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Random Ethics Question: Project Paperclip

March 3, 2009 on 1:13 pm | In Astronomy, Physics, Politics |

Sometimes, when I come home from a long day at work and need to unwind, I start reading BBC News, and occasionally the news archives are more interesting than the actual present news.

Last night, I came across a really interesting read from 2005, about Project Paperclip, which was the US Government’s plan to bring the former Nazi scientists to America and use their knowledge and expertise to further the scientific and military enterprises we had going on here, and also to deny the Soviets that knowledge.

But this required giving amnesty to Nazis (and sometimes even former SS officers) like Werner Von Braun, Arthur Rudolph, Kurt Debus, and Hubertus Strughold. The atrocities that these men and their subordinates were responsible for are well-documented, and include the death of 20,000 slave laborers producing Von Braun’s V-2 missiles, freezing inmates and putting them into low-pressure chambers, and performing human experiments at Dachau and Auschwitz. Truly, these are some of the most despicable things that human beings have ever done to one another.

And yet, the Germans had an incredible amount of scientific, aeronautic/aerospace and military knowledge that we did not. Some examples? Supersonic rockets, nerve gas, jet aircraft, guided missiles, stealth technology, and hardened armor. All in 1945. So what was the ethical thing to do? What was the smart thing to do? And overall, what was the right thing to do? US Air Force Major-General Hugh Knerr’s opinion was the prevailing one:

If we do not take the 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.

So, for better or worse, about 700 Nazi scientists were put to work for the United States.

The technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs were numerous and swift, and over the next 25 years, Werner Von Braun had masterminded the Apollo program and the Moon landings, Arthur Rudolph had designed the Saturn V rocket, Hubertus Strughold designed NASA’s life support systems, and countless other technologies such as Cruise Missiles, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, and scramjets came as outgrowths of Nazi research. So as a counterpoint to one of the worst atrocities in human history, we also have one of the greatest achievements in human history:

That’s the story of what we did and one of the steps we took to get there. Did we do the right thing? Did we do the just thing? Did we do the smart thing? For me, the answers are yes, no, and yes. And I, for one, am glad I didn’t have to be the one to make that decision. What do you think?

And this last week, so much happened in space news that we not only have a carnival, we have a carnival sideshow as well; enjoy!


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  1. Well, I mostly agree with your assessment… the right thing? I think so - more good for humankind came out of putting these scientists to work than would have otherwise. The just thing? That depends on the individual case. Some of these guys were probably real Nazis, some belonged to the party as a career enhancement, some were probably disgusted with what was going on, but felt impotent to do anything about it and survive. The smart thing? Definitely. Letting that expertise go to waste or allowing the Soviet Union to exploit it would not have been a smart move. As life goes, there’s many shades of grey, rather than black and white… even though US history classes like to paint a picture of the Knight in Shining Armor on the White Horse.

    Comment by Izzy — March 3, 2009 #

  2. Izzy,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that many of these guys were definitely “real Nazis” in that they willingly committed really horrendous acts that took the lives of thousands and freedoms of millions.

    But what do you do with them when what’s done is done? Do you just execute them? Imprison them? Or use them to your advantage, even if it means pardoning them? They were currency to us, just like they were (probably) currency to the Nazis. This is definitely a shade of grey, but I think what was done was probably the smart thing to do. And that’s usually the key question and deciding factor for me when I’ve got ethical dilemmas, too.

    Comment by ethan — March 3, 2009 #

  3. The major reason the Space Station became internationalized in the early 90s was to keep the Russian scientists and engineers in their space program employed rather than potentially offering their services to other countries. Interestingly, this is also part of the reason why the US lobbied Russia so hard to deorbit Mir rather than sell it to private investors (who had the funds). They wanted to keep tabs on the Russian engineers in their program rather than have some of them work for a competing commercial space station.

    Comment by Brian — March 3, 2009 #

  4. If the US truly wanted just to deny the USSR that knowledge, they could have done the right thing: put the Nazi scientists to trial, and then jail or hang the ones who deserved it. The Russians wouldn’t have their knowledge, the moon landing would have happened a decade later, and evil man would have gotten what they deserved. Quite simple, the right thing.

    Comment by Dudi — March 4, 2009 #

  5. I tend to agree with you, Ethan. It’s certainly far more compelling than the fictional version I recall from an episode of ST:Voyager where the question was simply whether to “use” the knowledge gained by a person similar to these Nazis. Whether it’s just is certainly a subjective matter, and may also tie into how one views what we do to criminals: as punishment or as deterrent (and clearly it can be both). But if the point of justice is to improve quality of life for everyone, there may be times like these when what’s not just is “better”.

    Talk about moral hazard and slippery slopes, though…sheesh. I think I most agree with the sentiment that I’m glad it wasn’t up to me to make the decision, and I hope never to have to make such a one.

    Comment by benhead — March 4, 2009 #

  6. I think this is still, more than 60 years later, a really controversial issue. The Russians and the Americans both made the same ethical choices, which was basically to treat the stash of Nazi science and Nazi scientists that they came across as a commodity to be hoarded, used, and plundered.

    The Soviets developed their nuclear arsenal as a result of what they wound up with, and we developed our rocketry and space technologies as a result of what we wound up with. Right and wrong is certainly not an easy dividing line; if we had taken a hard line and punished the Nazis and all their collaborators and burned their knowledge, would the Soviets have had a big enough lead in the arms race to start WWIII? Would they have won the cold war? In hindsight even now, it isn’t clear.

    Comment by ethan — March 4, 2009 #

  7. Humans have trouble dealing with “sunk costs”, i.e., letting go of losses. Even when nothing they can do now that would change the outcome of things done in the past. In financial matters, it’s a futile urge to recoup losses. In this case, it’s needing “justice”, even when nothing you do to the offenders could restore the lives they took or undo the suffering they inflicted. Justice, or even direct personal revenge, usually brings hollow satisfaction. We did the right thing because war is war, and at that point in time we had transitioned to potentially fatal contest with the Soviets.

    Comment by Tiktaalik — March 4, 2009 #

  8. Moral hazard and slippery slopes? What about dropping atomic bombs on two civilian populations? That’s something America did, not some rogue country, and it’s well documented too. Yet, somehow, American people always tend to look for evil somewhere else. What kind of moral hazard are we talking about? After all, United States was the country that re-elected Bush, who is considered a war criminal pretty much in the rest of the world.

    Comment by Fernando — March 6, 2009 #

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