Pursuit of Truthiness

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Operation Paperclip

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I just finished the great book of the same name by Annie Jacobson. I had heard of the program that brought Nazi scientists to America, but didn’t realize how big it was- several hundred scientists- or just how complicit in the holocaust many of the scientists were- from the slave labor that built Werner von Braun’s rockets, to medical experiments on unconsenting prisoners, to high positions in the SS, to straight up murder.

Nazi science shows the amazing things that can be accomplished with tons of money, no bureaucracy, no morals, and an endless supply of slave labor. Rockets, chemical and biological weapons all went from ideas to mass production in a few years. Most of the medical “experiments”, though, seem more like simple torture than attempts to learn anything.

The Paperclip program is classic example of Crisis and Leviathan- war (WWII) and the threat of war (Cold War) lead to bigger government and more relaxed moral standards. If we don’t do it, the Russians will.

I definitely didn’t realize the interaction between a lot of the craziest shit our military / intelligence / industrial complex was doing at this time. Paperclip scientists were involved in MK-ULTRA, Bluebird and Artichoke, dramatically accelerating the US chemical and biological weapons programs, and in dispersing pathogens in the US.

It was Richard Nixon that unilaterally shut down the US chemical weapons program in 1969- well done. Nerve gas is scarier shit than I realized. Even Hitler never used it, though they had thousands of tons of tabun. This makes Saddam Hussein, and our support of him during the Iran-Iraq war, look even worse.

One big lesson that I take from the book, though the author never mentions it- the importance of institutions. Almost all of the scientists who did the worst things in Nazi Germany ended up being successful, ethical scientists in the US, once they were placed in a system with very different incentives. In fact, the Paperclip scientist who did some of the worst things for the US, Fritz Hoffmann, was one of the only anti-Nazis in the program; but he was working in weapons areas where the US military had the fewest moral qualms at the time.

Annie Jacobson does a great job turning history and original historical research into an informative page-turner. My one disappointment with the book is in its moral dimension. Jacobson claims to dodge the question, saying that the morality of the paperclip program is up for each individual to decide. But she is always implying that it was a bad idea, while avoiding a real discussion. In particular, she never brings up the obvious analogy to the everyday criminal justice system. In one sense, Paperclip was an amazing rehabilitation program; there was almost no ‘recidivism’ among the scientists. But it certainly failed to exact retribution on bad actors, and may have created a deterrence-reducing moral hazard effect (perhaps knowing of such a program will lead others to commit crimes they would otherwise be afraid to). How valid was the argument that ‘if we don’t take them, the Soviets will’? Would the US and the world really be a better place if we had hung Werner von Braun and co as war criminals instead of letting them join NASA and help get humanity to the moon?
Science is power- both for what it allows humanity as a whole to do, and for scientists themselves. When governments realize the power of your ideas and abilities, you can get away with a lot. Nazis, Soviets, Americans, British, French all realized this- more than they do today. You’d think we would at least have standing visa offers to all scientists who aren’t war criminals, after expending so much money and effort to get those who are.

Written by James Bailey

August 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm