Hank H. Cox is a writer who lives in Takoma Park, Md.
By Eric Lichtblau
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
266 pp. $28
Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi he won’t even frown.
“Ha, Nazi Shmazi,” says Wernher von Braun
— Tom Lehrer
Years ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union had both experienced setbacks in their space programs, one of my professors suggested that our scientists and theirs may have flunked the same course at Heidelberg. It was no great secret that, in the waning days of World War II, the United States scrambled to capture German rocket scientists before the Soviets got them. Hitler’s rocket attacks on Great Britain had made clear that the Germans were far ahead of us in that technology. The Cold War was in its infancy, and the United States already foresaw using rockets to transport nuclear weapons.
Of the more than 1,600 Nazi scientists brought to the United States, Eric Lichtblau, author of “The Nazis Next Door,” singles out Wernher von Braun as the preeminent catch. Infamous for having led development of the German V-2 rocket, von Braun ended up in Huntsville, Ala., helping develop the rockets that eventually took American astronauts to the moon. It was well known that the V-2s had been built by slaves, mostly prisoners of war, many of whom were abused, starved and worked to death. Von Braun did not deny his role in this, yet with the aid of Walt Disney, who on his TV show repeatedly turned to von Braun as an expert on space travel, the German emerged as an American hero.
The imported German scientists were among thousands of ex-Nazis who came to the United States, including some of the worst participants in the brutal murder of millions. Many were recruited by the CIA and the FBI to obtain intelligence about the Soviets. Years later, when efforts were made to identify and expel them, the CIA and the FBI blocked the investigations.
What the Nazis did was appalling, but there were too many miscreants to bring them all to justice. Much of Lichtblau’s book is a chronicle of tedious legal procedures that led to a few former Nazis being deprived of U.S. citizenship and deported. Some died of old age while awaiting adjudication of their cases. Many more lived out their lives beneath the radar as respectable citizens.
The war ended 70 years ago. The former Nazis are dying off and presumably will answer to a higher power. But the Nazi mentality remains. Each day brings news of fresh atrocities. Righteous indignation about past crimes has a limited shelf life, but evil does not.