By Tom Carney Reprinted with permission of Old Huntsville Magazine
The following material was obtained from the files of the FBI and Army Intelligence as well as personal interviews conducted in Huntsville, Alabama.
August 16, 1948
This is to advise you that by memorandum dated July 26, 1948, Mr. Peyton Ford, the Assistant to the Attorney General, advised the Bureau that it is the desire of the Attorney General that the Bureau conduct a thorough investigation concerning Werhner von Braun with particular emphasis on the internal security aspects of the emigration of von Braun into the United States for permanent residence.
The El Paso Division is requested to obtain all pertinent information concerning von Braun, including his living habits and all available derogatory information which would indicate whether or not his presence in the United States is or might be a threat to the security of the United States.
With this note J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, set into motion an investigation and surveillance that would last more than three decades and fill thousands of pages with facts, but also gossip and often frivolous innuendo.
At the end of WW II, Werhner von Braun was considered to be the most eminent rocket scientist in the world. At the age of twenty he had been employed by the German military and within a few years was in charge of Peenemunde, a rocket research center in northern Germany employing over 15000 people. Although employed by the military to build weapons of war, von Braun and his team of scientists shared the dream of space flight, something most people considered sheer fantasy at the time.
Among many other projects, his group of German scientists had developed the V-2 rockets used to successfully bomb London. For better or worse, the V-2s brought von Braun to the attention of intelligence agencies around the world. With the end of hostilities in Europe a mad scramble was begun to recruit von Braun and his team. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that some of the Germans possessed what some people considered to be Nazi backgrounds.
The FBI Files of Werhner Von Braun--Part 2
By Tom Carney
Reprinted with permission of Old Huntsville Magazine
Although many departments of the government were prepared to ignore this fact, and offer contracts of employment, President Roosevelt had earlier squelched the idea.
“I do not believe that we should offer any guarantees of protection. ... I think that any offering of guarantees would be difficult and misunderstood in this country and abroad.”
After Roosevelt's death, a plan was developed whereby von Braun would be brought to this country temporarily “under the protective custody of the JIA.” (Joint Intelligence Agency)
"We were told," recalled one of the scientists, "that we would enter the country with the knowledge and approval of the President (Truman). We had no legal status, but we came under the auspices of the Army."
In a 1952 interview, however, President Truman stated, "He (von Braun) may have been brought over here by the Army, but I knew nothing about it."
Von Braun and select members of his team were sent to Fort Bliss, Texas where investigators from different government agencies began an endless round of interrogations. The Germans were quizzed relentlessly about their backgrounds, their work, the Nazi party and contacts in the Russian zone. Von Braun answered the questions truthfully; he freely admitted to having joined the Nazi party and the SS. If he had done otherwise it would have been discovered immediately.
The Army had captured all of their records and background information and used it to double-check the scientist’s replies. Every time a different, or wrong, answer was given, it would start another round of interrogations.
Although many of the Germans diplomatically described their stay at Fort Bliss as being “prisoners of peace,” in reality they had no legal status. They had been brought into this country without visas, confined to a small area under constant surveillance and with their mail and phone calls censored. Von Braun, realizing that their ultimate fate might be determined by their actions, implored his team to observe the regulations.
El Paso Division, FBI
Major Hamill advised that Magnus von Braun, the brother of Werhner, sold a bar of platinum for $100. ... He admitted he had brought the bar to the United States in violation of the customs laws. Major Hamill stated that when this matter was brought to the attention of Werhner von Braun ... he administered a severe beating to his brother.
Major Hamill stated that from his conduct he had always thought Werhner von Braun to be very honorable ... and the violation of the trust by his brother and subsequent action strengthened his view.
In all fairness, it must be stated the Magnus von Braun had used the money from the sale to purchase food to send to his family in Germany where it was virtually impossible to obtain anything.
It was at first thought that government authorities would “pick the Germans’ minds” for the information they had and then send them back to Germany. After a short while, however, the authorities realized the team’s knowledge was so vast that short-term interrogations would serve no meaningful purpose. The only alternative was to keep von Braun in this country by letting him legally immigrate.
In February of 1947, the JIA submitted von Braun’s name, and his background information, to the State Department for review prior to granting a visa. Samuel Klaus, the State Department representative, angrily denied the application pointing out that von Braun was an “ardent Nazi and a security risk.”
At the end of the war the Army had automatically rejected anyone who belonged to the Nazi party or the SS. After a few months this was changed when they realized that 1 out of 4 adult males in Germany had belonged to the party and many people had held honorary memberships in the SS and other organizations. To have excluded everyone in this classification would have made the recruitment of specialists virtually impossible.
The State Department, however, insisted on strict interpretation of the prior policy.
The JIA then developed a plan to sanitize the records. A General in the United States Army approached J. Edgar Hoover and explained how critical it was that von Braun remain in this country. Hoover then ordered his agents to begin their own investigation.
In conjunction with the FBI, Army Intelligence and the JIA, von Braun’s background was carefully gone over, with many questionable matters deleted or changed. Derogatory statements were ignored, or reinvestigated, until the findings suited the Army’s purpose.
El Paso Division, FBI
It is noted that XXX made statements to the effect that von Braun was, in his opinion, an avowed Nazi party member and that his opinion is based on von Braun’s actions and talk and the personal impression he gained from conversation with von Braun. He also stated that he had learned from British Intelligence that von Braun held a commission in the SS and was personally decorated by Hitler for his work on the V-2.
El Paso Division, FBI
In view of the information contained therein reflecting that XXX has no definite information ... no further investigation in this case is being conducted and it will remain in a closed status in this office.
The new dossiers, once they had been changed, were resubmitted to the State Department. Several of the Germans, after learning of the changes and fearing repercussions in the future, vehemently protested. The last thing they wanted were to be accused of lying at some future date.
Although it is impossible to know exactly what transpired, von Braun evidently had reservations too, as in the end he did not even sign his "new affidavit.”
“We were told to not say anything,” one German recalled. “If anything ever came up, they said they would take care of it.”
o clear up the problem of conducting personal interviews with people who might say something derogatory about the scientists, the FBI simply interviewed the Germans about one another. Many of the interviews read as if they were written by the same person.
The new security application was quickly cleared by the State Department and in the winter of 1948 von Braun walked across the border at Juarez, Mexico where he applied for a visa to enter the United States. A few hours later, after receiving the proper documentation, he crossed the border back into the States as a legal immigrant. His new papers were duly stamped with Mexico being his entry point into the United States.
Even though the FBI considered the case closed, it continued to collect information about von Braun.
El Paso Division, FBI
... under no circumstances does XXX recommend von Braun for citizenship, inasmuch as he felt von Braun would never lose his Nazi sympathies. He stated, however, that he felt von Braun would be of a greater danger to this country if he became a national of some other nation rather than the United States. He felt von Braun’s knowledge and capabilities were needed and that it would be dangerous to let him return to Germany or Russia.
In 1950, the government transferred the rocket program from Fort Bliss to Huntsville. For von Braun and his team members, it was a new beginning. Most of the scientists had lived and worked, under tight military control, on military bases since the 1930s. Citizenship, which was once thought of as merely a means to live in this country, took on a new meaning as the Germans began experiencing a new found freedom. Within a short while many had become members of civic organizations and were becoming fiercely loyal to their adopted country.
June 14, 1951
Internal Security, FBI
... The interview with the subject should be conducted by an experienced agent in a discreet and tactful manner. ... In reporting the information received during this interview, the interviewing agent should include his comments and evaluation concerning the attitude, cooperation, and sincerity of subject ... as to his intention of obtaining United States Citizenship.
July, 19, 1951
... von Braun and his wife have applied for their first citizenship papers and he stated they were looking forward to becoming American citizens. As previously stated, he has purchased a home in Huntsville, and mentioned that his plans at the present time are to reside in Huntsville, Alabama.
The United States was entering the Cold War period. Any allegation of Communist sympathies, regardless of how absurd, was investigated. When it was reported that von Braun had been receiving the “Daily Worker,” a Communist newspaper, the FBI, the Army Intelligence and Redstone Security launched an investigation.
Nov. 20, 1952
Internal Security, FBI
... von Braun also stated he had never received the “Daily Worker” Communist newspaper, never read a copy of the newspaper, and had never received any literature which he felt was Communistic in any way.
Colliers Magazine, in 1952, had made von Braun a household name when they ran several articles about his quest for outer space flight. During the resulting publicity, someone leaked to Drew Pearson, a well known New York columnist, information about von Braun’s membership in the Nazi party.
When Pearson published the allegations it caused a minor uproar, with many people demanding an investigation. After a brief period of silence, the Army issued a statement that it, as well as the FBI, had investigated von Braun’s past and had found nothing to justify the accusations.
Von Braun was questioned by several reporters about the allegations, but referred them to the Army. Already, he was caught in a catch 22. He could not deny the stories without lying but if he had confirmed them, he would be disputing the very government that he worked for.
As Huntsville grew used to a smiling von Braun enjoying the benefits of living in a free country, there was another side they never saw. His every movement was monitored by different security agencies, he was forbidden to travel outside the country and even his friends were closely scrutinized.
... In addition he mentioned that perhaps the FBI ... would be interested to know that We von Braun, scientist, was a houseguest of XXX.
Once after moving to Huntsville, von Braun was riding in a car with a friend when suddenly he began to express frustration. “I don’t like being treated like a foreign spy. Everywhere I go, the FBI has me followed. I can’t even go to the bathroom without the FBI following me.”
When his friend showed surprise, von Braun told him to look behind them. “That third car in the back has been following us since we left. It’s FBI men. They’re always around. My telephone is bugged, and the FBI reads more of my mail than I do. I hope someday they will trust me and leave me alone.”
This office is now in receipt of information through the Post Office Inspector, Chattanooga, Tenn., originating from XXX, Postmaster, Vinemont, Alabama as follows:
The Postmaster at Vinemont has had on occasion to notice a number of letters mailed at the Vinemont Post Office by a XXX, whose mail bears the return address of Dr. Werhner von Braun ... Huntsville, Ala. ... and on Oct. 6, 1953, a 13 oz. letter was mailed first class to XXX, London, England.
Postmaster advised that previous letters were addressed to Sweden, Germany and some place in Florida ... it does appear that for some reason Von Braun does not wish that such mail pass through the Huntsville Post Office.
On April 21, 1955, in the auditorium of the old Huntsville High School, Werhner von Braun was sworn in as an American citizen. The FBI duly noted the event by carefully clipping the newspaper articles and placing them in his files. Later, when he received an award from Notre Dame, that clipping was also added.
Von Braun was finding out that the United States was a much different place than Nazi Germany, where Hitler could budget a massive rocket program on a personal whim. In the U.S., politicians controlled the budget and were squeamish about voting for anything that did not have public support. Von Braun and the Army realized this and began a massive publicity campaign to garner public support. By 1957, Werhner von Braun had become one of the best known men in the United States.
Hon. Edgar Hoover
... The latest issue of Life Magazine pinpoints the life and habits of Werhner von Braun, one of the great scientists at Redstone. ... This letter may sound farfetched to you, but when the Russians can kidnap several men in New York City in broad daylight, it would seem a simple matter for a fellow traveler to sabotage Von Braun’s private plane. ...
Evidently Hoover had the same concerns as he forwarded a copy of the letter to the Secretary of the Army. The warning proved oddly prophetic considering what happened later.
Attempt To Wreck Plane
... von Braun was scheduled to take his test on instrument flying … in preparation for this flight, the plane was completely examined and declared to be in perfect condition. XXX took the plane on a short test flight and when only a short distance from the airport the engine cut out. XXX said the engine cutout was caused by someone deliberately placing oil on the back side of the magneto post. It was common knowledge that von Braun was to take a test flight ... it would have to be someone who was familiar with the mechanics of an airplane … no way for oil to get there unless it had been placed there ... by placing oil in this position it would soon cause the magneto to become overheated and then result in the motor cutting out.
Much of the data the FBI collected on von Braun raises more mysteries than they solve. When Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, six pages of data, labeled “Classified” and entitled “Khrushchev In The United States” were placed in von Braun’s files. When they were released under the Freedom of Information Act, the file was completely blacked out. Another memo, also blacked out and dealing with Internal Security, Germany, was entitled “Reactivation of Nazis.”
An idea of the tight surveillance von Braun was under is suggested by the following entry.
XXX had told him that a brother of von Braun’s in Germany had suggested to the subject that he get in touch with Werhner von Braun who might help get him a job ... about 18 months ago he telephoned long distance to von Braun ... and that shortly afterwards he was interviewed by the FBI. ...
Also in the files is an invitation from Senator John Sparkman inviting Hoover to the premier of “I Aim At The Stars,” a movie based on von Braun’s life. Although it is not known if Hoover attended, in a later memo, Clyde Tolson, Assistant Director of the FBI, declined to have von Braun talk at a FBI breakfast, writing “von Braun is a phony, and the director agrees.”
By the early 1960s, confidence in our government's policy was at an all time low. The Russians were beating us in space and we had just suffered the embarrassing debacle at the Bay Of The Pigs. To counter this, President Kennedy proposed a bold new national incentive of placing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The attention of the free world was immediately focused on Huntsville, Alabama as people everywhere looked to von Braun and his team of German scientists to salvage American prestige.
... states that von Braun is a German and will always remain a German. ... states that von Braun exhibits an arrogance and aloofness characterized by his racial pride.
Ironically, at the same time the FBI was gathering derogatory information about von Braun, they were also enlisting his help, apparently for purposes of espionage.
... many of these people have contacts in the Russian zone. ... many of the scientists make trips to Europe to confer concerning missiles and therefore would be possible subjects for this type of program . ... von Braun has become very Americanized and in the past has mentioned that he would try to find out anything that is required and would completely cooperate insofar as setting up anyone who would possibly be considered for such a program ... the scientists are completely under the control of von Braun and generally look to him for guidance and control.
Many politicians and people in private industry resented the fact that von Braun, a German, was in charge of the space program. Files began to surface concerning his past.
... von Braun was a member of the following German organizations;
NSF - National Socialist Air Corp
NSDAP - Nazi Party
SS - Schutzstaffel
SS Riding School
Once the documents became public they created a furor. Enterprising reporters from around the world began digging, searching for any morsel that would sell more papers.
One writer ran a story about von Braun not returning to Germany, in 1947, to testify in a war crimes trial of an associate. The same story claimed von Braun was wanted in Germany for De-Nazification hearings.
The author neglected to point out that von Braun was under the control of the Army at the time and they had refused to let him leave the country. Even though, he submitted a written statement that was presented at the trial. Virtually ignored was the fact that the associate had been found innocent.
Another reporter dug up a story about von Braun being named a professor, and later receiving a high medal, from Adolph Hitler personally.
All of the accusations could have been explained easily in a few short sentences if someone had spoken up. Von Braun had been a member of the Luftwaffe Reserve. As a high ranking official, he had been required to join the party in 1937, a time when Germany was at peace and few people had the slightest idea of the horrible excesses which was to follow. He had received an honorary membership in the SS from Himmler for his work on the rocket program, which would have been difficult, if not suicidal, to turn down.
One of the most esteemed members of the rocket team later explained von Braun’s actions. “Germany, in many ways, was like the United States. You could support your country without liking the president. The difference was that as a US citizen you are entirely free to express your opinions. In Nazi Germany, you lost at least your freedom, and possibly your life if you did so.”
Another scientist explained it differently. “Don’t kid yourself, we were at war. Our cities were being bombed daily. When the V-2s hit London there was an opening of Champagne bottles.”
For von Braun, however, there was no explaining. The government, of which he was now a citizen, had instigated a cover-up years earlier and to have said anything would have exposed the government’s actions, as well as jeopardizing the future of the space program.
Despite being under constant surveillance and enduring relentless attacks on his character, von Braun had nothing but praise for his adopted country. When one person wrote him, suggesting that severe measures be taken with people who opposed national interests, he wrote back, “Years of direct exposure to the Hitler regime, and its excesses, taught me a few unforgettable lessons and made me solidly opposed to any form of government which would deprive man of human dignity.”
Werhner von Braun
Subject had dinner and two drinks at Murray’s Restaurant on west 47th street at 7:15 until 8:20. Subject was accompanied by two males, one known and one unknown. Subject returned to hotel approximately 9:00 and did not leave room for the rest of the night. More information on unknown not available at this time.
In private, however, von Braun was willing to talk. When an acquaintance wrote him about the accusations, von Braun replied, “... yes, I was a member of the Nazi party and the SS. I would appreciate it if you would treat this as confidential ... for the sake of NASA.”
A high official at NASA offered his view. “We lied when we brought von Braun over here, and then told him to keep his mouth shut. Can you imagine him holding a press conference to explain why he joined the Nazi Party? That would have been the end of him and the space program. The poor S.O.B., didn‘t have a chance! He just had to stand there and take it. People say von Braun used us, but the truth is ... we used him.“
Source advised that a group of concentration camp survivors picketed Werhner von Braun, NASA official who attended a banquet. ... Twenty-five pickets paraded from 5 to 7 PM carrying signs referring to von Braun’s Nazi background.
In 1968 an enterprising reporter uncovered documents from von Braun’s 1947 background investigation. After comparing the files to the official records from Germany he realized they had been altered, and assumed von Braun had done so. The following story was entitled, “Nazi Lies!”
“That was hardest for von Braun,” recalled one scientist, “to be called a liar. The only time I ever mentioned it to him, he told me to be patient and everything would work out.”
Von Braun had suffered in silence, for decades, for the dream of sending a man to the moon. In 1968 the huge Saturn V rocket was at Cape Canaveral waiting to be launched. All systems were go and it would have been virtually impossible to kill the program at that point. Von Braun, realizing this, seized the opportunity to do something he had waited years for. The German government had quietly been investigating rumors and collecting documents concerning his war time past. In February of 1969 he appeared at the German Embassy in New Orleans to answer the accusations. The Embassy was supplied with the relevant files from the FBI, the CIA, the Army, and the German Archives. After days of intensive probing and questioning, Werhner von Braun was completely exonerated.
It barely made the news.
Several months later in July of 1969, Werhner von Braun saw his lifelong goal of putting a man on the moon come true. To honor the occasion, President Richard Nixon invited von Braun and his wife to a dinner at the White House.
Counsel to the President
Reference is made ... in connection with the White House Affair. ... Dr. Werhner von Braun ... was subject of investigations conducted by the FBI in 1948 and 1961 ... information was developed that he received an honorary SS Commission as a Lieutenant and had been a member of the Nazi Party. ...
He had worked for the United States for twenty-eight years, placed a man on the moon and was the Director of Marshall Space Flight Center with a budget of 1.5 billion dollars and 8,000 employees, but to the FBI he was still a Nazi.
In 1977 President Ford awarded von Braun the National Medal of Science. He was in the hospital, his body wracked with cancer, and unable to attend the White House ceremony. Later a friend visited the hospital and gave him the medal.
As von Braun looked at the medal he probably remembered when he was a small child dreaming of building a spaceship someday that would carry men into outer space. He probably thought of the country he had grown up in and how it had been devastated by war. And he probably thought of his adopted country, a former enemy, which had given him the medal.
They said a tear rolled down his cheek as he laid in the hospital bed with the medal clutched tightly in his hand.
Werhner von Braun supported his native country in a time of war, and for that he bore the stigma of Nazism for the rest of his life. When all the accusations are finally put to rest, perhaps historians will look at the man and discover who he really was ... a loyal German citizen, who became a great American hero.