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Wernher Von Braun and Project Paperclip


Douglas Caddy
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He Aimed at the Stars but Hit London

By ALEX ROLAND

The New York Times Book Review

November 18, 2007

VON BRAUN

Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.

By Michael J. Neufeld.

Illustrated. 587 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

Wernher von Braun was a giant of the 20th century. But what, in the modern imagination, did he represent? Visionary science? Cynical manipulation? The marriage of science and technology? The convergence of war and peace? Was von Braun the Columbus of space? The brains of the military-industrial complex? The face of modernity? Was he a war criminal, as many of his contemporaries believed? Or was he, as Michael J. Neufeld argues in “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War,” a modern Faust, in league with the devil?

Neufeld’s thoroughly satisfying biography confirms the broad outlines of its subject’s life as they have been known for many years. Born to aristocratic parents in 1912, von Braun told his mother when he was about 10 that he wanted his life to “turn the wheel of progress.” A precocious child, he discovered rocketry and spaceflight in his teens and committed himself to putting men (including himself) on the Moon.

Even before Hitler came to power, an officer in the German Army selected von Braun from among the membership of the Society for Space Travel, an amateur rocket group, to pursue the possible military applications of this new technology. The army sponsored von Braun’s doctoral studies in physics and engineering and promptly classified and confiscated his dissertation, completed in 1934, when he was just 22.

Over the ensuing decade von Braun worked on multiple rocket programs for Hitler’s Germany, including the ballistic missile designated by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry as Vengeance Weapon 2, or V-2. In the last days of the war, von Braun and his closest aides buried their records in a mine shaft and fled west, away from the approaching Soviet Army, to surrender to the Americans. Brought to the United States as part of Project Paperclip, von Braun and his colleagues shared with the Americans what they knew about ballistic missiles. Most found places for themselves in the emerging United States Army missile program, eventually becoming citizens and pillars of the cold war arms race.

Through all this military activity, von Braun never lost his passion for spaceflight. He desperately wanted the Jupiter intercontinental ballistic missile that he developed at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., to be the first rocket to place a man-made satellite into orbit, but the Eisenhower administration refused to launch an instrument that would raise the thorny question of overflight of Soviet territory.

When the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4, 1957, the space race was on. Von Braun and his rocket team were soon transferred to the new civilian space agency, NASA, to build the rocket that would carry humans to the Moon. The resulting Saturn launch vehicle, still the most powerful ever to leave Earth, powered the Apollo program to the fulfillment of von Braun’s dream.

It did not, however, take the route he had recommended. Instead of building a large space station in Earth orbit as a way-station to the Moon, NASA flew directly from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. When the Apollo program ended prematurely in the early 1970s, von Braun and his fellow travelers had been unable to build the infrastructure in space that they had envisioned. Disillusioned, von Braun left NASA to take a high-paying position in the aerospace industry, only to have his life cut short by cancer in 1977, at age 65.

Von Braun has been the subject of at least nine previous English-language biographies. But Neufeld’s version, exhaustively researched in German and American archives and written in clear, fast-paced prose, offers the most complete, fully documented and critical account that the imperfect documentary record is likely to yield. Neufeld acclaims him “the most influential rocket engineer and spaceflight advocate of the 20th century.” This book amply supports that judgment.

Though most previous biographies have been hagiographic celebrations, some have noted his association with — if not his commission of — war crimes in Hitler’s Germany. Neufeld also sees him as a modern-day Faust, whose power came from a bargain with the devil. The devil in Neufeld’s analogy is Nazi Germany in general and Hitler in particular, from whom von Braun personally received the cherished title of “Professor.” Neufeld scours the historical record for evidence of von Braun’s crimes, rehearsing his membership in the SS, his development of deadly weapons and, most important, his participation in the notorious slave labor program that built his V-2s at a horrible human cost.

Neufeld finds no smoking gun, no evidence that von Braun actively planned or even oversaw the crimes perpetrated on his workers, but he does believe that von Braun’s participation in the planning and operation of the Mittelwerk, the underground rocket factory manned by slave laborers from the adjacent Dora concentration camp, would make him guilty of crimes against humanity. And he demonstrates that von Braun covered up his past by dissembling and flat-out lying when confronted with the record. If not guilty of crimes against humanity, von Braun was certainly morally obtuse. Only in the summer of 1944, when the war was clearly lost, he later recalled, did there dawn on him “the realization that I might be aiding an evil regime.”

Neufeld is less attentive to the moral guilt of American leaders and institutions. Many of them aided and abetted the suppression and misrepresentation of von Braun’s history, as well as the histories of many others in Project Paperclip. In the heat of the cold war, they, too, subordinated their moral principles to what they saw as higher purposes. As the physicist Herbert York later said: “Some people regard von Braun’s unwavering dedication to the grand dream of space flight as heroic and farsighted. Others cannot overlook the grotesque means and unprincipled behavior he used to realize his dreams. I am among the latter, but in this instance I was glad to exploit his willingness to go, without argument, wherever the money was.”

Von Braun may have been, as the satirist Tom Lehrer said, “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience,” but his keepers behaved expediently as well. To paraphrase Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox’s judgment on the Pentagon in “The Imperial Animal” (1971), if you have a von Braun, you will use him, and he will use you.

PERHAPS the rocket baron’s most lasting legacy is his vision for space travel. In the 1950s, at the height of his popularity, von Braun used public appearances, Collier’s magazine and Walt Disney television productions to sell the public an idealized model of mankind’s future in space. His launching vehicles would be used to build a space station in Earth orbit from which humans would fly to the Moon and then to Mars. Von Braun actually cared more for the Moon mission than for Mars, but he appreciated the romantic appeal of the red planet. That paradigm so captured the imagination of NASA, and the American public, that the United States has been pursuing it ever since.

Though the NASA administrator Michael Griffin has now declared the space shuttle and the space station mistakes, NASA has vowed to continue with both while beginning to pursue the “vision for space exploration” announced by George W. Bush in 2004. That vision is a slightly revised version of the von Braun model, omitting the increasingly troubled and expensive space station. For better or for worse, we remain in the thrall of von Braun’s potent imagination.

Alex Roland is a professor of history at Duke University and a former NASA historian.

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The uncredited author of the title of the review is Mort Saul:

"Werner von Braun's autobiography is titled I Aim for the Stars.

"It should be titled, I Aim for the Stars, but Sometimes I Hit London."

Critic Alex Roland and/or his editor is/are technically guilty of plagiarism.

Charles

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He Aimed at the Stars but Hit London

By ALEX ROLAND

The New York Times Book Review

November 18, 2007

VON BRAUN

Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.

By Michael J. Neufeld.

Illustrated. 587 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

Wernher von Braun was a giant of the 20th century. But what, in the modern imagination, did he represent? Visionary science? Cynical manipulation? The marriage of science and technology? The convergence of war and peace? Was von Braun the Columbus of space? The brains of the military-industrial complex? The face of modernity? Was he a war criminal, as many of his contemporaries believed? Or was he, as Michael J. Neufeld argues in “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War,” a modern Faust, in league with the devil?

Neufeld’s thoroughly satisfying biography confirms the broad outlines of its subject’s life as they have been known for many years. Born to aristocratic parents in 1912, von Braun told his mother when he was about 10 that he wanted his life to “turn the wheel of progress.” A precocious child, he discovered rocketry and spaceflight in his teens and committed himself to putting men (including himself) on the Moon.

Even before Hitler came to power, an officer in the German Army selected von Braun from among the membership of the Society for Space Travel, an amateur rocket group, to pursue the possible military applications of this new technology. The army sponsored von Braun’s doctoral studies in physics and engineering and promptly classified and confiscated his dissertation, completed in 1934, when he was just 22.

Over the ensuing decade von Braun worked on multiple rocket programs for Hitler’s Germany, including the ballistic missile designated by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry as Vengeance Weapon 2, or V-2. In the last days of the war, von Braun and his closest aides buried their records in a mine shaft and fled west, away from the approaching Soviet Army, to surrender to the Americans. Brought to the United States as part of Project Paperclip, von Braun and his colleagues shared with the Americans what they knew about ballistic missiles. Most found places for themselves in the emerging United States Army missile program, eventually becoming citizens and pillars of the cold war arms race.

Through all this military activity, von Braun never lost his passion for spaceflight. He desperately wanted the Jupiter intercontinental ballistic missile that he developed at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., to be the first rocket to place a man-made satellite into orbit, but the Eisenhower administration refused to launch an instrument that would raise the thorny question of overflight of Soviet territory.

When the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4, 1957, the space race was on. Von Braun and his rocket team were soon transferred to the new civilian space agency, NASA, to build the rocket that would carry humans to the Moon. The resulting Saturn launch vehicle, still the most powerful ever to leave Earth, powered the Apollo program to the fulfillment of von Braun’s dream.

It did not, however, take the route he had recommended. Instead of building a large space station in Earth orbit as a way-station to the Moon, NASA flew directly from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. When the Apollo program ended prematurely in the early 1970s, von Braun and his fellow travelers had been unable to build the infrastructure in space that they had envisioned. Disillusioned, von Braun left NASA to take a high-paying position in the aerospace industry, only to have his life cut short by cancer in 1977, at age 65.

Von Braun has been the subject of at least nine previous English-language biographies. But Neufeld’s version, exhaustively researched in German and American archives and written in clear, fast-paced prose, offers the most complete, fully documented and critical account that the imperfect documentary record is likely to yield. Neufeld acclaims him “the most influential rocket engineer and spaceflight advocate of the 20th century.” This book amply supports that judgment.

Though most previous biographies have been hagiographic celebrations, some have noted his association with — if not his commission of — war crimes in Hitler’s Germany. Neufeld also sees him as a modern-day Faust, whose power came from a bargain with the devil. The devil in Neufeld’s analogy is Nazi Germany in general and Hitler in particular, from whom von Braun personally received the cherished title of “Professor.” Neufeld scours the historical record for evidence of von Braun’s crimes, rehearsing his membership in the SS, his development of deadly weapons and, most important, his participation in the notorious slave labor program that built his V-2s at a horrible human cost.

Neufeld finds no smoking gun, no evidence that von Braun actively planned or even oversaw the crimes perpetrated on his workers, but he does believe that von Braun’s participation in the planning and operation of the Mittelwerk, the underground rocket factory manned by slave laborers from the adjacent Dora concentration camp, would make him guilty of crimes against humanity. And he demonstrates that von Braun covered up his past by dissembling and flat-out lying when confronted with the record. If not guilty of crimes against humanity, von Braun was certainly morally obtuse. Only in the summer of 1944, when the war was clearly lost, he later recalled, did there dawn on him “the realization that I might be aiding an evil regime.”

Neufeld is less attentive to the moral guilt of American leaders and institutions. Many of them aided and abetted the suppression and misrepresentation of von Braun’s history, as well as the histories of many others in Project Paperclip. In the heat of the cold war, they, too, subordinated their moral principles to what they saw as higher purposes. As the physicist Herbert York later said: “Some people regard von Braun’s unwavering dedication to the grand dream of space flight as heroic and farsighted. Others cannot overlook the grotesque means and unprincipled behavior he used to realize his dreams. I am among the latter, but in this instance I was glad to exploit his willingness to go, without argument, wherever the money was.”

Von Braun may have been, as the satirist Tom Lehrer said, “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience,” but his keepers behaved expediently as well. To paraphrase Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox’s judgment on the Pentagon in “The Imperial Animal” (1971), if you have a von Braun, you will use him, and he will use you.

PERHAPS the rocket baron’s most lasting legacy is his vision for space travel. In the 1950s, at the height of his popularity, von Braun used public appearances, Collier’s magazine and Walt Disney television productions to sell the public an idealized model of mankind’s future in space. His launching vehicles would be used to build a space station in Earth orbit from which humans would fly to the Moon and then to Mars. Von Braun actually cared more for the Moon mission than for Mars, but he appreciated the romantic appeal of the red planet. That paradigm so captured the imagination of NASA, and the American public, that the United States has been pursuing it ever since.

Though the NASA administrator Michael Griffin has now declared the space shuttle and the space station mistakes, NASA has vowed to continue with both while beginning to pursue the “vision for space exploration” announced by George W. Bush in 2004. That vision is a slightly revised version of the von Braun model, omitting the increasingly troubled and expensive space station. For better or for worse, we remain in the thrall of von Braun’s potent imagination.

Alex Roland is a professor of history at Duke University and a former NASA historian.

*****************************************************************

The U.S. gov't sure did a bang-up job of keeping Von Braun's Nazi origins under secure wraps all the while working on their space program, which BTW Eisenhower's original intents seemed mainly aimed for use in reconnaissance purposes and ICBM targets.

NOVA had a great special on this very same topic on PBS [KCET in L.A.] either Wednesday or Thursday this past week.

Thanks for posting this detail of Project Paperclip by Neufeld, Doug.

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JFK was certainly a fan of Von Braun's. Was JFK ignorant of his Nazi history?

But here is yet another thread in the JFK assassination debate that belongs in another section.

While this probably does belong in another section, Von Braun was certainly relevant to the JFK assassination.

One of his assistants, General Dornberger, was brought to USA in the same Paperclip program as Von Braun, and was assigned to the Security section of Bell Helicopter, where Michael Paine worked at the time of the assassination.

In addition, some of LHO's fellow employees at Riley Coffee company reportedly went to work at the rocket manufacturing plant (at Mochoud?).

Then there's the case of Philip A. Robinson, of 80 Passaic Ave., Passaic, N.J., who wrote to Senator John Glenn (in October, 1970):

"If you recall we met in an elevator in the Lackland A.F.B. Hospital on August 2, 1961 while you were in final checkout for your historical flight and I was training as a reservist...USAF...During our conversation I passed information to you about Lee Harvey Oswald in an attempt to prevent the assassination of your friend President John F. Kennedy. Without going into details I might inform you that I also discussed the matter with...others from 1961 through 1963. Basically I would deeply appreciate it if you would confirm our conversation, note the name of the gentlemen with whom we rode, and if possible tell me what happened with any inquiries put to you as to our conversation, if any, for historical purposes."

LHO's brother was also stationed at Lackland AFB at the time of the assassination.

BK

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Bill, any more information on this Robinson fellow?

I assume his story is phoney.

It appears that prior to the assassination he never brought any information he claimed to have about an assassination plot to anyone else other than an astronaut (e.g. the FBI, the Secret Service, the White House).

And after the assassination he never brought any information he had to the attention of the FBI, the Warren Commission, Jim Garrison or any one else in authority.

Where did the information on Robinson's letter come from?

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Bill, any more information on this Robinson fellow?

I assume his story is phoney.

It appears that prior to the assassination he never brought any information he claimed to have about an assassination plot to anyone else other than an astronaut (e.g. the FBI, the Secret Service, the White House).

And after the assassination he never brought any information he had to the attention of the FBI, the Warren Commission, Jim Garrison or any one else in authority.

Where did the information on Robinson's letter come from?

It's from a letter he sent to Sen. Glenn, who passed it on to FBI, and I got it from FBI files on assassination.

BK

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Peter, what documentation do you have to support these statements:

1) Dornberger hired Michael Paine for Bell Helicopter. It is of course a far cry from stating that both Dornberger and Paine worked at Bell to stating that Dornberger was involved in thehiring of Paine.

2) Michael Paine "helped set up" the Oswalds

In your opinion was Michael Paine a conspirator? What about Ruth?

Edited by Tim Gratz
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JFK was certainly a fan of Von Braun's. Was JFK ignorant of his Nazi history?

But here is yet another thread in the JFK assassination debate that belongs in another section.

**********************************************************

"JFK was certainly a fan of Von Braun's. Was JFK ignorant of his Nazi history?"

Only about as ignorant as he was of Inga Binga's.

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Well, in defense of JFK, had he started his administration by firing Von Braun for his Nazi past, he might not have survived as long as he did!

But of course it took Von Braun to fulfill JFK's commitment to send an American to the moon and safely return him by the end of the 1960s.

Interesting sidebar about John Glenn: When I worked at Little Palm Island, the island used in the filming of "PT109" I worked with a fine gentleman who was on the Navy ship that picked up John Glenn from the Atlantic Ocean.

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Von Braun and JFK:

http://www.mach1collectibles.com/president...otograph_1.html

http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/archi..._19may63_02.jpg

http://dayton.hq.nasa.gov/IMAGES/MEDIUM/GPN-2000-000069.jpg

http://dayton.hq.nasa.gov/IMAGES/MEDIUM/GPN-2000-001843.jpg

The last picture I find most interesting. It shows JFK and Dr. Von Braun at Cape Canaveral on Saturday, November 16, 1963, the last Saturday of JFK's life. How fitting that he spent bthat day inspecting the rocket that would send man to the moon in fulfillment of his vision and challenge to Congress. He was accompanied by Sen. Smathers on his visit to Cape Canaveral.

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I think that the statement that Von Braun was "morally obtuse" is quite correct. I think he was happy when the Nazis ambitions were roughly coinciding with his own, tried hard not to notice what was happening around him, and decided best not fight against a regime that would not hesitate to have him executed.

Even with his past revealed, many have enormous respect for him.

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I appreciate Evan's comment. Undoubtedly there was nothing he could do about the Nazi regime which certainly would not have let him quit.

Query whether he had the brains however to organize the demise of Hitler. He was after all a rocket scientist.

Or could he have made arrangements to escape Germany and defect to the good guys?

Had Germany had enough time to develop his rockets we might all be speaking Deutsche now!

Edited by Tim Gratz
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