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Wernher von Braun's "Rocket Team" and America's Military-Industrial Complex

The story of Wernher von Braun and his rocket team’s harrowing escape from the collapsing Third Reich into the warm embrace of a former enemy is one of the more exciting and significant moments from the final days of World War II. As the Red Army approached the Peenemünde complex on the Baltic coast, the SS, who assumed control of the V-2 program in late 1944, evacuated personnel and material into the interior of the country.

Fearing the SS would rather liquidate him and his elite team of scientists and technicians than allow them to fall into enemy hands, von Braun and his inner circle disappeared into the Bavarian countryside and patiently awaited contact with American troops. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

More than the freighters full of equipment and caches of documents recovered from caves and hastily abandoned warehouses, the “German brains” who designed and built the V-2 rocket along with dozens of other weapons in various stages of development proved invaluable to America’s emerging military-industrial complex (MIC). The program known as Project Paperclip concluded in September 1947, but its successor programs continued for decades.

Between 1945 and 1962, approximately fifteen hundred German and Austrian scientists and technicians, along with their families, came to the U.S. for long-term “exploitation” and eventually employment in the military services, civilian agencies, and related defense industries. Ninety percent of the so-called “Paperclippers” remained in the U.S. permanently.

Most books written about “our Germans” in the space program and MIC celebrate the Paperclippers, von Braun especially, without noting their uncritical service to the Hitlerian state, and, in many cases, the scientists’ complicity in some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich. While this “Huntsville School” of historiography has been challenged in recent years by investigative journalists and historians like myself who accessed thousands of declassified documents concerning the Paperclippers’ troubling backgrounds, the more intriguing legacy of Project Paperclip is the degree to which the assimilated Germans made the American MIC resemble the Third Reich’s.

This essay first examines early intelligence assessments of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team, specifically those challenging the notion the captured Germans were the “best and the brightest.” Moreover, some early assessments were critical of German science’s relevancy for U.S. research and development. One could argue that detractors of Paperclip were on the wrong side of history by allowing ethical and moral considerations to override the obvious benefits of exploitation.

However, nothing was obvious in the summer of 1945 and the most prescient reporting from this period on the Peenemünde rocket team identified with remarkable accuracy members’ arrogance, duplicity, and ideological toxicity. German expertise came at a price, these initial reports remind us, one often ignored by the historiography. The second part of the essay explores how von Braun’s rocket team influenced the American national security state by replicating Peenemünde stateside and championing a dual-use space program using Cold War rhetoric.

I. Vetting “Unrepentant Nazis”

Walter Jessel, a German Jew serving in the U.S. Army with the surprisingly junior rank of second lieutenant wrote an incredibly discerning military intelligence report based on his interrogation and observations of the rocket team. Jessel was an exceptionally capable and experienced second lieutenant with special knowledge of his interrogation subjects. Born in Frankfurt in 1913 to an assimilated German-Jewish family, Jessel witnessed the rise of National Socialism and reluctantly emigrated from Germany to Palestine in 1933 where he found work as a journalist.

Jessel left for Palestine and emigrated to the U.S. in 1938. Jessel eventually enlisted and served as an intelligence officer in Patton’s Third Army in the final stage of World War II.1 On June 8, 1945, Jessel was assigned to a small Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) detachment with the orders to “screen” members of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team detained outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen in upper Bavaria. Jessel had explicit instructions from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) to sort out, in Jessel’s words, “Nazi hangers-on and enforcers from technical staff in order to bring the latter to the US.”2

Jessel and his colleagues faced a difficult task distinguishing between esteemed scientists responsible for revolutionary military technology and those who were either expendable or so tainted by the regime’s criminality as to preclude contractual employment of any kind. As forthright as Jessel’s military screening report reads, his diary entries from that week in June are even more frank: “The team consists of rocket enthusiasts, engineering college graduates, professors, all unrepentant Nazis aware of their bargaining power with the Americans.” Jessel notes how Wehrmacht personnel attached to the team understood “that their chances of going to the U.S. are smaller than those of technicians. To improve these chances, they sing.”3

Jessel acquired an understanding of the culture of wartime science inside Nazi Germany, particularly the overriding ambition and amoral technocratic outlook of the rocket team living in the isolated enclave of Pennemünde. After several days of interviews and research, Jessel arrived at this damning assessment of his subjects:

They were enthusiastic technicians with the mission according to Goebbels of saving Germany. As a team, they were granted all the financial support, materials and personnel they required, within the means of the German war machine. Continuance of the work depended on continued conduct of the war. At a time when the generals were dissatisfied with the party rule to the extent of attempting to overthrow it, Peenemünde was out of touch and sympathy with such developments – not for love of the party necessarily but because their work and the war were one.4

Jessel identified the primary motivation of the rocket team, especially for von Braun - “the continuance of the work.” Those who were not open supporters of the regime’s noxious philosophy were, at the very least, completely indifferent to the devastation the rocket team wrought on Britain and the Netherlands. Moreover, tens of thousands of slave laborers died building the V-2, although Jessel was likely unaware of the scale of such crimes in the underground tunnels at Nordhausen during the interrogations. The V-2 has the distinction of being the only weapon to have killed more people during its construction than its use.

Jessel reserved his harshest assessment for General Walter Dornberger, the Wehrmacht general responsible for the V-2 project. Jessel believed he was incredibly arrogant and condescending.

Dornberger apparently lectured Jessel about the history of human progress, specifically how war fuels civilization and rocketry signaled the next great leap forward on par with the invention of the wheel. “His group’s ambition was to develop a weapon with which to dominate the world,” Jessel writes. “They are mercenaries who want to sell their weapon. Their country is defeated; hence their only chance is to go on doing the same business for someone else.”[^5]

Dornberger courted the British as well, although they were more interested in imprisoning him for the V-2 than rewarding him with freedom and a lucrative contract. Dornberger told British interrogators the V-2 could be a weapon, transport mail and passengers, or carry “atom bombs umpteen thousands of miles.” “I do not know which direction development will proceed,” stated Dornberger. “Upon that depends the selection of the people to be employed and the type of installation required.”5

Von Braun never shied away from military uses for his technology, but Dornberger recognized better than Jessel how large the specter of the Soviet Union loomed over U.S. military thinking. Jessel was not unimpressed with Dornberger: “When you get off his obnoxious philosophy, [he] is better at explaining engineering developments to a layman than anyone I ever saw. He’ll charm his new U.S. bosses.”6

Jessel’s skepticism was communicated up the chain of command, but it failed to sway decision makers anxious to retain the rocket team’s services.

Jessel divided the rocket team into three groups: the “early developers of rocket ideas”, the technicians “from engineering schools and industry” and army personnel who were transferred to Peenemünde in 1941. “The second group is the largest, and ideologically the least sympathetic,” Jessel suggests. They were party members and attended “Nazified” technical schools which churned out inferior engineers dependent on the regime. Jessel acknowledges that “the number of Nazi fanatics is not very large” among the detainees, especially since they lost the war and were therefore denied credit for developing revolutionary technology. Nor is there any sense of sharing “Germany’s guilt and responsibility.”

Jessel appears most troubled by the team’s mercenary mentality and stoking fears of the Soviet Union: “Almost to a man these people are convinced that war between the U.S. and Russia is around the corner. They shake their heads in amazement and some contempt at our political ignorance and are impatient at our slowness in recognizing the true savior of Western Civilization from Asia’s hordes. Which does not prevent them from playing with the idea of selling out to Asia’s hordes if such recognition is not soon extended.” 7 The Soviet peril secured the scientists a meaningful future and cleansed a murky past.

V-2 scientist Herbert Wagner told his interrogators, “We had realized, long before anyone else, what a menace the Soviet Union was to Western civilization and culture. And that is why we helped Hitler.” 8

The CIC interrogators believed the rocket team depended on Dornberger and von Braun for their livelihood and few scientists expressed confidence in “their own ability, technical or personal, to make their own way in Germany or elsewhere.”9 This fact, Jessel notes, provided von Braun and Dornberger total power over the group, and, by extension, the U.S. military.

The chief scientific adviser to Field Intelligence Agency – Technical (FIAT), Henry Robertson, resented someone like Dornberger who “is not a first-rate technician.” “I am convinced that Dornberger is a most dangerous man,” Robertson opined, “and that he should in any case be shorn of all influence over and even prevented to have contact with his former Peenemünde subordinates.”10 Another official quipped it might be better to “trade him [Dornberger] to the Russians for a dish of caviar.”11 Not for the first time, scientific advisers were overruled by military officers interested in achieving the next breakthrough and garnering the lion’s share of military procurement.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences described German science as “an island of nonconformity in the Nazified body politic” which withdrew into the “traditional ivory tower [that] offered the only possibility of security” in an oppressive regime.12 Scientists who retreated into an ivory tower did not interest American military authorities and most Paperclippers furthered their own dreams by realizing the Third Reich’s.

The view of German scientists as amoral technocrats hardly disqualified them from Paperclip. On the contrary, the more single-minded and reliant on patronage the scientists appeared to be the better they integrated into the emerging postwar national security state. Individuals like Walter Jessel, a true voice in the wilderness, served as America’s conscience at a time when reason and ethical considerations mattered less than the potent mixture of fear and avarice.

II. Milking the Golden Cow

One thing both proponents and critics of Project Paperclip could agree upon was Wernher von Braun’s essentially transactional worldview. Whether he wore an SS uniform or bore NASA credentials, von Braun’s agenda was transparent when it came to developing rockets: “We felt no moral scruples about the possible future use of our brainchild. We were interested solely in exploring space. It was simply a question with us of how the golden cow could be milked most successfully.”13

The emerging U.S. national security state showered the rocket team with the unlimited resources the Third Reich could never sustain during total war. Fortunately for von Braun, the U.S. military was willing to overlook Nazi connections for results. Air Force Major General Hugh Knerr was actively preparing for the next war and seemed perfectly willing to promote the captured Germans over the American scientists who had just delivered victory. A week before Walter Jessel interviewed the rocket team, Knerr circulated this memo up the chain of command:

Occupation of German scientific and industrial establishments has revealed the fact that we have been alarmingly backward in many fields of research. If we do not take this opportunity to seize the apparatus and the brains that developed it and put the combination back to work promptly, we will remain several years behind while we attempt to cover a field already exploited. Pride and face-saving have no place in national insurance.14

The decade between the end of Paperclip’s acquisition phase in September 1947 and the launching of Sputnik in October 1957 seemingly vindicated the German scientists program. The contentious immigration issue and parade of embarrassing revelations related to Paperclip dissipated in the wake of increased Soviet aggressiveness in Europe, the testing of a Soviet bomb, and, most significantly, the surprise invasion of South Korea in June 1950.

As the national security state mushroomed, exemplified by the return of limitless defense spending, the cadre of German scientists working across the spectrum of scientific endeavor assumed enormously influential positions in both the private and public sectors. Now citizens of their adoptive country, the Paperclippers skillfully negotiated the confines of the national security state armed with security clearances, civil service contracts, and highly paid positions in the burgeoning defense industries.

Von Braun’s rocket team is certainly emblematic of this trend, but hundreds of other Paperclippers capitalized on their unprecedented access courtesy of forgiving and generous clients. No longer “Prisoners of Peace” living in a state of glorified military custody, the Paperclippers spent the first decade of the Cold War overseeing advanced research and development projects and cultivating the role of the scientist as advocate, a position many found familiar after performing similar functions in the Third Reich.

From their first interrogations with Walter Jessel in 1945 to interviews conducted at the end of their lives, the Paperclippers exuded confidence, some might say arrogance, in both their technical prowess and ability to translate blueprints into a finished product. Walter Dornberger wrote a prescient memo in 1948 resembling the tone and some of the conclusions reached in NSC-68 a few years later. The former Wehrmacht general and V-2 project manager urged the U.S. to invest heavily in military research and development: “Such a program must be set up even if its organization appears to violate American economic ideals and American traditions in arms development.”15

At Redstone Arsenal, the team reconstituted Peenemünde, minus the concentration camp labor, and limited contracting to subsystems and mass production. Eberhard Rees, who ended his career as director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, touted the Peenemünde model of “big shops” and bragged that “sometimes people from Washington didn’t like that too much, but they couldn’t do a thing about it.”16 Dieter Hunzel worked at Siemens before joining Peenemünde during the war and witnessed the origins of the “rubbing together of these two cultures.”17

Gerhard Reisig stated in 1989 that “when we came over to this country, we more or less continued Peenemünde.” Reisig respected the Army because “they didn’t say they know everything better, because they didn’t know much about rocketry, and they were very willing to learn.” Contrarily, the civilians at NASA “were arrogant” and had to be put in their place by von Braun.18 Reisig defended Peenemünde’s “under one roof” approach and condemned the “the philosophy of industry,” which he believed benefitted contractors more than the Army.

Reisig shrugged off criticism that the team “over-engineered” and claimed they delivered top products within a budget. “I don’t want to brag about it, but imagine a vehicle like the Saturn V,” he said, “It stands higher than the Statue of Liberty. Now bring such a monster in the air in stable flight! The very first Saturn V went up like a candle. And why? Because of our alleged ‘over-engineering.‘”19

In his interview with Time for the February 17, 1958 issue, von Braun linked the rocket team’s cohesion and self-reliance to the successful launch of Explorer 1, America’s answer to Sputnik: “What corporation would have sent up a satellite two weeks ago?”20 Of course, several Paperclippers ultimately joined corporations, including Dornberger. The “rubbing together” Hunzel lauded exemplified the MIC at an early stage.

Wernher von Braun’s reputation as a brilliant scientist and project manager is certainly based in fact, but it also benefits from the “Huntsville School” of historians and space program veterans who depict von Braun as a visionary. Von Braun’s obsession with space exploration required accommodation with both the Wehrmacht and the U.S. Army. Von Braun’s excelled at promoting himself, his team, and a space program capable of both expanding humanity’s horizons and guaranteeing American military supremacy over a technologically advanced foe.

Frederick Ordway and Mitchell Sharpe describe a conversation between von Braun and his associate Adolf Thiel shortly before the move to Redstone Arsenal in which von Braun expressed frustration with his superiors’ short-sightedness: “We can dream about rockets to the Moon until Hell freezes over.

Unless the people understand it and the man who pays the bill is behind it, no dice. You worry about your damned calculations, and I’ll talk to the people.”21 A slightly romanticized version of events, perhaps, but von Braun enthusiastically performed the role of the “public scientist” to secure broad support and funding.

While never named in their landmark studies, sociologists C. Wright Mills and Harold Laswell anticipated men like von Braun ascending to influential positions in the MIC. Lasswell’s “specialists in violence” were no longer soldiers, but civilian technocrats capable of managing sprawling enterprises. Mills observed how “the warlords” belonging to the power elite increasingly relied on “public relations”, noting that “they have spent millions of dollars and they have employed thousands of skilled publicists, in and out of uniform, in order to sell their ideas and themselves to the public and to the Congress.”22 Von Braun pursued every avenue and medium at his disposal, but he never lost sight of the military potential inherent in missiles.

The Paperclippers were brought to the U.S. to build weapons and von Braun sold the military his vision for a weaponized space station as skillfully as he romanticized space travel in magazines and Walt Disney’s Man in Space series. In his 1947 novel, The Mars Project, von Braun militarized space by including a space station called “Lunetta” capable of destroying Soviet military and industrial targets with nuclear missiles.

Von Braun was on familiar ground promoting the “ultimate weapon” to American audiences invested in national security. In a September 1952 speech to the Business Advisory Council for the Department of Commerce, von Braun argued for a new ultimate weapon leading to “a permanent peace.” Rocketry, von Braun maintained, “is capable of solving the world’s peace problems more effectively than any other branch of science and engineering, and simultaneously – that is to say without additional expenditure – doing a great deal of advancement for mankind.”

The blending of military and humanitarian goals typified von Braun’s approach to public relations. Von Braun worried about Soviet advances, especially since Germans under his tutelage at Peenemünde worked on parallel projects in Russia. He concluded the speech to business leaders by warning that the Soviets were close: “If we do not wish them to wrest the control of space from us, its time, and high time we acted!”23 In the same year, von Braun delivered a speech entitled “Space Superiority as a Means for Achieving World Peace” in which he requested a four-billion-dollar budget and a ten-year commitment to enforce, in Michael Neufeld’s words, “a Pax Americana on Earth.”

Von Braun invoked the Soviet threat before Sputnik, which only served to vindicate the rocket team for its foresight and Paperclip for bringing them to the U.S. In his 1952 article entitled “Why I Chose America”, von Braun portrayed the rocket team as loyal and happy Americans who preferred “hominy grits to sauerkraut and whiskey to schnapps.” He also invoked Jesus Christ multiple times. Von Braun and many other Paperclippers became born again Christians after moving to Alabama.

Von Braun condemned the Nazi regime he once served (under duress, he would have readers believe) and drew explicit comparisons to the Soviet Union, the godless communists who now occupied his homeland. A decade later he spoke to the Huntsville Ministerial Association with the passion of a new convert, stating “progress is claimed by the Soviets on a purely materialistic basis, with sole reliance upon man’s strength and ingenuity. Such spiritual poverty is pathetic.”24

Sputnik obviated the need to warn the American people about Soviet ingenuity, but von Braun did so consistently. In a January 1959 speech to the Associated General Contractors of America, von Braun praised the Soviets’ “massive educational program designed to provide a reservoir of scientific and engineering talent.” A month later von Braun told the University of Florida that “if we do not match the ambitious Communist intentions to visit the Moon with an equally determined U.S. space flight program … we may in the not-too-distant future be surrounded by several planets flying the Hammer and Sickle flag.” As an ambitious new citizen who believed the Paperclippers’ story was part of America’s, von Braun instinctively appealed to Americans’ anti-communism, Christian idealism, and fascination with conquering “vast new frontiers.”25

If one could write an epitaph for Project Paperclip and the national security state which created it, one could scarcely do better than the Washington Star’s editorial written on the occasion of von Braun’s death: “A kind of Faustian shadow may be discerned in – or imposed on – the fascinating career for Wernher von Braun: A man so possessed of a vision, of an intellectual hunger, that any accommodation may be justified in its pursuit.”[^27] Indeed, Project Paperclip is just one manifestation of the Faustian shadow that fell over the U.S. for the entirety of the Cold War.


[^5] Stenographic notes of an interrogation of PW GS/2379 Genlt Dornberger, August 20, 1945, RG 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Box 649, NARA.

  1. Walter Jessel, A Travelogue Through A Twentieth Century Life: The Memoirs of Walter Jessel (1996). [return]
  2. Jessel, 140. [return]
  3. Appendix A – HQ Third U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Interrogation Center: Special Screening Report, June 12, 1945, RG 260, FIAT, Box 8, NARA. [return]
  4. Jessel, 141. [return]
  5. Jessel, 141. [return]
  6. Appendix A – HQ Third U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Interrogation Center: Special Screening Report, June 12, 1945, RG 260, FIAT, Box 8, NARA. [return]
  7. Quoted in Michale Bar-Zohar, The Hunt for German Scientists, tr. Len Ortzen (London: Arthur Baker Limited, 1967), 176. [return]
  8. Appendix A – HQ Third U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Interrogation Center: Special Screening Report, June 12, 1945, RG 260, FIAT, Box 8, NARA. [return]
  9. Quoted in Tom Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for Nazi Scientists (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1987), 129. [return]
  10. Linda Hunt, Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1945 to 1990 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 29. [return]
  11. Quoted in Christopher Simpson, Blowblack: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis, and Its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 34. [return]
  12. Quoted in Michael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 4. [return]
  13. Memo to Commanding General, USSAF in Europe from HQ USSAF in Europe, Deputy Commanding General, June 1 1945, United States Air Force, Air Force Historical Research Agency, History of the Army Air Forces Participation in Project Paperclip, Microfilm A2055, p. 920. [return]
  14. Quoted in Annie Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (New York: Little Brown and Company 2014), 262. [return]
  15. Eberhard Rees, interviewed by Michael Neufeld, transcript, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives, Washington, D.C., Peenemünde Interviews Project, 1989-1990, November 8, 1989. Hereinafter cited NASM. [return]
  16. Dieter J. Hunzel, Peenemünde to Canaveral (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962), 124. [return]
  17. Gerhard Reisig, interviewed by Michael Neufeld, NASM, June 5-7, 1989. [return]
  18. Gerhard Reisig, interviewed by NASM, June 27, 1985. [return]
  19. “Reach for the Stars”, Time, February 17, 1958. [return]
  20. Quoted in Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell R. Sharpe, The Rocket Team (Ontario, CA: Apogee Books, 2003), 247. [return]
  21. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 220. [return]
  22. Speech before the Business Advisory Council for the Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C., September 17, 1952 in Irene E. Powell, ed., The Voice of Dr. Wernher von Braun: An Anthology (Ontario, CA: Apogee Books, 2007), 33. [return]
  23. Wernher von Braun, “Why I Chose America,” American Magazine, July 1952, pp. 15; 111-112; 114-115. [return]
  24. Quoted in Roger D. Launius, “The historical dimension of space exploration: reflections and possibilities,” Space Policy, 16 (2000), 25. [return]
  25. Quoted in Neufeld, Von Braun, 473. [return]