THE PAPERCLIP CONSPIRACY The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists By Tom Bower Little, Brown. 309 pp. $17.95

AUGUST STRINDBERG's Dream Play ends enigmatically with the bursting from its bud of a giant chrysanthemum which has grown out of a mountain of manure. Six decades after the scene was written, the fantastic metaphor became reality. A group of opportunistic German scientists, many of them once fervent Nazis and SS officers whose V-2 rockets were assembled with concentration camp labor and launched devastatingly in the waning months of World War II, were now American citizens covered with honors. Their expertise had made possible the successful U.S. effort to land astronauts on the Moon.

When the war began in 1939, the Western allies maintained the finest cavalry in Europe. Superb for ceremonies, yet not worth a damn in combat, they were symptomatic of Anglo-French (and American) blindness. The Armistice of 1918 and the Versailles limitations on German war-making potential had been the stimuli for covert German weapons research. While the defeated enemy was denuded of war material, the victorious allies were sated with obsolete equipment. Under innocuous guises, new technology for the inevitable next war flourished across the Rhine, and in adjacent countries where German enterprises were planted. Meanwhile, as reports of German weaponry surfaced in the 1930s, the smug British attitude remained, "If we can't produce it, then the the Germans can't either." French and American military thinking was equally backward, and pre-war funds for research and development were as scant as was any sense of urgency in utilizing scientists to improve weapons effectiveness.

By 1945 the terrible cost of complacency was clear. Although the victors had won some crucial scientific races, notably in nuclear fission, the Germans were years ahead in rocketry, jet propulsion, gunnery, tank technology, synthetic materials and other areas in which the other side had chosen mass production rather than continuous innovation. The V-2 launching sites had been overrun barely in time to prevent widespread destruction in England. Harnessed to a slave economy, Nazi science had given Germany an edge over its sluggish, resource-rich, quarrelsome adversaries, but ingenuity could not, in the end, compensate for irreplaceable manpower and materiel.

In July 1944, when the 13-ton missiles became operational and began to replace the pilotless and inaccurate "buzz-bomb," the V-1, a British-American team of specialists asked the Red Army to permit inspection of the first rocket base to be captured. When the experts duly arrived, they were blatantly lied to. Blizna was allegedly not yet in Soviet hands. Finally allowed into the area in early September, they found no German personnel to interview, and no equipment left to examine. Although the mission was given authority to pack some rocket debris into crates, "when they opened them in London," Tom Bower writes, " . . . they contained rusting aircraft parts. Russian policy for the plunder of Germany had been eloquently revealed."

It would be a race without rules. German scientists understood the differences between a term in prison, or even dubious freedom in a shattered Europe, and total escape from retribution. To become a form of national reparation -- at attractive salaries -- was in their self-interest; all it required was the suppression of old slogans and the adoption of new loyalties.

Recruitment involved conspiracies of mutual silence and selective recall. A postwar Congress ever more McCarthyesque as the Cold War heated up made matters easier for ex-Nazis, and also for the military and bureaucratic neo-Nazis who remained certain that we had fought on the wrong side. Our ostensible allies, Britain and France, were in competition against us for the prime war booty left in dismembered Germany -- its technological brains -- and the Soviets were luring, even kidnaping, prize enemy scientists.

IN THE United States, protests were ignored, or beaten down. The moral principles once enacted into a ban on immigration of one-time "ardent Nazis" were redefined or evaded. When patriotism failed to convince Washington officials whose signatures were needed, expediency was raised; when that proved unpersuasive, fraud did the job. German scientists were outfitted with Persilschein -- laundered certificates. (Persil was then, and still is, a popular laundry detergent in Europe.) Forgery of papers, destruction of documents, papering over the Nazi connection in every extra-legal way, kept the scientific traffic flowing. Such new heroes as Werner von Braun and his associates, however early and enthusiastic their Nazi associations, were perceived as only "honorary" SS and SA colonels and majors, and as reluctant, apolitical Hitlerites. Aviation medicine experimenters who had brutalized and murdered concentration camp inmates arrived in America to assist the Air Force.

With J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, the security priority was to keep out revolutionary riff-raff and communists, not Nazis; the war with Germany was over and military necessity had made the past irrelevant. Only one Nazi rocket expert, nearly 40 years later, was forced to relinquish his American citizenship -- but not his NASA pension -- and to return to Germany. By then others had died with their postwar laurels intact.

Tom Bower, an Englishman, is weak in history, including his own, which raises some questions about the validity of his other facts. He misplaces Pearl Harbor in sequence with other events, for example, and he thinks that Harry Truman was elected in 1945, although he had succeeded from the vice presidency. Yet his principal points about the competition for catch-up technology, and the callous cover-up, seem unassailable. In his examination of the embarrassing record too shrill? Could it be that the record makes us uncomfortable?

A 1971 study, Project Paperclip (the paperclip on a dossier discreetly identified a Nazi scientist), by Clarence G. Lasby, then a young historian, had no access to documents released to Bower under the Freedom of Information Act -- the new book's primary sources. Doing the best he could, Lasby accepted what bureaucrats would tell him, and what he learned from questionnaires sent to German scientists. From their admittedly dubious testimony he perceived the smuggled ex-Nazis as volunteering their services to the United States "in the belief that it was the nation most able to preserve Western civilization." "Paperclip" now appears very different. Can untried war criminals become Cold War heroes? Is there any ethical equation in a cost-benefit analysis? Is Bower's book an act of ingratitude? After all, we got to the Moon. The chrysanthemum blossomed. :: Stanley Weintraub is the author of "A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War."