Project Paperclip

8 Feb

11. What role did ‘Project Paperclip’ play in the Cold War?

At the end of the Second World War the disintegrating alliance between the victorious powers led to an overt distrust in the international relations environment. A schism of political ideology, economic and social systems separated the world into East and West, between the superpowers: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (USA). A key level at which the two superpowers engaged during the Cold War was scientific discovery and technological advancement, each competing for triumphs to prove the validity of their ideology. Searching for the spoils of war Russian and American intelligence teams commenced the stripping of Nazi Germany’s military and scientific assets, seeking out the technological advancements and the brains behind the failed Third Reich. The American War Department determined the knowledge and expertise of the German scientists was such that it would be defensively farcical to allow them to return to Germany where they feared the Soviets would also gain their knowledge. The secret ‘Project Paperclip’ granted American citizenship to German scientists, to work on America’s behalf during the Cold War. This essay will explore the role ‘Project Paperclip’ had in the escalation of the Cold War tensions, through Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports commissioned on combating the military threat of the USSR. Most of these reports have only been declassified within the last decade, and so provide enlightening information about the motivations and fears behind ‘Project Paperclip’, and confirm what has been conjectured. Following a summary of the disintegration of international relations resulting in the bipolar world of post World War II, a description of the key players and motivations behind ‘Project Paperclip’ will be discussed. The attitudes held by the parties affected by and/or involved in ‘Project Paperclip’ and the contradictions between official lines and unofficial actions will then be explored.  Finally, a discussion of the overall role ‘Project Paperclip’ had in the Cold War and its wider impacts.

Post World War II the world’s two most powerful nations entered into a strategic struggle bringing to a head a deep rift of political ideology, economic systems and social structures. The Alliance disintegrated with the realisation of peace, increasingly sacrificing cooperation for the fulfilment of national interests. The USA and its allies, and the USSR and its allied communist countries split the world into West and East, between the forces of capitalism and communism. Winston Churchill described the division as an ‘iron curtain’,[1] where the European continent divided into competing blocs, adopting the political, economic and ideological values of either side. These tensions signalled a major realignment in international relations and the global balance of power. Lasting for almost five decades from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the USSR, the Cold War was responsible for an arms race which was unprecedented in scope, extending all the way to outer space.

Science became an important platform in the geopolitical and ideological rivalry between East and West. Alan Beyerchen argues ‘[b]oth the Russians and the Americans perceived science in newly demanding terms, and wanted to insure that the treatment of science in defeated Germany would serve their own ends.’[2] According to Beyerchen the Americans began their occupation position with designs already in motion for the utilization of any German technology it came across; ‘to seize and maintain intact industrial plant, equipment and records of German concerns, but to pay attention explicitly to research and experimental establishments.’[3] The need to control the personnel they detained and their findings led to the establishment of an immigration program to safeguard their newly acquired expertise: ‘Project Paperclip’. This active voluntary detention reflected the tensions of the growing Cold War; the American War Department initially had a policy of returning personnel to Germany once American technicians could continue their research based on the gained expertise.[4] A costly arms race and extensive nuclear weapons proliferation led to both sides amassing enormous arsenals and advanced weapons technologies developed with the direct help of the advancements of the Nazi war machine.[5]

In September 1946 U.S. President Harry Truman authorised ‘Project Paperclip’, a program designed to bolster America’s scientific and military knowledge by providing citizenship to German scientists during the Cold War.  Clarence Lasby states ‘between May 1945 and December 1952 the United States government imported 642 alien specialists under several programs know collectively by the code name “Paperclip.”’[6] Lasby describes ‘Project Paperclip’ as a ‘manifesto of the perceived breakdown of war time alliance’ and as a way ‘to deal with its implications.’[7]  The project was so named for the paperclips slipped into the files of the German subjects’ secret service folders.[8] Initially, the project was expected to grant visas only to selected personnel who had not been involved with the Nazi regime to work on America’s behalf during the Cold War. Truman argued he would not accept any persons who were found to have been ‘…a member of the Nazi party or more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism.’[9] The first group of personnel dossiers submitted to the State and Justice Departments were rejected as dedicated Nazi supporters. According to Christopher Simpson the U.S. War Department’s Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) advised military intelligence ‘…to alter its dossiers on those scientists so as to bring them into this country with supposedly clean wartime records.’[10] Bosquet Wev, Director of JIOA, sent a message to the State Department arguing they needed to stop subjugating national interest by ‘”beating a dead Nazi horse”’[11], with a far greater security threat present in the USSR than any former ‘Nazi affiliations.’[12] The files of over 700 German scientists were sanitised to remove incriminating evidence. The U.S. ‘…began importing German chemical warfare experts, submarine specialists, and the scientists who had once built Germany’s rockets using slave labour from Nazi concentration camps.’[13]

Public opposition to the use of German scientists was present but fairly minimal. Press officers of the War Department were ordered to down play the story and this may have aided limiting the scope of interest.[14] Opposition on the behalf of American scientists was present, in 1947 especially, expressing attitudes of angry disbelief at the War Department’s munificent treatment of Germans in granting them ‘preferential treatment for citizenship solely based on their usefulness, without having given the American people any clear assurance that they were not active members of the Nazi party….’[15] This attitude was widely, if weakly reciprocated in the general public. According to Lasby ‘opposition…was relatively short-lived, restricted to the year 1947…. It was widespread in sentiment but limited in impact….’[16] National opinion was still reeling from war-heightened nationalism, with a vivid fear of disloyalty, but limited information on the project served as a sufficient deterrent. Opposition to the program continued to draw attention to the need for thorough and independent investigation into the individuals in question. However, support for the program was also present. In the academic world the desire for a return to international academic collaboration after years of isolation is evident from some parties. Many American scientists ‘continued to voice the rhetoric of internationalism… [but] the war, if it had not broken the fraternity of science, had left it badly shattered.’[17] In a report by W. P. Cumming entitled  ‘German Universities’, on the Marburg Conference of Higher Education in June of 1946 saw German academics urging permission for contact with the wider academic world. A widespread desire for contact with American institutions exists with a dialogue almost presented as a job advertisement for academics to teach German and American relations in American universities; ‘Such a teacher should be democratic himself and have the ability to present democracy effectively; he should also be able to use German, have a background of knowledge of German cultural institutions, and…if he is to hold a position of respect in a university, should possess a reputation as a scholar in his field.’[18] Public opinion had to an extent been convinced of the worthy outward nature of the program and its necessity.

Government departments and individuals in propagating ‘Project Paperclip’ perceived the need for intelligence as outweighing the ethical considerations of employing ex-Nazis. Official American government policy was to prosecute war criminals and exclude all former Nazi activists from American citizenship. Linda Hunt argues that based on the extent of dossier tampering evident in CIA reports that ‘intelligence operatives who ran Project Paperclip and its sister programs conspired to hide information in order to shield Nazi scientists from prosecution.’[19] Hunt argues ‘“a band of ideologues believed that their cause served a higher purpose than the laws that governed them”’ [20], hiding their actions from President Truman and his successor President Dwight Eisenhower. It became clear that the fight against communism ‘overrode all other concerns. The end justified the means.’[21] In a CIA report, ‘Threats to the Security of the United States’, published 28 September 1948, a clear statement is given as to the future direction of US intelligence and scientific endeavour; ‘For the foreseeable future the USSR will be the only power capable of threatening the security of the United States. The Soviet regime, moreover, is essentially and implacably inimical toward the United States.’[22] The report outlines military and strategic knowledge of the Soviet Union and the Eastern states, breaking the report down into ‘The Problem’ and strengths and weaknesses economically, militarily, subversively and politically. The report appears to be motivated by a desire for a brief summary of the key points of Soviet interaction, internally and externally, for a point of general reference.  By the 1960’s increasing numbers of reports were commissioned into the nature of both American and Soviet research and its potentialities. The US considered itself in the early 1960’s to hold ‘a position of unquestioned leadership’ in the scientific field, particularly in atomic energy research, although Soviet advancement was readily recognised. [23]  It became apparent through the mounting tensions between the world’s new superpowers that ‘…the victors…focused on the economic aspects of scientific research and became more concerned with the war-making potential of science than its re-educational possibilities. ’[24] The role of science was of crucial importance to both sides maintaining equilibrium in the constant struggle for the upper-hand to the detriment of areas outside the scope of military benefit.

Figures for the program today document over 1500 personnel dossiers of ‘German and other foreign scientists, technicians and engineers brought to the United States under Project Paperclip and similar programs.’[25] There is yet to be a complete disclosure of the personnel files, [26]  with many individuals whose files were cleansed of condemning information remaining in the US. One of these individuals was Arthur Rudolph, who was brought to the US under ‘Project Paperclip’, as a project engineer. Rudolph was expelled from the US in 1984 accused of atrocities, selecting immunity from prosecution for the revoking of his US citizenship.  Investigation into other participants has emerged as attitudes changed to recognise that ‘America’s space victory had been purchased at too great a sacrifice of decency.’[27] Important discussions on the defence of secrecy and manufactured identities raise complicated ethical dilemmas. Proponents of the program argue it was not a rogue operation but a necessary compromise for a wider political gain at a time of fraught international relations. The program was a primary source of information for American intelligence agencies and military resources[28], with the clear message that the need for intelligence countered the ethical problems associated with past practises of the individuals involved. The extent to which the struggle over knowledge encouraged the disintegration and competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is contestable. Certainly, the motives behind the operation changed over time as fluctuations in tensions rose and fell. It is evident that the scientific and technological advancements gained through the degree of competition brought about an invaluable boost to their scientific and technological expertise, without which the American space program would have been greatly delayed.[29] However, the single-mindedness of the purpose for the defeat of the Soviets ruthlessly excluded the interests of industry and commerce, civilian science and medicine for military interests.[30]

 ‘Project Paperclip’ played a significant role in the tensions of the Cold War. Direct scientific and technological competition between the USSR and US led to the exploitation of German scientists, the American Government and the American public. The controversial nature of the project raised issues in relation to citizenship, the need for intelligence to advance a higher cause over ethical judgements, and the motivations behind those involved on both the American and German sides. The recent and continuing fight for the declassification of documentation emphasizes the recognition of the moral price paid for the deception and opacity of ‘Project Paperclip.’ A lack of ethical transparency and the ideals of the past decade were sacrificed for what can be argued was invaluable scientific and technological expertise, which aided America in emerging with the upper hand in the race for space and military supremacy but at a great cost for humanity.

Reference list

Beyerchen, Alan, ‘German Scientists and Research Institutions in Allied Occupation Policy’, History of Education Quarterly,         22, no. 3, (Autumn 1982), p. 289.

Bower, Tom, The Paperclip Conspiracy (London: Michael Joseph, 1987).

Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Threats to the security of the United States’, 28 September 1948, created August 1992/ updated August 1992, [online],                                                                                                                                                <http://www.foia.cia.gov/browse_docs_full.asp&gt;, viewed 29 April 2010.

Central Intelligence Agency, ‘CIA FOIA Comparison of US and USSR Atomic Energy Programs’, July 1962, created October           2002/updated October 2002, [online],                                                                                                                                        <http://www.foia.cia.gov/browse_docs_full.asp&gt;, viewed 3 May 2010.

Cumming, W. P., ‘German Universities’, South Atlantic Bulletin, 12, no. 4 (February 1947), pp. 4-6.

Douglas, Jehl, ‘CIA Said to Rebuff Congress on Nazi Files’, New York Times (30 January 2005).

Kornbluh, Mark L., ‘Giving Aid and Comfort: Review’, Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 48, no.7 (September 1992), p. 42.

Lasby, Clarence, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War (New York:  Atheneum, 1971).

New World Order and Nazi Germany, ‘Operation Paperclip Casefile’, created 8 August 1997/ updated March 2010,                 <http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/NWO/project_paperclip.htm&gt;, viewed 24 April 2010.

Simpson, Christopher, Blowback (Collier: Macmillan, 1988).

The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms, ‘Winston Churchill’, created 1995/ updated March 2010,                 <http://www.winstonchurchill.org/&gt;, viewed 24 April 2010.


[1] The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms, ‘Winston Churchill’, created 1995/ updated March 2010, <http://www.winstonchurchill.org/&gt;, viewed 24 April 2010.

[2] Alan Beyerchen, ‘German Scientists and Research Institutions in Allied Occupation Policy’, History of Education Quarterly, 22, no. 3, (Autumn 1982), p. 289.

[3] Beyerchen, ‘German Scientists and Research Institutions in Allied Occupation Policy’, p. 290.

[4] Beyerchen, ‘German Scientists and Research Institutions in Allied Occupation Policy’, p. 294.

[5] See Central Intelligence Agency, ‘CIA FOIA Comparison of US and USSR Atomic Energy Programs’, July 1962, created October 2002/updated May 2010, [online] <http://www.foia.cia.gov/browse_docs_full.asp&gt;, viewed 3 May 2010.

[6] Lasby, Clarence, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War (New York:  Atheneum, 1971), p. 5.

[7] Lasby, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War, p. 10.

[8] Tom Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy (London: Michael Joseph, 1987), p. 2.

[9] New World Order and Nazi Germany, ‘Operation Paperclip Casefile’, created 8 August 1997/ updated March 2010, <http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/NWO/project_paperclip.htm&gt;, viewed 24 April 2010.

[10] Christopher Simpson, Blowback (Collier: Macmillan, 1988), p. 2.

[11] New World Order and Nazi Germany, ‘Operation Paperclip Casefile’, created 8 August 1997.

[12] New World Order and Nazi Germany, ‘Operation Paperclip Casefile’, created 8 August 1997.

[13] Simpson, Blowback, p. 2.

[14] Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy, p. 126.

[15] Lasby, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War, p. 190.

[16] Lasby, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War, p. 191.

[17] Lasby, Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War, pp. 188-189

[18] W. P. Cumming, ‘German Universities’, South Atlantic Bulletin, 12, no. 4 (February 1947), p. 4.  

[19] Mark L. Kornbluh, ‘Giving Aid and Comfort: Review’, Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 48, no.7 (September 1992), p. 42

[20] Kornbluh, ‘Giving Aid and Comfort: Review’, p. 42.

[21] Kornbluh, ‘Giving Aid and Comfort: Review’, p. 42.

[22] Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Threats to the security of the United States’, 28 September 1948, released August 1992, p. 1. [online] <http://www.foia.cia.gov/browse_docs_full.asp&gt;, viewed 29 April 2010.

[23] Central Intelligence Agency, ‘CIA FOIA Comparison of US and USSR Atomic Energy Programs’, July 1962, p. 25.

[24] Beyerchen, ‘German Scientists and Research Institutions in Allied Occupation Policy’, p. 289.

[25] Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Record Group 330):

Office of Research and Engineering’, created 2000/ updated May 2010, [online],

<http://www.archives.gov/iwg/declassified-records/rg-330-defense-secretary/index.html&gt;, viewed 28 April 2010. 

[26] Jehl Douglas, ‘CIA Said to Rebuff Congress on Nazi Files’, New York Times (30 January 2005), p. 3.

[27] Obituaries, ‘Arthur Rudolph’, The Times, 4 January 1996, [online],

[28] See Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Record Group 330):

Office of Research and Engineering’, created 2000/ updated May 2010, [online],

<http://www.archives.gov/iwg/declassified-records/rg-330-defense-secretary/index.html&gt;, viewed 28 April 2010.

[29] Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy, p. 311.

[30] Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy, pp. 311-312.

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