Von Braun to the USA

Countless immigrants have come to America expecting to find the streets paved with gold, and the “German scientists” were no different. Instead of ensconcing them at a New World Peenemünde, however, the U.S. Army dropped them off in a crude cowpoke wasteland where the most notable recent events were the explosion of atomic bombs and the invention of the margarita cocktail. They were not so much put to work there as stashed where no other country could get at them— particularly Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, which had their own shopping lists for German expertise. One of their disarmed Wunderwaffen was put on display along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, under a billboard that read “This is a V-2 rocket seized by U.S. Army Ordnance,” but its inventors were hidden far from civilization in a guarded camp. The primary rationale for bringing them over in the first place had disappeared when Japan surrendered, but the reasons were multiplying all the time.

Wernher von Braun’s colleagues began to arrive from Germany at the end of 1945. They traveled across the Atlantic in Spartan troopships, not one of Donald Douglas’s transoceanic DC-4 “Super Mainliner” airplanes as had their boss (albeit in a military transport configuration). Their first job was to start what they had recently been forced to stop—constructing and launching V-2s, now using the boxcar-loads of jumbled parts for some 100 missiles that had been laid out in the Tularosa Basin’s caustic desert environment. Basically, they were to nurse the American military and civilian participants in Project Hermes along the learning curve that had consumed their attention since 1942. “That job took eight months,” von Braun later recalled. “We seemed to be expected to do it in two weeks.” Only about half of the roughly 6000 V-2s produced in Germany were ever launched during the war, so the experience at White Sands in 1946 was somewhat frustrating for the military, industrial, and academic boffins who converged there to try out the famous rocket. The V-2 trove was rapidly turning into scrap metal. Eighty miles from El Paso, moreover, the living conditions were rather less civilized than at the former Nazi showcase on the Baltic seashore.

The first shot on April 16 flew out of control, shed a tail fin, and crashed at close range. The second and third reached higher altitudes, but smashed to smithereens in deep craters on impact (as designed), pulverizing the technical payloads placed aboard by eager scientists like James Van Allen from the University of Iowa and teams from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The V-2 was a battlefield munition with lots of problems, they soon appreciated, not a refined scientific instrument. By the end of 1946, the launch failure rate was more than 33 percent. “Frankly, we were disappointed with what we found in this country during our first year or so,” von Braun later said. Still, it was not such bad duty at a time when German cities lay in ruins, many of his countrymen were destitute and starving, millions were nothing but ash, and former leaders awaited execution for war crimes. And it got steadily better.

Not all American scientists were keen to use the V-2 booty and the onetime enemies who came with it. In January 1947, for example, prominent faculty members at Cornell—such as the renowned German émigré Hans Bethe, who had directed the Manhattan Project’s theoretical division, and illustrious aerodynamicist William R. Sears—spearheaded a protest against the War Department’s importation of German scientists and engineers. “The fact that these men were directly or indirectly linked with a regime whose infamous record included, among other things, the most brutal persecution of free science must fill every citizen, and in particular every scientist, with deep apprehension,” stated a resolution sent to the Federation of American Scientists, advising that the Germans be sent back to where they came from when their work was finished. A month earlier, following War Department-sanctioned publicity about Operation Paperclip, Overcast’s successor, forty luminaries—including Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Norman Vincent Peale, and Rabbi Stephen Wise—had sent a telegram to President Truman, protesting that the Germans’ “former eminence as Nazi Party members and supporters raises the issue of their fitness to become American citizens or hold key positions in American industrial, scientific, and educational institutions.” This was exactly the kind of public reaction the military had sought to head off with strict secrecy. In the summer of 1947, Rep. John D. Dingell, Democrat from Detroit, gave the protest a populist voice on the floor of the House of Representatives, saying, “I have never thought that we were so poor mentally in this country that we have to go and import those Nazi killers to help us prepare for the defense of our country.” Perhaps to some small extent, certain elements of the U.S. military agreed with this line of thought, noting in a September 18, 1947, security report that Wernher von Braun “is regarded as a potential security threat,” though “not a war criminal” based on available records.

But the protests were evanescent, indecisive, handicapped by the secrecy of government policies, and swamped by larger issues. In addition to the first rumblings of cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union, there were business imperatives in Washington, as always. Leaders of American industry and their trade associations, many of whom had served in intelligence units that had cherry-picked all over Germany for superior technology and expertise, successfully lobbied President Truman for a commercial exploitation program, which ran until it was shut down in 1947 for the sake of German economic recovery. Military budgets naturally plummeted in the immediate postwar years, leaving Fort Bliss as bleak as ever, and the decimated aviation industry jumped at the chance to capitalize on German technology. “Very early on we became involved with von Braun and his associates when they were stationed at Fort Bliss (surely a euphemism),” remembered). Leland Atwood, president of North American Aviation, whose nascent Rocketdyne division in Los Angeles would become a premier producer of large rocket engines. “Our rocket work was, in large measure, built on the Peenemünde V-2 model to start with.”

Early in 1946, Wernher learned that his parents were alive, albeit completely dispossessed, in Silesian territory now part of Poland, thus reenacting the centuries-old ebb and flow of Junker fortunes. The family’s experience with gaining and losing estates was truly prodigious. Wernher was allowed to return to Germany under round-the-clock military guard in order to marry his eighteen-year-old first cousin, Maria von Quistorp, in March 1947. On the same trip, he collected the baron and baroness, who immigrated along with his bride to El Paso that month under the dependent provisions of Operation Paperclip.

Gradually, von Braun’s army handlers loosened their grip. Top officials in Washington from the Oval Office down fell into line with the notion of Germans as “intellectual reparations,” and life moved on with amnesiac velocity. In December 1947, the Dora war crimes trial at Dachau ended and its proceedings were classified, the army having helped von Braun to avoid in-person testimony. The Peenemünders were wise enough to shut their mouths and self-censor their own war stories, while their military milieu took care of placing their files under lock and key. The perceived value of their knowledge continued to trump any other considerations. The British released Walter Dornberger, who came to the United States under the U.S. Air Force’s newly independent auspices (and by 1950 was an executive at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York). As early as July 1947, Popular Science magazine boasted that the U.S. Navy’s homegrown Viking missile would double the V-2’s altitude record and weigh much less than “one of those Nazi dinosaurs.” Just four years after the last V-2 fell on London, the British Interplanetary Society named von Braun an Honorary Fellow in 1949. Technological progress itself was making the “Nazi scientists” seem both less magical and less dangerous. To the lifelong benefit of most of them, it was also making what happened during the war more unbelievable.

On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. On October 1, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. In November 1949, von Braun’s extralegal immigration status was normalized with a proper visa by riding a trolley back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border at Juarez. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops attacked across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. For the last few years, von Braun had so much time on his hands that he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages, but the world suddenly changed very much in favor of a longtime anti-Communist rocket builder. The novel, titled “Mars Project”—in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atomic bombs dropped from an orbiting space station—was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemünde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau im Mond-style pictures.

In the spring of 1950, the Germans left Fort Bliss behind and transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, a former chemical munitions plant that Senator John Sparkman was godfathering out of its postwar doldrums. Von Braun moved with his wife and toddler daughter, Iris. Another daughter, Magrit, arrived in spring 1952 (a son, Peter, came in 1960). In addition to becoming a family man, he had found God. He told The New Yorker that “as long as national sovereignties exist, our only hope is to raise everybody’s standards of ethics.” “I go to church regularly now,” he added. “Did you at Peenemünde?” the reporter asked. “I went occasionally,” he replied. “But it’s really too late to go to church after a war starts. One becomes very busy.”

In 1952, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer with a series of lavishly illustrated articles—pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all of his outside writing—in Collier’s magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion. The Collier’s phenomenon led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney’s popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disneyland theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on comedian Steve Allen’s popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affairs man, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “hostess with the mostess.” Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier’s and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of baby boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudoscientific, but they helped to sell an adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.

By 1953, Redstone Arsenal was well on its way to being the American incarnation of Peenemünde, with von Braun installed as civilian director at the Army’s Guided Missile Development Division of the Ordnance Missile Laboratories, under the command of a Brigadier General, Holger Toftoy—essentially the same organizational scheme and vocabulary that the Wehrmacht had used. Huntsville would soon be called “the German part of the state” by native Alabamans, as the Peenemünders transplanted their cultural proclivities for music and literature into the provincial Southern town. They did not perturb the racially segregated society that the state epitomized and were as insulated from any center of liberal thought as they had been in El Paso. On April 14, 1955, von Braun became a U.S. citizen.

As at Peenemünde, the men developed weapons, not spaceships. Their first product was a liquid-fueled rocket dubbed the Redstone, essentially an updated A-4 with a nuclear warhead. Redstone finally manifested the massive destructive potential of guided missiles that the conventionally armed V-2 had only implied. It was followed by the more powerful Jupiter—known as an IRBM, or intermediate range ballistic missile, as compared to the ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, being developed elsewhere—which devolved into a byzantine turf battle between the army and air force over which service would have the biggest, longest rocket and thus dominate the new field’s gigantic budgets. During this growing bureaucratic turmoil, which must have felt more than vaguely familiar to the Peenemünders, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they would try to launch a satellite around the earth as part of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year research program. The army was soon ready with von Braun’s Jupiter-C—a modified Redstone booster with two smaller stages on top—but the navy’s far less mature follow-on to Viking, called Vanguard, got the nod from Washington instead, much to his disappointment. As a result, the nation received its biggest political shock since learning about the Russian A-bomb when a satellite called Sputnik went into orbit on October 4, 1957. When Vanguard crumpled back onto its launchpad in a fireball after rising only a few feet off the sand at Cape Canaveral on December 6, a nationwide television audience carried away an indelible image of embarrassing inferiority.

To the rescue came Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C on January 31, 1958, when Explorer I joined Sputnik in orbit. The I-told-you-so sweetness of his triumph appealed to the spirit of Everyman, vaulting him from mere TV-star to national hero. Although the army still kept him on a leash, warning him in June 1958 not to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science because it was on the so-called pink list of Communist-influenced organizations, his persona now had a life of its own. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December, an assistant answered a query from a researcher at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”

The satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun’s first nonmilitary employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1961, it was von Braun’s reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young new President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space Age.


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