The secret program that brought Nazi scientists to America

A review of Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip



Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America

By Annie Jacobsen

It’s been known for decades that a considerable proportion of the Cold War’s cutting-edge technology contests—from the space race to nuclear weapons development—turned on which side, Soviet or American, did better out of its share of the Second World War’s human booty, the scientific aces of the Third Reich. By 1952, the year a secret American intelligence committee fingered as the most likely date for “total war” with the U.S.S.R., the U.S. employed more than 1,600 of its former German enemies. (In the Pacific theatre, American intelligence agencies had been equally busy sheltering Japanese biological warfare specialists from prosecution.) By following 21 of Hitler’s technologists through a trail of no-longer-secret reports, including postwar interrogation accounts and private papers provided by the American descendants of those German scientists, Jacobsen assembles an unsettling portrait of what was gained, and at what cost, by Operation Paperclip.

Her 21 men were not apolitical technocrats. Fifteen were dedicated Nazi Party members; six had even stood trial at Nuremberg, and one was convicted of mass murder. Then again, one, whose wartime Berlin medical institute conducted experiments on epileptic children, is also credited with research that was crucial in allowing American astronauts to survive outer space. The prestigious Hubertus Strughold Award, annually given for outstanding work in aviation medicine, is named for him.

But none of the 21 mattered more, in terms of results and public opinion, than the aristocratic Wernher von Braun, the father of modern rocket science, whose fearsome V2 missiles were made by slave workers toiling under horrifyingly abusive conditions. (As has often been pointed out, more people died building V2s than from their explosive landings in England.) The basic facts about von Braun were widely known—he was an inspiration for Peter Sellers’ outrageous Dr. Strangelove in the 1964 film of the same name—but in the 1950s, he became the face of the U.S. space program. By 1969, when his work led directly to Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon’s surface, von Braun was an American hero.

The situation in 1945 did indeed look different to soldiers and spies contemplating another war, one they fully expected to be more murderous than the one just finished, than it does from our perspective. But not so different that they did not realize, as Jacobsen makes clear, how morally wrong and politically explosive their schemes were. She details a depressing stream of hypocrisy, obfuscation and outright mendacity in the unfolding of Operation Paperclip. And then she leaves it to the reader to judge whether the ends justified the means.

Brian Bethune

Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary.


The secret program that brought Nazi scientists to America

  1. Britain had to give the US all it’s scientific knowledge….which was considerable…in order to get help during WWII.

    Americans are not the technical marvels they make themselves out to be.

    • I heard you guys invented swimming?

      • Translation please

        • The joke isn’t funny, if it has to be explained.

        • It means, one is so full of oneself, one ‘claims the fame’ for pretty much anything, and his mentioning of how the Brits gave America all their scientific material without which, goes without saying, we’d have all been speaking German.

          • You might as well be speaking German, you’re certainly not speaking English.

    • FFS, mark the day, for once I have to agree with Emily.

      • Not really. She’s still wrong.

    • Still posting your misinformation, I see.

      The Brits developed a lot, but they didn’t “…give the US all it’s scientific knowledge…”.

        • No, they didn’t.

          Try reading a reputable and credible source of historical facts instead of relying on the MSM for your knowledge.

          That way, you won’t be ridiculed so much, perhaps.

          Then again, I doubt it.

          “Britain had to give the US all it’s scientific knowledge..”?


          ALL of it’s “scientific knowledge”, you say?

          Yet, the link you provide describes ONE example of the CO-OPERATION the UK and US had.

          The UK had the breakthrough, the US had the production capability.

          Also, if you’re going to post a link to back up your argument, perhaps you should read it, first, to see that it doesn’t expose you for the lightweight that you are.

          “Because Britain had no money to develop the magnetron on a massive scale, Churchill had agreed that Sir Henry Tizard should offer the magnetron to the Americans in exchange for their financial and industrial help. No strings attached.”

          You might want to do some research on the American industrial capacity, also.

          The British didn’t have the capability to manufacture the masses of equipment needed to fight a war.

          America did.

          Never heard the phrase, “The arsenal of democracy”, obviously.

          • It was blackmail.

          • Wrong again.

            At least you’re consistent.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • I’m still smarter than you.


          • My point has been proven. Thanks.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • Learn how to properly use English, for starters.

    • More knee-jerk anti-Americanism from Emily, one of this site’s most robotic posters.

      • I don’t like Americans, no. They are a militant theocracy.

        ‘Robotic’ doesn’t mean what you think it does.

        • Typical robotic reply from emilynone.

  2. Is this book any improvement on “Project Paperclip” published in 1975?


  3. The US also declared all patents in the conquered lands (Germany and Japan) as being invalid after WWII. That allowed allied industrialists to take advantage of all kinds of innovations without paying licencing fees. And since we won the war, an expensive war we would not have had to fight had Germany and Japan not decided to expand their empires, it seems only fair that we helped ourselves to their best technology. While we were doing that, the Soviets were helping themselves to German women.

    I should add that I really HATE it when they put a big Swastika on a book cover. If I were going to read it (I’m not) I usually read on the bus. No way am I pulling a book out of my knapsack on the bus with a big swastika on the cover. People will think I’m reading Mien Kampf.

  4. Pingback: Maclean’s Books: We’ve got your weekend covered -