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Thursday, September 17, 2020

September 17, 2020: Nazis in America: Wernher von Braun

[On September 20, 1945, the first group of Nazi scientists repatriated to the US under Operation Paperclip arrived at a landing point in Boston Harbor. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories of American Nazis, leading up to a special post on that fraught anniversary.]
On three striking lines from Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about the Nazi-turned-American scientist.
1)      “Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown/‘Ha, Nazi, Schmazi,’ says Wernher von Braun”: As I’ll discuss at greater length in the weekend post, what was perhaps most striking about Operation Paperclip wasn’t that it brought Nazi scientists to America, but that it did so so quickly and openly. Von Braun, the scientist single-handedly responsible for the V2 rocket that killed a great many Londoners in the final year of the Blitz (among other work he did for Hitler’s Nazi regime), was among those initial arrivals in the United States in late September 1945, less than 5 months after V-E Day. He would go on to be a prominent public spokesperson as well as scientist for NASA and the Space Program, appearing for example on three Walt Disney Man in Space TV shows. Clearly von Braun was able to immediately and consistently laugh away his service to Nazi Germany, and so, it seems was the US government.
2)      “Like the widows and cripples in old London town/Who owe their large pension to Wernher von Braun”: But not all Americans were as willing or able to laugh that history away, as Lehrer’s early 1960s song illustrates. There’s no shortage of contenders for the song’s most biting couplet, but I would have to go with this one, especially as it follows “But some think our attitude/Should be one of gratitude.” Obviously those who have been permanently and fatally affected by von Braun’s rockets would show him no gratitude—and Lehrer here links “us” and “our attitude” to those London casualties. The first line in this verse, “Some have harsh words for this man of renown,” really drives home the point—after all, in 1945 what von Braun was renowned for was designing killing machines, and it was then that the US decided to not just spare him from post-war trials and punishments, but to bring him to America and make him an integral, acclaimed part of our own Cold War efforts.
3)      “Good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun!”: All of this adds a great deal more to Lehrer’s spoken introduction to the song, which asks “what is it” that helped America advanced in both the nuclear and space races. “Well,” Lehrer replies, “it was good old American know how, that’s what, as provided by good old Americans like” von Braun. While of course immigrants to the US are indeed American, von Braun’s immigration took place, again, just a few months after he was employed by and making weapons for the US’s wartime adversary. Yet while on that level Lehrer’s description of him as a “good old American” could be read as ridiculous, I would say that the true satire lies deeper—that our willingness to abandon morality or ethics in pursuit of scientific and Cold War “victories” was and is, indeed, all too defining and foundational of an American trait.
Last NaziStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?

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