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The Horrible Secrets of Operation Paperclip: An Interview with Annie Jacobsen About Her Stunning Account

Launch of a V2 in Peenemünde; photo taken four seconds after taking off from test stand, Summer 1943

The journalist Annie Jacobsen recently published Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little Brown, 2014). Scouring the archives and unearthing previously undisclosed records as well as drawing on earlier work, Jacobsen recounts in chilling detail a very peculiar effort on the part of the U.S. military to utlize the very scientists who had been essential to Hitler’s war effort. 

As I read your book I started thinking about the various Nazi genre films such as; The Boys from Brazil, The Odessa File, and Marathon Man — they all hold to a similar premise, key Nazi’s escape Germany after the war and plot in various ways to do bad things. Apparently truth is stranger than fiction. What was Operation Paperclip?

Operation Paperclip was a classified program to bring Nazi scientists to America right after World War II. It had, however, a benign public face. The war department had issued a press release saying that good German scientists would be coming to America to help out in our scientific endeavors.

But it was not benign at all, as seen in the character of Otto Ambros, a man, as you explain, was keen on helping U.S. soldiers in matters of hygiene by offering them soap, this soon after they had conquered Germany. Who was Ambros?

Otto Ambros I must say was one of the most dark-hearted characters that I wrote about in this book. He was Hitler’s favorite chemist, and I don’t say that lightly. I found a document in the National Archives, I don’t believe it had ever been revealed before, that showed that during the war Hitler gave Ambros a one million Reichsmark bonus for his scientific acumen. The reason was two-fold. Ambros worked on the Reich’s secret nerve agent program, but he also invented synthetic rubber, that was called buna. The reason rubber was so important — if you think about the Reich’s war-machine and how tanks need treads, aircraft need wheels — the Reich needed rubber. By inventing synthetic rubber, Ambros became Hitler’s favorite chemist.

Not only that when the Reich decided to develop a factory at Auschwitz, — the death camp had a third territory, there was Auschwitz, there was Birkenau — they did it in a third territory called Auschwitz III also known as Monowitvz-Buna. This was where synthetic rubber was going to be manufactured using prisoners who would be spared the gas chamber as they were put to work, and most often worked to death by the Reich war machine. The person, the general manager there at Auschwitz III, was Otto Ambros. Ambros was one of the last individuals to leave Auschwitz, this is in the last days of January 1945 as the Russians are about to liberate the death camp. Ambros is there according to these documents I have located in Germany, destroying evidence right up until the very end.

After the war, Ambros was sought by the Allies and later found, interrogated and put on trial at Nuremberg, where he was convicted of mass-murder and slavery. He was sentenced to prison, but in the early 1950s as the Cold War became elevated he was given clemency by the U.S. High Commissioner John McCloy and released from prison. When he was sentenced, the Nuremberg judges took away all his finances, including that one million Reichsmark bonus from Hitler. When McCloy gave him clemency he also restored Otto Ambros’ finances, so he got back what was left of that money. He was then given a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.

He actually came to work in the United States?

Otto Ambros remains one of the most difficult cases to crack in terms of Paperclip. While I was able to unearth some new and horrifying information about his postwar life, most of it remains, “lost or missing,” which I take to mean classified. We do know for a fact that Ambros came to the United States two, possibly three times. As a convicted war criminal traveling to the United States he would have needed special papers from the U.S. State Department. The State Department, however, informed me through the Freedom of Information Act that those documents are lost or missing.

You describe quite well the pushing and pulling on how this program came about — and the compulsion to accelerate things once the Cold War hit full steam. The rationale being if the U.S. didn’t employ these men — and they were all men — then the Soviets would have. How do you see that type of argument having these characters so vividly in front of you?

It was really one of the most traumatic elements of researching and going through the documents, seeing how there were different factions in the Pentagon — because the program was run out of the Pentagon by Joint Chiefs of Staff. They created a specific unit called the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA), which was in charge of Paperclip. In these documents you can see the tug-of-war between generals who were absolutely opposed to the idea of bringing anyone who participated in the Reich’s rise to power, they were loathe to bring these scientists here, they did not want to. I quote transcripts where certain generals saying exactly that. On the other hand, there were other individuals, generals and colonels, who were gun-ho about the prospect about making America’s arsenal, the aggregate of our military strength, the strongest in the world, and certainly stronger than the Soviets. To that end they did not see any problem in bringing these scientists to the U.S. and were seemingly willing to not only overlook the past of these Nazi scientists, but to white wash them.

The former Nazi Surgeon General, Walter Scheiber, had an advocate in the U.S in the person of Colonel Charles Loucks. You describe a photo taken of Loucks in Japan where he is standing by an “enormous pile of dead bodies” that in turn lay “next to a stack of incendiary bombs,” with a look of detachment.” This reminded me of the famous quote by U.S. General Curtis LeMay: 

Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time... I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.... Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier.”

LeMay and Louck’s justifications do not sound much different than the Nazi rationale of, “I was only following orders.” How do you see this and has your thinking changed in the course of writing this?

Certainly with some of the individuals involved a kind of necessary detachment in their perception of what they needed to do to serve their country. Mindful of the fact that I was not there during the Cold War and looking at history, one must take into account how high the stakes were — thermo nuclear war. Some of the individuals involved in Paperclip, i.e. the American officials, as a journalist I was able to consider that and see the paradox and conflict and empathize with having to make those very tough decisions.

General Loucks, however, stuck out as an exception to me because he didn’t only see work with Hitler’s closest confidants as a matter of national security for the United States moving forward, he grew to actually respect and appreciate the Nazi scientists. I found these quotes from him in his diaries, which he left posthumously to the Military History Institute in Pennsylvania. You see him discussing his fondness for example, a former Brigadier Fuhrer, Walter Schrieber, who was on Himmler’s personal staff and was so close to Hitler he was given a gold Party badge, which meant he was in favor by the Fuhrer. Sheiber was involved in concentration camp experiments, he was the liaison between Otto Ambros and Reich’s chemical committee, he had direct knowledge of the most horrific elements of the concentration camp, including genocide. Here he was being invited into the home of General Louck. At one point in the diary, I learned, he would even spend the night at the General’s home as a houseguest.

Now you point out an interesting passage in the book that I think gives a little perspective on General Loucks and made me wonder about how much the war had possibly transformed him? He was in charge overseeing the chemical weapons intelligence in Japan after the war. As I describe in the book going out into the Japanese countryside and taking a look at these incendiary bombs that he was in charge of manufacturing for the Americans during the war. He talks with this peculiar detachment about coming across a pile of what was left of these incendiary bombs and a pile of dead bodies, Japanese civilians who had been killed. He talks about them with such a strange perspective where he is only interested in seeing if his incendiary bombs had worked that it... gave me pause.

Former Vice President Henry Wallace, under Franklin Roosevelt, is perhaps best known for running for President, and refusing to renounce the support of U.S. Communists. What did he have to do with Operation Paperclip?

That’s such an interesting detail for you to pick up on and it was such an interesting element to write about. Although he had been Vice President and Truman later became Roosevelt’s Vice President, then of course fate and circumstance elevates Truman to the President. Henry Wallace is then Secretary of Commerce. What was interesting is that the Secretary of Commerce had a place on the JIOA, and was privy to some, but not all of the information regarding Operation Paperclip that was being run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wallace as Secretary of Commerce was incredibly gung-ho about getting Americans back to work. He had this book called, Sixty Million Jobs, and he intended to help America reach that milestone, the post-war prosperity that everyone in the nation was hoping for. Wallace saw science as a means to do that. Without knowledge of who these Nazi scientists were and what their pasts were Wallace endorsed this program, to such a degree that he wrote a letter to President Truman himself, saying you need to get on board with this program. That had a huge impact on Operation Paperclip which at that very moment in time, this is just a few months after the end of the war, the Joint Chiefs were struggling with the idea of Paperclip because the perception was that it was a deal with the devil. When Wallace stepped in, and said this is brilliant for commerce, it was exactly what the Joint Chiefs had been looking for.

How did you happen on this topic? How hard was it research and writing this?

I came across Operation Paperclip when I was writing Area 51, which involved the two Nazi aircraft designers who were brothers, Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers did not come to America as part of Paperclip, but their boss certainly did. His name was Siegfried Knemeyer, he was Herman Goering’s most important scientists for the Luftwaffe. Gorring liked him so much that he referred to him as ‘my boy‘ and made him chief of all technical engineering. When I learned that shortly after the war Knemeyer came to the United states with his seven children and his wife, had a long and prosperous career with the U.S. Air force, and that when he retired in the mid 1970s the Defense Department awarded him with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award — the highest award a scientist can get from the Pentagon — I thought to myself, how does that happen? How do you go from having Herman Goring as your boss then to having the U.S. Defense Department as your boss, and to be so important to both? That is where I became instantly curious about Operation Paperclip.

I was able to track down Knemeyer’s grandson who lives in the United States. He is about my age and is a very courageous fellow who believes in transparency. He agreed to let me interview him. There began a dialog between Dirk Knemeyer and myself about what this really meant. In those interviews I realized there was a way into Operation Paperclip in a manner that had not been reported before. Of course I was writing my book on the shoulders of so many amazing journalists; including Clarence Lasby, Linda Hunt and Tom Bower — people who have written about Paperclip before, but with limited access — we all sort of go along, and build on things as more informationgets revealed. I believe, though, that what gave me a lot of insight into the characters in Operation Paperclip was access to their family members.

As for the second part of your question, the subject matter is so complex, certainly when you are reading about the war, it is dark and evil. Then when you read about what happened after the war it is complicated and thought provoking. For a journalist that is challenging territory. I’m someone who always welcomes the challenge because I don’t believe stories are black and white. And I don’t believe stories are one-sided, or easily made simple. I believe this is a subject matter that deserves serious consideration and I also think there is so much more to be revealed. I hope my book inspires journalist sin the coming decade to look at this more. Because I absolutely know that there is so much out here that is still classified.