Moral quandaries in World War II
Last updated 8/8/2023 at 10:15am
World War II is often hailed as “The Good War,” fought by “The Greatest Generation.”
That characterization is accurate. The massive mobilization to defeat Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan was morally justified as few conflicts in human history have ever been. Those regimes were evil and had to be crushed and wiped from the slate of history. The men and women who made the Herculean effort — and then crafted a post-war order of remarkable durability and stability — deserve the plaudits of history.
Leaving it at that, however, obscures some less palatable truths. The Allied power that did the most to defeat Nazi Germany — Stalin’s Soviet Union — was every bit as evil as the powers we sought to destroy. They ended the war empowered and aggressive.
The Allies engaged in actions to win the war that have created lingering moral questions that gall us to this day.
I am currently immersed in Annie Jacobsen’s “Operation Paperclip: The Secret Operation that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.”
Jacobsen’s books shine a light into dark corners of American military and intelligence activities in the 20th and 21st century, with a particular focus on the intersection of technology and the military sciences. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times bestseller.
I was versed in the general outlines of Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S. Army sought out top German scientists and technicians at the end of World War II in order to gain intelligence on highly advanced Nazi aeronautic, chemical, and biological sciences. The details as exactingly and dramatically portrayed by Jacobsen are truly mind-blowing. And, frankly, appalling.
The program ultimately brought several hundred German scientists to the United States to live and work under the auspices of the U.S. government and private firms that formed the foundation of the military-industrial complex. Jacobsen focuses on a couple dozen of the most important of these men — men such as Wernher von Braun, “Hitler’s favorite scientist,” who ran the V2 rocket program for Nazi Germany — and would help get America to the moon.
These were not “good Germans.” Most of them were ardent Nazis, who were deeply implicated in slave labor programs where prisoners from occupied countries were worked to death wholesale in the effort to produce the Third Reich’s armaments, including their most advanced weapons. Others were implicated in human experiments to advance biological and chemical weapons programs.
The imperatives that drove the operation are understandable in context. Germany was about 20 years ahead of the Allies in some technological areas. In 1945, the Allies, principally the U.S., were still fighting Japan, and wanted every technological advantage we could bring to bear. And Britain and the U.S. did not want advanced Nazi science to fall into Stalin’s hands.
So the U.S. engaged in a morally compromised operation, providing professional advancement and a nice American life for some truly reprehensible people. The program birthed our tech-driven world. It’s a mind-bender of a story, and a compelling tale that is worth your time.