A Controversial, Secret Project and a Grim History

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As a follow on to my two recent articles – one on Hubertus Strughold and the other on Wernher von Braun – I thought I would share with you the bigger picture of the Paperclip program that began in the post-Second World War era. It was a project filled with controversy and for a very good reason: Paperclip was filled with Nazis. Working in the United States. And under a veil of secrecy. Not good. Not good at all. Now, let’s have a look at the history of this grim operation. It was just about immediately after the Second World War came to an end in July 1945, certain elements of the American military and intelligence community clandestinely sought to bring some of the most brilliant figures within the German medical and scientific communities into the United States to continue research – and at times highly controversial research – they had undertaken at the height of the war. It was research that included studies of human anatomy and physiology in relation to aerospace medicine, high-altitude exposure, and what was then termed “space biology.” The startling fact that some of these scientists were ardent Nazis, and even members of the notorious and feared SS, proved not a problem at all to the government of the time. Thus was born the notorious Operation Paperclip, so named because the recruit’s papers were paper-clipped to regular American immigration forms.

In January 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed an Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) that was tasked with investigating unethical medical experimentation undertaken on human beings from the mid-1940s onwards. The ACHRE was quick to realize that Paperclip personnel played a considerable role in post-war human experimentation on American soil. According to an April 5, 1995 memorandum, from the Advisory Committee Staff (ACS) to the Members of the ACHRE: “The Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine (SAM) at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas conducted dozens of human radiation experiments during the Cold War, among them flash-blindness studies in connection with atomic weapons tests, and data gathering for total-body irradiation studies conducted in Houston.

Because of the extensive postwar recruiting of German scientists for the SAM and other US defense installations, and in light of the central importance of the Nuremberg prosecutions to the Advisory Committee’s work, members of the staff have collected documentary evidence about project Paperclip from the National Archives and Department of Defense records. The experiments for which Nazi investigators were tried included many related to aviation research. These were mainly high-altitude exposure studies, oxygen deprivation experiments, and cold studies related to air-sea rescue operations. This information about aircrew hazards was important to both sides, and, of course, continued to be important to military organizations in the Cold War.”

The ACHRE memorandum then detailed the background and scope of the project: “Project Paperclip was a postwar and Cold War operation carried out by the Joint Objectives Agency (JOIA) [Author’s Note: the JOIA was a special intelligence office that reported to the Director of Intelligence in the War Department, comparable to the intelligence chief of today’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.] Paperclip had two aims: to exploit German scientists for American research, and to deny these intellectual resources to the Soviet Union. At least 1,600 scientists and their dependents were recruited and brought to the United States by Paperclip and its successor projects through the early 1970s.” ACHRE continued: “In recent years, it has been alleged that many of these individuals were brought to the United States in violation of American government policy not to permit the entrance of ‘ardent Nazis’ into the country, that many were security risks, and that at least some were implicated in Holocaust-related activities.”

“At the time of its inception,” said ACHRE, “Paperclip was a matter of controversy in the War Department, as demonstrated by a November 27, 1946 memorandum from General Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, relating to the bringing to the United States of the eminent physicist Otto Hahn. Groves wrote that the Manhattan Project: ‘…does not desire to utilize the services of foreign scientists in the United States, either directly with the Project or with any affiliated organization. This has consistently been my views [sic]. I should like to make it clear, however, that I see no objection to bringing to the United States such carefully screened physicists as would contribute materially to the welfare of the United States and would remain permanently in the United States as naturalized citizens. I strongly recommend against foreign physicists coming in contact with our atomic energy program in any way. If they are allowed to see or discuss the work of the Project the security of our information would get out of control..”

The Advisory Committee Staff also revealed: “A number of military research sites recruited Paperclip scientists with backgrounds in aero-medicine, radiobiology and ophthalmology. These institutions included the SAM, where radiation experiments were conducted, and other military sites, particularly the Edgewood Arsenal of the Army’s Chemical Corps. The portfolio of experiments at the SAM was one that would particularly benefit from the Paperclip recruits. Experiments there included total-body irradiation, space medicine and biology studies, and flash-blindness studies. Herbert Gerstner, a principal investigator in TBI experiments at the SAM, was acting director of the Institute of Physiology at the University of Leipzig: he became a radiobiologist at the SAM. The Air Force Surgeon General and SAM officials welcomed the Paperclip scientists. In March 1951, the school’s Commandant, O.O. Benson Jr., wrote to the Surgeon General to seek more ‘…first class scientists and highly qualified technologists from Germany.

More than 100 German scientists posing at Fort Bliss, Texas, 1946

“The first group of Paperclip personnel contained a number of scientists that have proved to be of real value to the Air Force. The weaker and less gifted ones have been culled to a considerable extent. The second group reporting here in 1949 were, in general, less competent than the original Paperclip personnel, and culling process will again be in order.’ General Benson’s adjutant solicited resumes from a Paperclip list, including a number of radiation biology and physics specialists. The qualifications of a few scientists were said to be known, so curricula vitae were waived. The adjutant wrote, also in March 1951: ‘In order to systematically benefit from this program this headquarters believes that the employment of competent personnel who fit into our research program is a most important consideration.'”

ACHRE then addressed the issues of (a) the way in which a race began between the United States and the Soviet Union to acquire the services of the German scientific and medical communities, post-1945; and (b) the extent to which some of the Paperclip scientists had been supporters of the Nazi regime:  “Official U.S. government policy was to avoid recruitment of “ardent Nazis,” it was stated. However, this was qualified by the following:  “Many of the Paperclip scientists were members of Nazi organizations of one sort of another. The documentary record indicates, however, that many claimed inactive status or membership that was a formality, according to files in the National Archives.”

Research undertaken by the ACS uncovered the fact that much pressure was exerted in an attempt to ensure that Paperclip succeeded. For example, an April 27, 1948 memorandum from the director of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, Navy Captain Bosquet N. Wev, to the Pentagon’s Director of Intelligence states: “Security investigations conducted by the military have disclosed the fact that the majority of German scientists were members of either the Nazi Party or one or more of its affiliates. These investigations disclose further that with a very few exceptions, such membership was due to exigencies which influenced the lives of every citizen of Germany at that time.” Wev was critical of what were described as over-scrupulous investigations by the Department of Justice and other agencies as reflecting security concerns no longer relevant with the defeat of Germany, and “biased considerations” about the nature of his recruits’ fascist allegiances. The possibility of scientists being won to the Soviet side in the Cold War was, according to Captain Wev, the highest consideration.

In a March 1948 letter to the State Department, Wev assessed the prevailing view in the government: “Responsible officials…have expressed opinions to the effect that, in so far as German scientists are concerned, Nazism no longer should be a serious consideration from a viewpoint of national security when the far greater threat of Communism is now jeopardizing the entire world. I strongly concur in this opinion and consider it a most sound and practical view, which must certainly be taken if we are to face the situation confronting us with even an iota of realism. To continue to treat Nazi affiliations as significant considerations has been phrased as ‘beating a dead Nazi horse.'” Wev was wrong, however: the Nazis should always have been seen as a “serious consideration” After all, they answered to none other than that deranged piece of evil crap called Adolf Hitler. Some might say that with the Russians clearly going to be the next potential enemy, the German scientists needed to be kept out of the hands of the Soviet Union – at all costs. I get that. But, why not simply toss all of those scientists in prison when their work for the U.S. was over? That would have been a much more preferable and satisfying situation.

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