Cold War, WW2

Controversial and Top Secret: Operation Paperclip

Also known as Project Paperclip, Operation Paperclip was a controversial, top-secret programme run by U.S. Intelligence after the Second World War to enable key German and Austrian scientists and technicians to migrate to the U.S. with their families and continue their research there.

Background, the Osenberg List, and Operation Overcast

In the latter half of the Second World War, it was becoming increasingly clear that the German state was weakening. The fallout from the attempted, failed German invasion of the Soviet Union, also known as Operation Barbarossa, was a major contributor to this, and the country’s administration felt that an impending, protracted war with the Soviets was an inevitability.

By this stage, due to a lack of sheer manpower, many top German scientists and technicians had been assigned combat roles unrelated to their expertise and were scattered around the country, or even further afield.

It was determined that, in order to give Germany the best chance of holding its ground against the Soviets, these experts should be recalled and reinstated in roles that would once again allow them to carry out military research and development projects.

A V-2 rocket launching, on the north-east German coast in 1943. von-Braun was the projects leader.

This notion proved to be challenging to realise, though. Before these scientific personnel could be recalled from the battlefield, they first had to be identified. Chiefly responsible for this task was Werner Osenberg, the chief engineer and scientist of the Defence Research Association (Wehrforschungsgemeinschaft).

The Osenberg List

Osenberg identified a substantial number of key research and technical personnel to be recalled from battle and created a list with their names, which, unsurprisingly, was later referred to as the Osenberg List.

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While undoubtedly top-secret, scraps of the Osenberg List were later recovered somewhat serendipitously by a Polish scientist, who found them stuffed into a toilet at Bonn University. Eventually, the names recovered from this list were communicated to MI6, the British intelligence agency, which, in turn, forwarded them to US Intelligence.

Operation Overcast

By this stage of the War, it was fairly obvious that the Allied forces’ victory over Germany was more or less imminent. This coincided with a concerted effort made by the Allies to extract as much information and expertise from German and Austrian scientific research and personnel, motivated in part by a desire to expedite their defeat of Japan, which was still a formidable foe at this time.

Thus, it was no secret that the German nation was on the brink of defeat, and its people knew this as well as anyone else. In 1945, Hitler had also ordered the SS to gas all experts involved in the development of rocket technology in Germany.

Aware of this threat to their lives, as well as the Allies’ interest in their work, a team of top German and Austrian scientists who had developed the V-2 rocket system, including Wernhern von Braun, willingly surrendered to a member of the Allied forces so as to avoid being on the wrong side of history after the Nazis’ defeat.

Operation Paperclip
The 104 rocket scientists from Operation Paperclip at Fort Bliss in Texas. All had served Germany and most were Nazis.


These experts were subsequently sent to the U.S. to continue their research under a project named Operation Overcast. This was driven in large part by the notion that, according to U.S. Intelligence, their work was of ‘national interest’ and had the potential to accelerate the Allies’ defeat of Japan.

In fact, this team’s research was considered to be so crucial that the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff subsequently established the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, a subcommittee dedicated to the acquisition of German scientific personnel and information.

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And, Japan’s defeat at the end of the War did little to change this. In fact, it had the opposite effect; there was an emerging competition of sorts between the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, and Britain wherein each power was actively trying to recruit the most elite German scientists and technicians to contribute to its own research initiatives in the post-War period.

Creating Project Paperclip

In response to this growing competition between the former Allied forces, Operation Paperclip, a top-secret U.S. Intelligence programme, was officially created as part of directive SWNCC 257/22.

Approved by President Harry S. Truman, the programme was put into action on the 3rd of September, 1946 and, according to the directive, would allow the U.S. military to sponsor the immigration of ‘rare, chosen minds’ from Germany and Austria to the U.S.

Not just anybody was eligible for the programme, though. Before any of the programme’s designees were to be approved, they had to be vetted by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, and the application of any nominee who had been an active member of the Nazi Party was to be rejected.

While Operation Paperclip officially lasted just two years, similar programmes were run in the U.S. until 1962.

A total of 1,500-1,600 scientists, technicians, and their family members moved to the United States under these schemes, the majority of whom would eventually go on to become U.S. citizens.

It is reported that the total value of Paperclip scientists and technicians was worth over $10 billion in different industrial processes and patents.

Public Response

While intended to be a secret operation, Project Paperclip was quickly exposed by a number of media outlets in the U.S., with the New York Times covering the initiative as early as 1946. There was considerable public backlash to Operation Paperclip, with figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein voicing their disapproval.

A U.S. Army cut-away diagram of the V-2. The V2 caused devastation in Holland, Belgium and Great Britain. America harnessed this.

In spite of this, the growing competition between the U.S. and the other Allied forces led to increasing numbers of leading German and Austrian scientists to be granted immigration clearance under the programme. The Cold War only led to the further justification of Operation Paperclip.

Were Project Paperclip Participants Actually Nazis?

As previously mentioned, Operation Paperclip was designed in such a way that it would disallow the participation of any active members of the Nazi Party.

The stance taken publicly by U.S. Intelligence at the time was that the programme’s designees had only joined the Nazi Party due to public pressure, and that some had been actively persecuted by the Nazis, too.

However, the truth was less straightforward. Under the Third Reich, it was more or less an expectation that leading scientists would develop, or at least pursue, a close working relationship with Adolf Hitler in order for their careers to continue to progress.

And, scientific research during the Nazi regime was and still is renowned for having been, in many cases, incredibly barbaric and unethical, with slave labour also being used in some instances.

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In more recent years, it has become clear that U.S. Intelligence covered up the backgrounds of particular experts who were considered to be potential assets to the country’s military research programmes.

There are even records of known war criminals being granted visas or visa waivers to the U.S. on the grounds of the importance of their scientific work.

Project Paperclip on Trial

The continued backlash against Operation Paperclip, especially in the U.S. media, eventually led to a number of hearings in the House of Representatives in the 1970s regarding the programme.

Ultimately, the outcome of these hearings was that, motivated by interests related to national security, the U.S. military had made questionable and unethical decisions in granting a number of Austrian and German scientists immigration clearance under Operation Paperclip.

This outcome led to the establishment of the Office of Special Investigations, whose aim was to investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals residing in the U.S. under Project Paperclip.

Little came of these investigations, though the German engineer Arthur Rudolph, who was an accused war criminal, struck a deal with the U.S. Government that involved him renouncing his U.S. citizenship and leaving the country in exchange for not being formally prosecuted.

Wernher von Braun – Operation Paperclip’s Most Notorious Designee

Wernher von Braun is arguably the best-known of the Paperclip scientists. Von Braun played a key role in the development of the V-2 rocket and later became one of NASA’s most crucial scientists.

Especially noteworthy was his central role in designing Saturn V, the rocket that was used in the Apollo space missions. Additionally, von Braun collaborated with Walt Disney to develop a number of films to encourage public interest in human space travel.

Wernher von Braun
Wernher von Braun, wearing suit and Nazi Party Badge, with senior Officers in Pomerania, in March 1941

Von Braun was also an active member of the Allgemeine-SS prior to the Second World War and was allegedly commended for his contributions to the Nazi Party more generally while he was a member.

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And, while von Braun claimed to have only joined the SS and Nazi Party out of fear of persecution, accounts of his conduct throughout the Second World War muddy the waters further.

The Mittelwerk factory, which was operated by slave labourers imprisoned in concentration camps, was one that played a key role in von Brau’s rocket programme.


In fact, conditions at Mittelwerk were so inhumane that more people died constructing V-2 rockets than were actually killed by the rockets themselves.

Some anecdotal accounts even describe von Braun travelling to the Buchenwald concentration camp to handpick inmates to work as slave labourers for his rocket programme, and ordering a prisoner to be whipped at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Von Braun denied ever having visited Mittelbau-Dora, however.

Retrospectively, von Braun recounted that he was aware of the atrocities occurring under the Nazi regime, but didn’t feel there was anything he could do to change the situation.

In any case, von Braun’s past was no obstacle to his professional success in the U.S., where he was eventually awarded the National Medal of Science in 1975, not long before his death in 1977 due to kidney cancer.