Wernher von Braun’s “Rocket Team” and
America’s Military-Industrial Complex
Part II of Brian Crim's essay, “Milking the Golden Cow,” appears below.
To read the complete essay including footnotes, click here.
Dr. Brian E. Crim, Associate Professor of History, is the John M. Turner Chair in the Humanities at Lynchburg College. A former intelligence analyst with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, he has taught at Lynchburg since 2008. His areas of research include modern European history, the Holocaust, military history, and the role film and media play in interpreting historical memory.
Books by Brian Crim
Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914–1938

Publisher: Lexington Books; (April, 2014)

Belying anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews shirking military service, German Jewish soldiers died on the battlefields of WW I alongside their gentile comrades, and almost half of the German Jewish soldiers were decorated for bravery. Crim explores how German World War I veterans from different social and political backgrounds contributed to anti-Semitic politics during the Weimar Republic.

"This is an indispensable study on the varieties of antisemitism among World War I veterans in Weimar Germany and the early years of the Third Reich; a valuable addition to the literature that should be read by all students of modern Germany, Jewish history, and antisemitism."
—Omer Bartov, Brown University

For information on ordering from Amazon, please click here.
Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State (Forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press)
Book Reviews by Brian Crim
Total War as Total Health: Race, Space and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (Review Essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust)
“We Ourselves Are the War:” Understanding the Relationship between the First World War and the Holocaust (Review Essay of Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War)
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.”

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.

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.”

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.” Dieter Hunzel worked at Siemens before joining Peenemünde during the war and witnessed the origins of the “rubbing together of these two cultures.”

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. 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.’”

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?” 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.” 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.” 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!” 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.”

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.”


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.” Indeed, Project Paperclip is just one manifestation of the Faustian shadow that fell over the U.S. for the entirety of the Cold War.