In the ‘New York Times Book Review’, David Holloway reviews a book about Werner von Braun*, the now-deceased brilliant German scientist who spent his late 20s and early 30s building rockets for the Nazi government of his native Germany, and then after 1946 entered a new life as America’s premier rocket scientist, the key genius behind the 1969 Apollo landing on the moon.
Holloway is not impressed with the depth of Biddle’s book, and I am not reviewing the book here. Rather, Holloway discusses major points raised – if not well handled – by the author in his book. And those points get me to thinking.
Born in 1912, WvB was fated to enter into the first flower of his talents as the Nazi regime took power. By 1937 the brilliant and also ambitious young scientist was working on the rocketry program for the Third Reich; a special site was set up at Peenemunde on the Baltic where the rocket-men were tasked with developing their vision into a workable military weapon – by 1944 their V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile, was operational and launched against an England that had rather imagined by that point that it had seen the last of German aerial bombardment as the Reich tottered in the roaring Allied whirlwind that its wars of choice had created.
Biddle is outraged that WvB managed to make a clean get-away from the consequences of his participation in the Nazi project. The Western Allies, already acutely aware in 1945 that the Soviets were poised to take over as the Number One Enemy of the West, eagerly granted indulgence to WvB and others, bringing them to the United States where they were given every resource to continue and advance their rocket projects.
Nations up against what they perceive to be great and dangerous challenges have been known to make certain trade-offs between morality and national security. The United States was a great nation and it perceived the Soviet threat as potentially mortal.
Biddle points to the fact that WvB eagerly participated in the whole Nazi rocket project. Not only did he work for the Nazis, but he had joined the Nazi Party and had accepted rank in the SS. I can’t imagine how else WvB’s ambitions could have been realized: he saw how the surf was rising and made sure he had his board well-positioned. From a career and ‘business’ point of view, he made the right tactical choices; surely We have seen many businesspersons who decide to go along to get along. Persons of conscience – standing at angle to the kingdom of this world – rarely go far; Leo Durocher was not quite accurate when he opined about his baseball business that “nice guys finish last” … in business (and in the military, and organized religion and any large organization) persons who are not reliably ‘team players’ don’t go far.
The SS membership was honorary for all practical purposes; WvB commanded no troops, gave no orders, conducted no operations in the field. In the uniform-happy German culture of that era, his SS uniform was a perk that would also ensure his standing when it came time to stand up for his program.
There was slave labor at Peenemunde, and many of those forced laborers died in the ruthless Nazi discipline required to achieve so much so quickly, and in a situation that after 1942 began to deteriorate with ever-increasing rapidity. It was impossible that WvB did not realize that, any more than scientists at Los Alamos were unaware that their marvelous adventure and herculean exertions were going to result in a bomb the likes of which the world had never seen. Some of them, as the Thing neared completion, had qualms – but Major-General Groves, military overseer of the Manhattan Project, would be in no mood to sit still as they rehearsed their concerns; there was, after all, a war on and Victory was a stern taskmistress.
WvB could have refused early on to pursue any of his talents; perhaps he might have survived. It was equally possible that the Nazis would have made life difficult for him, and lethally painful for his family. That’s what desperate governments do when individuals attempt to stand against their plans as a matter of conscience.
As the regime’s support for the Peenemunde program characteristically waxed and waned with the Fuhrer’s ever-changing priorities and excitements, WvB went to bat for the program, gaining increasingly scarce funding and resources for what Hitler began to envision as his ultimate Vengeance Weapon.
Biddle further takes great umbrage at WvB’s shrewd – almost cocky – reinvention of himself here in the New World. No tears – not even Speer’s marvelously calibrated crocodile tears – for his Nazi period. In America he was building a new life and a new persona, the government saw no reason to complicate its problems by noticing his past, and the Communist threat covered a multitude of sins.
Craftily, although he was neither the first nor the last to do so, WvB did not simply flaunt a cocky personal arrogance. He justified his past by claiming that the scientists were ‘apolitical’, simply trying to further the cause of ‘science’ and of ‘knowledge’. Which is what scientists do, although in the modern world’s institutionalized and government-supported scientific establishments, your career as well as your funding depend on finding only such ‘truths’ as are useful to the government and don’t interfere with its political plans.**
It’s not just a question of your own ‘politics’ as a scientist; there’s the deeper problem of just what use your work will be put to by the government. Or, to really drive the point home, by the corporations that pay your salary and grant your funding, say in the Big Pharma field or those psychologists over the past century who have put their skills in the service of ‘advertising’, the better to manipulate folks into purchasing this or that. The current crop of military psychologists who put their skills into the service of ‘extracting information through sharp methods’ are only the freshest tip of the iceberg. In war as in business, everybody who can help the cause … had better do so.
So what happens when all you want to do is make a career for yourself and get paid for doing what you love to do and support your family as well? Are you supposed to say No because quite possibly – perhaps even probably – folks with other plans will take the fruits of your well-paid labor and do distasteful or even immoral and outrageous things? One is reminded of St. Peter’s splendidly acute question to Christ: Lord, if all these things are required, who then can stand? In other words: Lord, it’s almost impossible to find many folks who haven’t crossed your line in the theological sand at some point – including us, the disciples!
Holloway points out what the book is unable to come to grips with: is it possible that WvB and his cohorts transmitted to the American scientific establishment a sort of moral infection that had piggy-backed over here the Nazi work that those German scientists brought in their baggage?
That, I think, would imply that the American government was rather pristine and morally un-conflicted before the ex-Nazis ever got here and the American professoriate and research community were moral paragons, at least to the extent that they were willing to put their careers on the line for matters of conscience and morality.
If the government and science establishments of the present day are used as a baseline, then if they were paragons in 1946, WvB and his colleagues brought to these shores the most monstrous ‘infection’ that this country has ever experienced.
*”Dark Side of the Moon”, by Wayne Biddle. W.W.Norton
**You may recall a decade or so ago, those hapless American researchers who, having studied all of the previously published research on the matter, noted matter-of-factly that none of the research and studies that they evaluated actually established beyond reasonable doubt that there were long-lasting negative effects to all sexual encounters between children and adults. Even their own report – technically a meta-study, a study of the studies – spent a quiet few months making the rounds in the professional journals, until ‘advocates’ suddenly got wind of it, made the necessary phone calls and sent the necessary faxes to the media and the Beltway, and Congress erupted in a furious Resolution to the effect that such ‘findings’ were not politically allowable, and no scientist or researcher who wanted to keep funding and a job should ever suggest any such thing ever again.
One recalls Stalin’s official endorsement of the thoroughly discredited and inaccurate genetic theories of Trofim Lysenko; Stalin went so far as to make any scientific dissent to Lysenko’s thoroughly misguided assertions illegal in 1948, and for some years thereafter scientists who dared to dissent from the politically-governed ‘science’ were fired and even imprisoned. As the 1930s American book title warned: It Can Happen Here. And apparently has.