America's Nazi scientists: Author launches new book in Santa Monica
In 1946 as Europe was smoldering from World War II the United States quietly began recruiting the most valuable scientific minds of the Third Reich. Minds that had labored to advance Hitler's war machine and conduct human experiments would now be put to use by the U.S. in the Cold War.
The intellects that helped create Hitler's menacing rocket arsenal would eventually help the U.S. beat Russia to the moon. The Pentagon would label this project Operation Paper Clip, and proceeded to collect as many scientists as possible.
This is the dark history journalist and author Annie Jacobsen explores in her new book "Operation Paper Clip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America."
Jacobsen, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, launched her new work at the Santa Monica Public Library on February 11 to a packed, fascinated and horrified auditorium. This is her second investigation into the shadowy corners of recent U.S. history. Her previous book, "Area 51: An Uncensored History Of America's Top Secret Military Base," told the entire story of the infamous secret base in Nevada and became a national bestseller.
It was during the research for that book that Jacobsen came across information that would inspire her to pursue America's stealth use of Hitler's former scientists.
While investigating a pair of Nazi aircraft engineers known as the Horton brothers, Jacobsen came across the name of their boss, a top ranking Third Reich official with a surprising history, explained Jacobsen while walking through downtown Santa Monica ahead of her talk. "Siegfried Niemeyer. He was Hermann Goering's right hand man and was part of Operation Paper Clip. 30 years later when he retired from the US Air Force. He was given the Distinguished Medal by the Department of Defense. I asked how is it possible that someone goes from being an important part in the Nazi war machine to being an important part in the Department of Defense war machine? And so I started investigating Paper Clip that way."
Jacobsen's research would reveal a vast program to not only gather Third Reich scientists but polish their past histories as well. She would uncover a vast trove of declassified and classified documents, photographs and witnesses to document the sordid affair. "Niemeyer was at minimum one of sixteen hundred scientists who came to America to work on our war and weapons programs," said Jacobsen.
"I focused on 21 individuals in my book, I profile them, they all have different pasts but each and every one of them was certainly an important part of the Nazi war machine."
Jacobsen's book is like a journey into the Machiavellian heart of government policy. The stories told shine a light on how governments will put aside moral qualms to gain the superior edge.
"I try to be specific in the book in allowing the reader to see who was making the decisions," said Jacobsen, "how they were making these decisions and to what degree they were saying things like 'I don't care if he did X, Y and Z, we need him."
One notorious character in the book's story is a man named Kurt Debus. "He was the first director of the JFK Space Center," explained Jacobsen, "and he is still considered an American hero but I found documents where these [U.S.] generals are going back and forth talking about how Debus wore his S.S. uniform to work in Nazi Germany and how he had an argument with his superior, another scientist, and turned the guy in for making anti-Hitler remarks. He turned him in to the Gestapo." The National Space Club Florida Committee still hands out an annual Debus Award to distinguished scientists.
"It was a Faustian bargain. They had technology the Allies had not even developed yet," said Jacobsen, "they were almost ahead of us in many categories and so the idea was we need to get a hold of this science or the Russians will."
Few scientists were as popular during the Space Race era as Wernher von Braun, one of the minds behind Hitler's notorious V-2 rockets who later led the development of NASA's Saturn V booster rocket. It was the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon. A quick Google search will readily produce photos of von Braun standing next to President John F. Kennedy confidently looking over rocket models.
"He is one of the 21 that I profile," said Jacobsen, "I came across a really disturbing past. He was a member of the S.S. and he personally hand-picked some of the slave laborers out of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The government specifically coached him on how to keep his past secret beginning in 1946."
The passage of time has made it slightly easier to uncover crucial information that both enlightens and disturbs. "Because it was so long ago most of the information that I bring to the table that's new are literal documents, military documents that were long classified."
Some of the files Jacobsen came across pointed towards individuals with links to human experiments during the war.
"I found a file at the Harvard University Library that said 'classified until 2025,'" recounted Jacobsen, "It said 'German doctors involved in mercy killings.' And 'mercy killings' is a euphemism for medical murder. So I worked with Harvard to get the Department of Defense to declassify that file which they did."
What Jacobsen uncovered in the declassified document would shock her. "I report in the book that on the list that the war crimes tribunal American military intelligence had were the names of these exact same doctors [in the file] who were wanted for medical murder. You can see so clearly what happened. Here's the document, let's classify it and move it over and say 'well we don't know.'"
Jacobsen would discover even more disturbing truths. "The Surgeon General of the Third Reich, a man named Dr. Walter Schreiber, was brought to the United States and worked for the Air Force in Texas. That was stunning to me, this man was the Surgeon General of the Third Reich."
After sharing this dark saga while strolling to the Santa Monica Public Library's courtyards and book shelves, Jacobsen presented it once more complete with photos and documents before an enthralled audience. For while this history is now more than 60 years old, Jacobsen hopes it strikes a chord with readers living in a world still mired in secrecy, war and uncertainty.
"This is a program that happened 69 years ago. First it's a great, dramatic story, but look at the element of the US and national security and the military industrial complex, this was the origin of it," said Jacobsen while preparing to step before the podium, "You see it in action, you see the moral compromises, you see the black and gray, you turn around and see where we are now as concerned citizens. There is a hero in this very dark story and that is the truth."