. There are countless similar stories of Nazi scientists and their accomplishments in the US. These are the same scientists behind the gas chambers and inhumane medical experiments performed on prisoners. Instead of being sentenced to life in prison or given the death penalty, either quite reasonable for some of the war crimes committed, they were found leading many organizations and scientific programs.

President Harry Truman approved the program, originally referred to as Operation Overcast. However, he explicitly stated that scientists and engineers that were Nazi members or active Nazi supporters were not eligible for recruitment. According to historian Laura Schumm in her article, What is Operation Paperclip, “officials within the JIOA and Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner to the CIA—bypassed this directive by eliminating or whitewashing incriminating evidence of possible war crimes from the scientists’ records, believing their intelligence to be crucial to the country’s postwar efforts.” Without the knowledge of the general public, or even the president of the United States, the OSS began to falsify the documents. They would put an ordinary paperclip on the files as a secret identifying mark for those German scientists whose files had been altered.

What factors contributed to this moral compromise on the part of the OSS? The OSS was fully aware of the severity of the war crimes committed, but chose to hide this information, and bring many German scientists into America. It is important to consider the other events going on in the world following World War II to begin to understand this decision. A new war was brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union, and The Space Race would prove an important competition to establish technological dominance. The OSS feared that the Soviet Union could rise to power above the United States threatening national security and our way of life. Many of the German scientists were highly trained in defense and aerospace engineering. Dr. Wernher von Braun was an intelligent space engineer that was brought to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. He designed the V-2 Rocket for Nazi Germany, and also the Saturn V launch vehicle. Von Braun went on to serve as the chief architect for the Saturn V launch and his group was assimilated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In order to defend the United States, the OSS felt that it was necessary to bring over the best and brightest engineers and scientists from Germany, regardless of what they had been involved with during World War II.

From this viewpoint, the OSS was doing what was thought to be in the best interest of the future of the United States – but, does this make it any less wrong on moral grounds? Laura Schumm addresses this, stating that “although defenders of the clandestine operation argue that the balance of power could have easily shifted to the Soviet Union during the Cold War if these Nazi scientists were not brought to the United States, opponents point to the ethical cost of ignoring their abhorrent war crimes without punishment or accountability.” Is this kind of executive action by the OSS permissible because it resulted in a successful space program and brought a great deal of superior military technology to the United States? According to Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip, the contemporary public regards Operation Paperclip as a “bad idea.” In addition to the overwhelming evidence against the ethical cost of the operation, she argues that the monetary cost of the program was significant. The cleanup and disposal of the biological and chemical weapons designed by these scientists took decades and more the $30 billion. The human cost should also be considered when experimentation on humans continued in America in direct violation of the Nuremberg Code, as experiments continued on American soldiers testing new chemical warfare.

It is easy to argue against Operation Paperclip because of the very obvious violation of morality and justice, but it is hard to imagine what would have happened if the program had not existed. How long would it have been before an American made it to the moon? Would the United States be a communist country? No one really knows what American history would look like without this great moral compromise.

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