Considering History: Operation Paperclip and Nazis in America

This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

On September 20, 1945, the infamous Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun arrived at Fort Strong, a U.S. military site on Long Island in Boston Harbor. In a period when many of von Braun’s Nazi colleagues were preparing to be tried in the Nuremberg war crimes trials that would commence exactly two months later, von Braun and other Nazi scientists were instead being brought to the United States to serve as prized members (and often leaders) of teams researching the space program, weapons technology, and other initiatives. Known as Operation Paperclip, this secret endeavor, led by the federal government’s newly created Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA), would eventually bring more than 1600 German scientists — many of them former Nazis — to America between 1945 and 1959.

Scientist Wernher von Braun in front of a rocket booster
Wernher von Braun in front of five F-1 engines of the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle (NASA)

The Soviet Union was similarly pursuing Nazi scientists for its own weapons and space programs, and so Operation Paperclip can be framed as part of the incipient Cold War, a reflection of how quickly and thoroughly the two nations pivoted from their tenuous World War II alliance to this new, multi-decade conflict. Yet at the same time, the relationship between the U.S. government and these Nazi scientists cannot be separated from the longstanding, deeply rooted presence of Nazis and antisemitism in America. From prominent figures and voices to mass movements and rallies, the two decades leading up to World War II featured numerous connections between Americans and Nazi Germany, links that reveal that Nazism was never simply a foreign or enemy force.

Group of German scientists who worked for the United States after World War II
104 German rocket scientists who worked in America after World War II (NASA)

One of those Americans with close ties to Nazi Germany was also one of the most successful and famous Americans of the early 20th century: Henry Ford. The automobile inventor and entrepreneur wasn’t just a strident anti-Semite—he was apparently an influence on the rise of German Nazism and even Adolf Hitler himself. Between 1920 and 1927, Ford and his aide Ernest G. Liebold published The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper that they used principally to expound anti-Semitic views and conspiracy theories; many of Ford’s writings in that paper were published in Germany as a four-volume collection entitled The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem (1920-1922). Heinrich Himmler wrote in 1924 that Ford was “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters,” and Hitler went further: in Mein Kampf (1925) he called Ford “a single great man” who “maintains full independence” from America’s Jewish “masters”; and in a 1931 Detroit News interview, Hitler called Ford an “inspiration.” In 1938, Ford received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, one of Nazi Germany’s highest civilian honors.

Henry Ford
Henry Ford (Library of Congress)

After his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic, aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh was another of the period’s most famous Americans, and in 1938 Lindbergh likewise received a Cross of the German Eagle in 1938, this one from German air chief Hermann Goering himself. Over the next two years, Lindbergh’s public opposition to American conflict with Nazi Germany deepened, and despite subsequent attempts to recuperate that opposition as fear over Soviet Russia’s influence, Lindbergh’s views depended entirely on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that equaled Ford’s. In a September 1939 nationwide radio address, for example, Lindbergh argued, “We must ask who owns and influences the newspaper, the news picture, and the radio station, … If our people know the truth, our country is not likely to enter the war.” Seen in this light, Lindbergh’s role as spokesman for the era’s America First Committee makes clear that that organization’s non-interventionist philosophies during World War II could not and cannot be separated from the antisemitism and Nazi sympathies of figures like Lindbergh and Ford.

American Nazism was much more than just a perspective held by elite anti-Semites — it was very much a movement. And like so many problematic social movements, it featured a demagogic voice to help spread its alternative realities — in this case, the Catholic priest turned radio host Charles Edward Coughlin. By the time World War II began, Coughlin had been publicly supporting both Nazi Germany and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for years; his weekly magazine, Social Justice, ran for much of 1938 excerpts from the deeply anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text that contributed directly to Hitler’s views and the Holocaust. Both Social Justice and Coughlin’s radio show were hugely popular throughout the 1930s — a separate post office was constructed in his hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan just to process the roughly 80,000 letters he and show received each week—illustrating that American Nazism and anti-Semitism were widespread views in the period.

Man selling Charles Edward Coughlin's Social Justice newspaper
Coughlin’s newspaper, Social Justice, being sold in New York in 1939 (Library of Congress)

No moment reflected that American movement better than the February 20, 1939 rally that brought more than 20,000 Nazi supporters to New York’s Madison Square Garden. The rally was put on by the German American Bund, a national organization which consistently sought to wed pro-Nazi Germany sentiments to direct appeals to mythic images of American identity and patriotism. To that end, the rally was held on George Washington’s birthday, and the stage featured a portrait of Washington flanked by both American flags and Nazi flags/swastikas. After the rally opened with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Bund secretary James Wheeler-Hill proclaimed in his introductory speech that “If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler.” And in his closing speech, Bund leader Fritz Julius Kuhn went further, arguing that “The Bund is open to you, provided you are sincere, of good character, of white gentile stock, and an American citizen imbued with patriotic zeal.”

The German American Bund rally that was held in Madison Square Garden
The February 1939 German American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden in New York (The Nazis Strike, 1943)

Yet many other Americans expressed their patriotic zeal by opposing this Nazi rally. An estimated 100,000 protesters gathered outside the Garden, dwarfing the 20,000 or so Nazi sympathizers inside. The protesters featured World War I veterans, members of the Socialist Workers Party, and countless other local and national organizations and communities. And inside the rally, one young man took such opposition a step further: Kuhn’s speech was interrupted when Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old Jewish-American plumber’s assistant from Brooklyn (and future World War II naval sailor), charged the stage. Greenbaum was attacked by Bund guards, pulled away by police, and charged with disorderly conduct, for which he paid a $25 fine to avoid a 10-day jail sentence. But he was not the least bit apologetic, later stating, “Gee, what would you have done if you were in my place listening to that s.o.b. hollering against the government and publicly kissing Hitler’s behind while thousands cheered? Well, I did it.”

More than 100,000 anti-Nazi protesters outside of Madison Square Garden, 1939 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, public domain)
Isadore Greenbaum
Isadore Greenbaum (Stars & Stripes, December 8, 1944)

Greenbaum and his fellow protesters make clear that these pro-Nazi sentiments were in no way unopposed in, nor exemplary of, 1930s America. But neither can those figures mitigate the troubling realities of the rally and its reflection of widespread American support for Hitler and the Nazis, support that included some of the nation’s most famous individuals as well as tens of thousands of other Americans. In a moment when Nazi imagery and sentiments have returned to American social and political debates, we would do well to remember their deep roots in our culture.

Featured image: German American Bund parade in New York City in 1937 (Library of Congress)

“I Tracked the Lindbergh Kidnapper”

Arthur Koehler, wood technologist
Arthur Koehler carefully studied the ladder’s wood to trace its origin to the kidnapper. Photo by Forest Products Laboratory.

[Editor’s Update: March 1, 2017] 85 years ago, the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. Here is the story of the amateur sleuth who cracked the case.

On April 2, 1932, one month after his infant son had been taken from his nursery bed, aviator Charles Lindbergh helped deliver $50,000 in ransom to a dark figure in a Manhattan cemetery. The man gave directions to where the child could be found, then stepped back into the darkness and disappeared.

Investigators had neither a suspect nor a trail to follow. The only evidence from the kidnapping were 13 ransom notes, a chisel found outside the Lindbergh home, and a homemade ladder the kidnapper had used to reach the second-story nursery window and take the infant.

Police couldn’t even obtain evidence from the recovered child because the baby was not where the kidnapper indicated. In fact, Charles Lindbergh Jr. wasn’t even alive. He’d been killed on the night of the kidnapping and found about two months later.

For the next 29 months, the police were no closer to arresting the man who had abducted the infant son of America’s favorite hero. But one man was quietly pursuing his own investigation and making steady, slow progress toward finding the kidnapper. His story, which he told in his Post article, “Who Made That Ladder?” recounted his years of effort tracking down the man who abducted Charles Lindbergh Jr.

Arthur Koehler worked at the government’s Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin, researching new commercial uses for wood. Two months after the kidnapping, investigators from the New Jersey State Police brought him wood samples from the ladder and asked him what he could learn from them.

He quickly identified the wood as North Carolina pine. Through a microscope, he could tell the ladder had been fashioned with a plane that had a dull, chipped blade.

He noticed that the vertical rails had been previously used for something else. Holes spaced 16 inches apart showed where a square-cut nail had been driven through the board, then later pulled out.

Lindbergh Kidnapping Ladder
A reproduction of the kidnapping ladder shown in position at the nursery window.

For months, Koehler studied these pieces, particularly the slight undulations in the wood produced when the board was made at the sawmill. He concluded that the board could only have been made with a certain configuration of cutting tools. So, for the next year, he visited dozens of lumber mills, looking for the one that made boards with that unique pattern.

He finally found it in a small town in South Carolina. The mill owners told him they had shipped wood that matched the ladder sample to 42 lumberyards. So Koehler began a new search. All through 1933, he traveled to scores of cities, ruling out lumberyards with wood that didn’t match the ladder’s North Carolina pine.

Finally, in December 1933, he came to the National Lumber & Millwork Company in the Bronx. Yes, the yard foreman told him, they had received a shipment of pine from the South Carolina mill, but that was years ago. It had all been sold long ago.

However, the foreman recalled using some wood from that shipment to build a storage bin. He pulled off a piece of wood from the bin and handed it to Koehler, who quickly pulled out his magnifying glass. “One look was enough!” he wrote. “This made me positive the ladder rails had been a part of a small shipment of 2,263 feet of one-by-four-inch lumber to this Bronx firm.”

The next step was to find who had bought the wood. Unfortunately, all sales at the lumberyard were cash only. They had no receipts that might carry the name of the buyer.

So this was it, Koehler assumed. This was as far as he could go. He could trace the ladder’s wood to a lumberyard but no farther.

While Koehler was learning this from the foreman, two men walked up to the lumberyard’s sales counter. One held out a $10 bill to pay for a 40-cent piece of plywood. But when he saw Koehler, he suddenly changed his mind and left, leaving the wood behind. Thinking the men were acting suspiciously, the foreman went out into the street to get the license number of the car as the men drove away. He had recognized one of the two men, he told Koehler. It was a former employee of the lumberyard, Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

Nine months later, the FBI arrested Hauptmann after he passed some of the ransom money at a gas station. Investigators immediately searched his property and found a box of the ransom money in Hauptmann’s garage.

Lumber Yard
The Lindbergh ladder lumber might have come from any of a thousand mills, from Texas to New Jersey; the microscope traced it to the Dorn Mill, McCormick, South Carolina.

When Koehler was called to the house, he found a wood plane that made the planing marks on the ladder. More important, he discovered that some flooring boards had been pulled from the joists in the attic. These boards had the same grain pattern and age as the ladder’s wood. He then placed a section of the ladder over the nail holes in the joists: they matched perfectly.

Koehler’s testimony proved invaluable the next year when Hauptmann was tried and convicted.

Reading through his testimony, we found an interesting point that Koehler didn’t make in his article; he conducted his investigation—two years of inquiries, testing, and travel—using only his own time and money.