Ethics Quiz: Operation Paperclip

That’s Wernher in the nice suit…

In the previous post, I discussed the position holding that scientists should be shunned, and even blocked from grants and research opportunities, based on their character flaws, statements, and workplace misconduct.

Operation Paperclip was a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency that occurred between 1956 and 1959.  The operation  brought more than 1,600 Nazi German scientists, engineers, and technicians, most notably Wernher von Braun and his V-2 rocket researchers, plus their family members (bringing the total to over 6,000 Germans)  to the U.S. for government employment in the effort to gain a military and scientific advantage over the Soviet Union in the post-war world. The Soviet Union took their own selection of German scientists.

The Ethics Incompleteness Principle states that…

…when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.” No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Week:

Was Operation Paperclip a proper use of the Ethics Incompleteness Principle, or should these Nazi scientists have been deemed unworthy of funding and research support due to their beliefs and political activities?

49 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Operation Paperclip

  1. Most of them were not Nazi’s. We probably should not equate ‘German’ with ‘Nazi’, since not everyone in Germany was a member of the Party, the Government or was a sadistic sociopath.

    • My father would vigorously disagree, and I think I do as well. A nation is responsible for its leaders and what a government does. My father said that you couldn’t find a Nazi after the war: everyone he met claimed that it was the other folks who were Nazis. They, of course, always opposed Hitler.

      My dad said he had more respect for the Germans who just admitted that they supported Hitler.

      • Is that just like after the war it seems like ALL Frenchmen were in the resistance and never supported the Vichy regime? It’s just the human desire to flee from the losing side and join the winning side. I still sneer at the story I heard a few years back about an American officer who confronted a German mayor with evidence of nearby Holocaust activity and of course His Honor knew NOTHING about it. The American major was unimpressed, dumped a pile of shovels in front of the mayor and municipal council, and told them to get to work burying the bodies.

        BTW, does the same reasoning apply to the Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians? I’d argue it definitely does apply in the case of the Iranians, who welcomed Khomeini back with open arms like the Second Coming, participated in human wave attacks for him, and have the audacity to call themselves a democracy…except the little matter of all candidates must be approved by the unelected religious supreme leader. The others I am not as certain. Actually I am – Iraq had over two decades of Saddam formally in power and maybe three of him both formally and informally. The people knew damn well what he was doing, and were perfectly ok with doing whatever it took to keep their rations flowing while Saddam had three meals cooked very day in his sixteen palaces, whether he was going to be there or not. The Afghans were able to keep the Soviets, one of the two most powerful nations in the world, from conquering them, but couldn’t keep some kook from wrapping himself in a 1,300 year old cape and declaring himself “commander of the faithful,” the supreme leader, no elections necessary.

      • Does this mean your dad was also responsible for locking up all the Japanese-Americans during WWII then?

        Does it also mean you’re responsible for everything Obama did? Wouldn’t that also mean every complaint you’ve made is really about what you’ve helped do?

        (Now go try telling a liberal that Trump is their fault. Ha! Would love to see that!)

        • 1. Of course it does. Every American, collectively, is responsible for what its leaders do. And accountable.
          2. And liberals are absolutely responsible for Trump–spectacularly and undeniably so.

          • I would agree with # 2 unequivocally. Number 1 however…we, in the U.S. have only elections to change our government. Thus, Trump. The Germans, at the time, had to contend with the Wehrmacht, the Gestapo, the S.S. and the Abwehr. Elections, after Hitler became Chancellor were no longer actual elections…your vote was ‘supervised’, and who you should vote for was made obvious. Execution was the penalty for resistance. So, yeah, I’ve still got a lot of sympathy for the average German, who just wanted to be left alone, to live his/her life as best as he/she could.

                  • I would disagree with that, Jack. In some cases, and this is one of them, ethics WILL GET US KILLED! At my age, it wouldn’t matter to me much…to a 22-year-old millennial, it might. Not saying this is a good thing, but it is understandable.

                  • I agree with DD, and your further illumination Jack: we are fighting a cold war where the other side is no longer taking prisoners. They want either complete, full hearted conversion to their side, or death for those that disagree with their obvious, virtuous wisdom.

                    We are rapidly coming to the place where the choice is to fight the Left or join the collective. Progressives are using scorched earth tactics, and moderates are not tolerated any longer.

                    • I believe, no, I know from first hand accounts, that the German population had to face this same choice. Some resisted, and others converted, at least ‘on paper,’ to survive. This was war, and the ethics of the situation were moot to the survival of the common people.

          • Then how can we complain about anything Obama did? Anything he did that we didn’t like is simply things that we allowed him to do. Wouldn’t that make us hypocrites for saying anything bad about him.

            He was a great President, we were just lousy enablers.

            • I know you know the clear difference between sharing responsibility for it and approving of it. I am responsible for the fact that my roof is leaking. That doesn’t mean I approve of it. Americans have complete responsibility for reelecting Obama despite the fact that his incompetence and weakness were manifest. You also understand the difference between collective responsibility and individual responsibility. This makes this comment (and your last one) dangerously akin to trolling, as in “arguing in bad faith.”

          • Understood. The hypothetical is, however, that if you were a anti-Nazi scientist in Nazi Germany, if you followed the best ethical principles, you would refuse to work for them, even choose to die rather than give them anything. Then your pregnant wife and your son and your daughter, and etc. unto the end of the line were killed, one by one. How far do you go to stand by your principles? How wide is your responsibility? Is this not time for the “incompleteness” you describe?

  2. Weren’t they essentially slaves in a guilded cage?

    You can come work for us and get decent treatment or, you know, prisoner of war camps, war crimes trials, the rope. We surly can’t let you go around making rockets for just anyone now can we?

    I feel like the ethical question here relates to taking humans as spoils of war.

  3. Yes, but mostly because the new enemy presented a more dangerous threat than the now-vanquished Nazis. We also cut a few Japanese officers who did some unsavory things a break in exchange for their research. I used to say that people had friends, but nations had interests. I would also add that people have one type of scruples, nations have another. Sometimes national leaders have to swallow their personal principles and do something they’d never think was ok personally because not doing it would result in a much bigger harm for a much bigger number.

    • I want to say that borders on 31. The Troublesome Luxury except for the minor problem of what you said being true. Ethics, especially between nations is not a suicide pact.

    • Nations are made of people, though. Gestalt effect notwithstanding, people’s interests don’t change just because there are a lot of them. The book The Leaderless Revolution by Carne Ross describes the sorts of decisions diplomats make under the pretense of “the nation’s interests”, when few individuals within the nation would consider the decision acceptable. Protecting people is relatively clear-cut, but I’d be careful about things like trade deals and alliances.

      • There’s a difference between “people” and “a people,” however, and a difference between chessmaster-type behavior, which might be making someone’s choice of evils (especially if those diplomats you describe stand to benefit themselves from whatever it is they are trying to chessmaster) and this situation, which might be taking a lesser evil to avoid a greater one.

  4. The U.S. armed forces needed missiles to get nuclear weapons over the pole and into Russia. The U.S. was at war with the Soviets.

    I got to know a retired University of Arizona physics professor who’d done thermodynamic modelling on the hydrogen bomb as a physics post doc in the early ’50s. He was a run of the mill Tucson left in every regard and was building violins out of wood he’d select with electronic sonic devices and computer analysis rather than his ear. Anyway, I asked him whether he’d had an ethical problem using his science expertise in working on the murderous H-Bomb. Much to my surprise he nearly erupted (he was a very serene guy) and almost shouted, “Hell No! It was either we got there first or the Soviets did.” End of discussion.

    By the way, when I’m in Germany, it’s always “the NAZIs” who did all the bad stuff. No Germans were involved. Only “the NAZIs.”

  5. Their actual beliefs and political activities or the cartoon evil version created later to justify giving Stalin half of Europe?

  6. It depends. Some were amoral opportunists like Wehner Von Braun. Use em and discard.

    Some were monsters. Lie down with dogs, you get fleas. Some prices are too high to pay. Arthur Rudolph comes to mind, and his inhuman and ungrateful treatment after he’d served his purpose didn’t come close to matching justice.

    Worse than Operation Paperclip by far was the immunity from prosecution given to Unit 731 of the Kwantung Army.

    From wiki

    ” Thousands of men, women, children, and infants interned at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was thought that the death of the subject would affect the results.

    Prisoners had limbs amputated in order to study blood loss. Those limbs that were removed were sometimes re-attached to the opposite sides of the body. Some prisoners had their stomachs surgically removed and the esophagus reattached to the intestines. Parts of organs, such as the brain, lungs, and liver, were removed from some prisoners. Imperial Japanese Army surgeon Ken Yuasa suggests that the practice of vivisection on human subjects (mostly Chinese communists) was widespread even outside Unit 731, estimating that at least 1,000 Japanese personnel were involved in the practice in mainland China.”

    In other tests, subjects were deprived of food and water to determine the length of time until death; placed into high-pressure chambers until death; experimented upon to determine the relationship between temperature, burns, and human survival; placed into centrifuges and spun until death; injected with animal blood; exposed to lethal doses of x-rays; subjected to various chemical weapons inside gas chambers; injected with sea water; and burned or buried alive”

    The Americans did not try the researchers so that the information and experience gained in bio-weapons could be co-opted into the U.S. biological warfare program, as had happened with Nazi researchers in Operation Paperclip. On 6 May 1947, Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wrote to Washington that “additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence.” Victim accounts were then largely ignored or dismissed in the West as communist propaganda.”

    Including statements by the few Dutch, British, Indian, Australian and US prisoners of war who survived because they were ‘controls’ .

    “Robert Peaty (1903–1989), a British Major in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was the senior ranking allied officer(amongst the POWs). During this time, he kept a secret diary. A copy of his entire diary exists in the NARA archives. An extract of the diary is available at the UK National Archives at Kew. He was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum in 1981, and the audio recording tape reels are in the IWM’s archives.”

    The difference between unit 731 and Mengele’s similar experimentation at Auschwitz was that Unit 731 was more methodical, and kept good records. It was good science. Mengele was an amateur doing it for kicks, and produced no worthwhile scientific data.

    What should have been done? I would, I think, have done some experimentation on the scientists of unit 731 of my own. To see what the most effective way of obtaining information and cooperation was.

    I hope I wouldn’t though. Or only used psychological methods, as they were likely the most effective anyway. I’m glad I have never been put in that position, so I can keep on telling myself I’m not a monster too.

    Those who fight monsters just beware they too don’t become monsters thereby. to quote Nietzsche again.

    • Mengele was an amateur doing it for kicks, and produced no worthwhile scientific data.

      That is incorrect. He and his colleagues got solid and valuable results on cold weather and exposure survival and treatment, which the Luftwaffe had needed ever since the ditchings during th Battle of Britain, and which came in handy on the Eastern Front after that.

      This was suppressed as a defence during the Nuremberg Trials, even though the suppressors knew or should have known better (remember, a legal defence or a claim of mitigating circumstances like wartime needs is not the same kind of thing as an ethical argument). The Canadian defence forces even used this work, in due course; some have wondered if their doing that was ethical.

      By the way, practically all Frenchmen were something in the resistance (even if only by providing or concealing information, as appropriate), or were something in the black market (my uncle was probably one of these as there was no other way he could have survived on the dodge between escaping from post-P.O.W. internment and liberation).

      A matter arising: how much of the objection is “ick factor”, and what does that tell us? This is not to dismiss it but rather to raise the point of whether “ick factor” may, itself, either obscure real issues or – more importantly – be a way of receiving a call for attention, that it may well be associated with flagging genuine problems (think C.S.Lewis on the problem of pain).

      • It was my impression that the Luftwaffe sponsored experiments were by Sigmund Rascher at Dachau. Those, and the ones on malaria by Klaus Schilling, also at Dachau, produced useful results. Nothing to do with Auschwitz.

        Enough for them both to be hanged though.

        • It was my impression that the Luftwaffe sponsored experiments were by Sigmund Rascher at Dachau. Those, and the ones on malaria by Klaus Schilling, also at Dachau, produced useful results. Nothing to do with Auschwitz.

          In my book, that was all part of the same broad research effort, which is why I put “and his colleagues”. The scattergun approach was bound to produce failures in the hope of some successes, so we can’t call Mengele’s subset futile and amateurish in that context. It’s cherry picking to separate them like that.

  7. To clarify, Operation Paperclip started in 1945 and was most active through 1959, although apparently it was not actually terminated until 1990 after 1600 men were imported into the U.S.

    The Soviet Operation Osoaviakhim took place October 26, 1946 when the Soviets forcibly rounded up over 2200 German specialists (and their families) to work for the USSR.

  8. I remember reading an interview of Werner Von Braun from many years after the war. He talked about his fear of what might happen to his country if they lost the war, claiming that although he had reservations about Hitler, once the Nazis were in power he did his best to keep Germany from losing.

    While Von Braun has been denounced as a cynical opportunist, but his motivations seemed more sincere than that description would suggest. What does a patriotic man do when his nation’s leaders are so deeply immoral, but his nation’s enemies (Stalin, especially) are similarly horrific?

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