Operation Paperclip

Title:                      Operation Paperclip

Author:                 Annie Jacobsen.

Jacobsen, Annie (2014). Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program to Bring Nazi Scientists to America. New York: Little, Brown and Company

LCCN:    2013028255

D810.S2 J33 2014

Contents

  • The war and the weapons — Destruction — The hunters and the hunted — Liberation — The captured and their interrogators — Harnessing the chariot of destruction — Hitler’s doctors — Black, white and gray — Hitler’s chemists — Hired or hanged — The ticking clock — Total war of apocalyptic proportions — Science at any price — Strange judgment — Chemical menace — Headless monster — Hall of mirrors — Downfall — Truth serum — In the dark shadows — Limelight — Legacy — What lasts?.

Subjects

Date Posted:      September 20, 2016

Review by Wendy Lower[1]

Among the trophies of the Second World War captured by Allied intelligence agents were Nazi scientists and their research on biological and chemical weapons. In a classified memorandum titled “Exploitation of German Scientists in Science and Technology in the United States,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff described these men as “chosen, rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use.” Such intellectual spoils were not to fall into Soviet hands. In 1945, Operation Overcast (renamed Operation Paperclip for the paper clips attached to the dossiers of the most “troublesome cases”) began. More than 1,600 Germans were secretly recruited to develop armaments “at a feverish and paranoid pace that came to define the Cold War.”

Although some of these men had been Nazi Party members, SS officers and war criminals, they were valued as vital to American national security. Thus it was O.K., American government officials reasoned, to ignore these scientists’ roles in developing biological and chemical weapons, in designing the V-2 rockets that shattered London and Antwerp and in the countless deaths of concentration camp inmates who fell victim to medical experiments at Dachau and Ravensbrück.

The journalist Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip is not the first unveiling of the program. The New York Times, Newsweek and other media outlets exposed Paperclip as early as December 1946. Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rabbi Steven Wise publicly opposed the program, and according to a Gallup poll, most Americans at the time considered it a “bad” idea. But Jacobsen’s book is the first on the topic to appear since President Clinton signed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998, which pushed through the declassification of American intelligence records, including the F.B.I., Army intelligence and C.I.A. files of German agents, scientists and war criminals. Jacobsen’s access to these documents, along with her research in various special collections and her interviews with former intelligence personnel and relatives of the scientists, make her study the most in-depth account yet of the lives of Paperclip recruits and their American counterparts.

Jacobsen tracks 21 of these Nazi scientists and technicians. Eight of her subjects had worked directly with Hitler, Himmler or Göring; 15 were active Nazi Party members; 10 served in paramilitary squads like the SA and SS; and six were tried at Nuremberg. A few familiar figures pop up, including several pioneers in space exploration—Wernher von Braun, Hubertus Strughold, Walter Dornberger and Arthur Rudolph.

The “classified body of secrets and lies” behind Operation Paperclip is complex and crowded, and in some places the narrative becomes muddled, as infamous Nazis and American intelligence operatives appear alongside present-day historians and archivists who are unnecessarily cited to provide basic facts. To her credit, Jacobsen deftly untangles the myriad American and German government agencies and personnel involved, though not without repetitious reminders of who is who.

More gripping and skillfully rendered are the stories of American and British officials who scoured defeated Germany for Nazi scientists and their research. One well-known find was the Osenberg list of thousands of German scientists and facilities, which was retrieved from a toilet at Bonn University. Another was a huge cache of tabun (a sarin-like chemical). While searching the I. G. Farben laboratories on the German-Polish border, British soldiers uncovered 175 forested bunkers storing aerial bombs with a powerful organophosphorus nerve agent. They called in American Army chemists, who tested the chemical and found that just a drop on the skin would kill a rabbit in minutes. In 1945, 530 tons of tabun were shipped to various locations in the United States including Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

There, Jacobsen writes, American soldiers became unknowing guinea pigs for Dr. L. Wilson Greene, an American. In a gassing chamber, soldiers were exposed to low levels of tabun. Greene was pleased with the effects: Though the soldiers were “partially disabled” for one to three weeks, they eventually recovered. Thus nerve agents and hallucinogenic drugs could serve as more “gentle” weapons, immobilizing the enemy but, Greene hoped, avoiding the “wholesale killing of people or the mass destruction of property.” Greene assigned his colleague, the German chemist Fritz Hoffmann, to research other toxic agents for military use. Hoffmann (who died in 1967) studied everything from street drugs to Mongolian hallucinogenic mushrooms, and may have contributed his research to the development of Agent Orange. Hoffmann’s daughter remembered that her father was interested in producing a substance that could defoliate trees in Vietnam “so you could see the enemies.” In an interview with Jacobsen, she remarked: “Agent Orange turned out not only to defoliate trees but to cause great harm in children. Dad was dead by then, and I remember thinking, Thank God. It would have killed him to learn that. He was a gentle man. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

American intelligence agents, Jacobsen argues, were blinded by brinkmanship. Some became consumed by the search for weapons and were double-crossed by German scientists. One such man was Gen. Charles E. Loucks, chief of intelligence for chemical warfare stationed in Heidelberg. So dedicated was Loucks that he found the task of securing the German arsenal of chemical weapons for his country to be “more interesting than going down to Paris on weekends.” He became charmed by the notorious SS Brig. Gen. Walter Schieber, who eventually worked as a chemist for the American Army’s Chemical Corps and then for the C.I.A. Schieber turned out to have been a Soviet mole and international weapons dealer, as Jacobsen discovered in the declassified files.

There are few satisfying explanations in Jacobsen’s account of this “tawdry group of amoral war opportunists, many of whom were linked to war crimes.” In the end, it is not clear who was exploiting whom—the Nazi scientists or their American recruiters. What is clear is that contemporary public opinion had it right: Operation Paperclip was a bad idea. By shining light on the human, ethical and monetary costs of the program, Jacobsen’s book reveals just how bad. Nazi scientists were generously remunerated for developing biological and chemical weapons whose cleanup and disposal took decades and cost approximately $30 billion. American experimentation on humans continued during the Cold War in violation of the Nuremberg Code. A lethal chemical might have been developed for warfare, with terrible consequences.

Jacobsen ends her study by asking Gerhard Maschkowski, a Jewish survivor of the I. G. Farben camp at Auschwitz, “What matters, what lasts?” In response, Maschkowski reveals his blue-ink tattoo. Yet certain truths are obscured in Jacobsen’s disturbing account. She writes that the Germans didn’t use any chemical or biological weapons in World War II. Although they may not have deployed such weapons on the battlefield, the Germans did use carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B, a pesticide) in mobile gas vans and gas chambers. In 1942-43, the Allies threatened retaliation if the Germans used chemical weapons. Apparently this warning applied only to Allied soldiers in combat and civilians in Allied cities, not to the Jews, Soviet P.O.W.s and others who were murdered in Auschwitz, Birkenau and other Nazi extermination sites.

[1] Lower, Wendy (2014).”Willkommen,” Sunday Book Review, New York Times. Downloaded September 20, 2016. A version of this review appears in print on March 2, 2014, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Willkommen. Wendy Lower is the author of Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award). Book review (H-Net) http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40876 [LCCN: 2013026081

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One Response to Operation Paperclip

  1. Pingback: The Nazis Next Door | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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