Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen (Back Bay Books, 2014)

As the Second World War in Europe drew to a close the Allies started to hunt down Nazi war criminals and top German scientists.  In many cases, these two groups overlapped, such as military doctors who performed experiments on people at concentration camps, or rocket scientists who oversaw and relied on the manufacturing and assembling of parts in camps where workers were worked to death, or chemists and biologists who created and tested chemical weapons.  With the cold war set to start, some German scientists being captured and put to work by the Soviets, and German science being far in advance of US with regards to rockets and aviation, chemical weapons, underground construction, and military medicine, the US is left with a choice – prosecute scientists who had participated in crimes against humanity in which people were murdered, or give them clemency and hire them to work on military science projects and for the US military-industrial complex.

As Annie Jacobsen details in great depth and detail, the US military chose the latter through Project Paperclip, often duping other branches of the armed forces, the State Department and the President’s Office, by hiding the criminal pasts of their new hires.  In all 1,000 German scientists were targeted, many of whom were ardent Nazis and were involved in crimes that led to the death of thousands of people, with over 500 moving to take up positions in the US, where they were mollycoddled and well paid.  Only a handful stood trial for their crimes, often many years after the war, and most were given lenient sentences or clemency.  Some of them became household names, such as Wernher von Braun, and rose to positions of prominence. Some were involved in dubious post-war science, for example, the CIAs poison weapons programme, LSD and mind-altering drugs for interrogation, and chemical and biological weapons programmes (that were discontinued and decommissioned after 1969 at massive cost).  The argument used to justify recruiting and not prosecuting these scientists was that they held knowledge that was useful to the US military and US businesses and that many of their colleagues were being employed by the Soviets.  In other words, useful knowledge trumped justice for mass murder – and in most cases, the US had the scientific documents and the equipment (the knowledge was not simply locked inside of heads).

Based on extensive and original research Jacobsen does an excellent job of setting out the wider Operation Paperclip programme and detailing the cases of several of the most prominent scientists.  The result is an interesting, engaging and disturbing read that raises all kinds of moral and ethical questions concerning both the actions of the scientists, but also those of the Americans who recruited and befriended them, actively worked against other elements of government and those that sought to expose the truth, and funded and used some of the scientists knowledge to produce non-conventional and controversial weapons.  It would make a fascinating case text for a course on moral and ethics simply because there are so many thorny questions raised.  The core one being: are there some occasions in which crimes against humanity – such as deliberately freezing to death an innocent person to examine how it affects their physiology – can be ignored for a supposed greater good?  It is clear where Jacobsen sits on this, and I would agree with her, but rather than explore these questions in detail she lets the details speak for themselves.  An absorbing and thought-provoking read.

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