Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, by Annie Jacobsen

Nine stars

I have read a significant amount about the Second World War, to the point that I have almost completely tired of the topic. However, Annie Jacobsen breathes new life and excitement into the subject and the years that followed with this book that discusses a complex program the United States’ government worked to cobble together as the Nazi regime fell apart. Jacobsen’s painstakingly detailed discussions of Operation: Paperclip not only reveal some of the controversial decisions about science and the Third Reich, but also present the reader with both sides of the argument surrounding procuring scientists and their research from the decimated fascist regime. Jacobsen opens the book discussing some of the scientific and military feats that the Nazis had in the works at the height of the war. Hitler was working with many of his inner circle to defeat the Allies by any means possible. Throughout the narrative, Jacobsen eludes to Hitler’s determination not to bow down or permit surrender, finding suicide and keeping one’s pride as the highest honour of the Third Reich. Amidst the soldiers and German citizens who devoted themselves to the Nazis, there were many scientists whose work was highly advanced. Jacobsen argues that much of the rocket technology was at least 20 years ahead of American military prowess, which might have been one of the reasons for the coming decisions, a choice that would surely open more than one can of worms.

As the Allies crushed the Nazis and forced a German surrender in May, 1945, there was talk about what to do with many of those minds who had been fuelling Nazi successes. With the V-rocket program up and running, the Americans felt the need to capture this technology in order to turn it to the Pacific, where the Japanese were still waging a bloody battle. There were also a number of scientific experiments that were being discussed in code, things that the Americans could use if they had the know how. Jacobsen uses these arguments to posit that the idea behind getting the technology would surely be an asset worth procuring. Within the highest levels of the US bureaucracy, and among those who were developing the CIA, came the idea of bringing Nazi scientists and their research to America, where it could be utilised, as well as ensuing that it would be kept out of the hands of the Soviets. The underlying concern was that knowledge of the Nazi atrocities was widespread and trying to ‘sell’ this to the American public would be tough. At the earliest points in the discussion, even President Harry Truman was not privy to Operation: Paperclip, the name given to the mission that would see German scientists placed within American companies or working inside the military establishment. All this being said, Paperclip sought to shield these scientists from their past actions, relocating them with new names or at least keeping them away from the public eye as best as possible.

As Jacobsen continues her detailed narrative, she effectively argues that there was a need to choose wisely, as the Soviets were surely trying to do the same thing for themselves. Selecting the best and brightest, especially those whose work on pharmaceuticals and biological warfare could be invaluable, needed to be done swiftly. Amongst all this was the after effects of the war, which included the Nuremberg Trials, where some of the most heinous men were put on trial for their Nazi atrocities, which included concentration camps, experiments on humans, and gross neglect of the German people (and the prisoners captured from other countries). Jacobsen illustrates this throughout, giving the reader pause as to how well the legal matters were handled and who was chosen to stand trial, likely to face a public hanging. Deceptive in their choices, CIA and US officials chose as well as they could, granting visas to many Nazi scientists and placing them inside companies that could profit from their knowledge, at times turning a blind eye or burying any documentation that could implicate anyone involved. There were, however, some issues when certain scientists and medical professionals were discovered to have been part of the atrocities, all of which comes out in Jacobsen’s masterful narrative, particularly the chapter on the fallout of Paperclip, decades after the fact.

The blowback by the American public, when it hit the presses, was mixed, though there was certainly a strong push against Operation: Paperclip. Trying to justify offering protection to some of those who had such a disregard for human life cannot be discounted. The CIA sought to downplay this furor, citing the need to stay ahead of the Soviet threats. American bureaucrats and government officials dodged the backlash as best they could, sure that there would surely be a change of heart once the evils of communism and the Soviet shadow became clear. While there were ethical, moral, and social arguments against the entire operation, Jacobsen tries to give both perspectives in her numerous interviews and by revealing a great deal of declassified memoranda that outlined American sentiments.

As the book comes to its climactic end, Jacobsen leaves the reader to ponder what came of Operation: Paperclip and how many of the high-ranking officials felt years after actions had been taken. Some stood firm that this was the right thing to have done, while others had many concerns about opening Pandora’s Box. This provides the reader with their own chance to decide how they personally feel about the actions undertaken in this covert mission. Should America have fanned the capitalist flames by using fodder from a fascist and heinous regime that saw certain groups of people as lower than scum? Without the science, would America be as well off today as it was in those post-war years? There’s much to consider and Annie Jacobsen only adds to the discussion by presenting this sensational tome. One can hope that many will read it and join the conversation!

As I sit here, trying to cobble together a review that might get people interested, I cannot help but think back to what I just read. Annie Jacobsen’s work not only sheds some needed light onto a program that implicates the Americans as duplicitous and trying to capitalise on the backs of those they fought to save, but it also illustrates the lengths to which scientific discovery trumps ethical behaviour. In reading this tome, I am not jaded about the American military or those who chose to push Operation: Paperclip forward, but I am shocked to see that it was taking place right under the noses of those who supported the freedom for all. Jacobsen uses the pages of this book to prove a point, but does so with a massive amount of information, not simply her own gut feelings. The depth of research that went into creating this book is apparent to the attentive reader and one can only guess what did not make the final editorial cut. With thoroughly documented chapters that tell the minute details of this time in American history, readers will take much away from the story, yet most will likely want more. While there is no doubt that the Nazis committed many atrocities, their scientific explorations served America well, while also showing a complete disregard for human life. I cannot say enough about Annie Jacobsen or this book, though I should probably stop and let those curious enough to pick up this book try it for themselves. It’s not one easily or soon forgotten!

Kudos, Madam Jacobsen, for a stellar piece of work. I will be looking to some of your other work soon, trust me there.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons