“Three Strikes And You’re Incompetent” : The Wernher Von Braun Fiasco, And What It Tells Us About Journalism

Washington radio station WTOP decided to put a local spin on the anniversary of the moon walk by telling its website viewers about the crucial contributions to our nation’s space achievements  by “a brilliant German-American rocket engineer who is laid to rest in Alexandria, Virginia.”

The article, by Dick Uliano, was classic hagiography. No, nothing in it was false, but if a reader knew anything about Wernher Von Braun, it felt like a whitewash, which it was. Oh, there were plenty of hints in the piece that Von Braun was a Nazi, with off-hand sentences amid the upbeat prose, like “In 1932 he began work on Germany’s liquid-fuel rockets that pounded western Europe in World War II,” and “At the close of World War II, von Braun and his rocket team surrendered into the welcoming arms of the United States, which immediately put them to work in America’s space race against the Soviet Union.” Nonetheless, the article never connected the dots, leaving out the mandatory direct statement telling readers what every literate citizen knew in the 1960s: Werner Von Braun was not only a Nazi, but an unapologetic one. It is “fake news” to write about ‘the Alexandria man who was critical to the Apollo program’ without including this information. That is a material omission.

It’s true: the space program relied heavily on the contributions and expertise of Nazi scientists. This is a classic example of utilitarianism of the most unsentimental and most brutal variety. Had he not cut a deal with the Americans, von Braun very likely would have been tried and convicted of war crimes. The U.S. correctly and pragmatically concluded that making a pact with a devil was nonetheless essential to national security. That does not mean, however, that there was anything admirable about von Braun whatsoever. At best he was amoral, a mercenary. At worst he was as much of a monster as any of Hitler’s enablers.

That original article was Strike One. WTOP’s reporter either was uneducated about the subject of his article, which is incompetent, or deliberately minimized the single most important feature about him, which is dishonest. Either way, it’s unethical journalism.

There are a lot of veterans in Northern Virginia, so WTOP started getting complaints right away. The station then issued a correction that stated, “We have updated this story to explicitly state that Wernher von Braun was a Nazi.” Strike Two. The “corrected” article still made von Braun seem like a great American and one hell of a guy. He wasn’t. The article should have been overhauled to tell readers that a major though controversial figure crucial to the space program is buried in Alexandria, Virginia: here’s is why he was crucial, and here is why he’s controversial.

Then WTOP pulled the whole article, with no replacement. “After careful consideration, WTOP has decided to remove the article from our website. This story did not meet WTOP’s standards and should not have appeared on any of our platforms,” it explained. So down the memory hole the story went.

Strike Three. Rather than deal with a complicated subject and the the ethical issues it raises, just say nothing except “Never mind!” and help make sure that future generations of reporters are as historically ignorant as Dick Uliano. Nah, don’t mess up the good feelings around the moon launch by venturing into the dark origins of the space program. Better to forget about Wernher von Braun than have to think about the ethical messiness of war, science, international relations and national priorities.

This is a microcosm of 21st Century journalism, or what remains of it.

Observations:

  • What are WTOP’s “standards”? From thsi episode, I conclude that the standards involved are “don’t rock the boat,” and “if a story is going to upset the audience, leave it alone. Bliss is better than ignorance.”
  • Our schools fail our children, society and the culture by not teaching these stories. An amazing number of commenters on various websites have admitted that they had no idea that former Nazis were involved with Cold War Era weaponry and the space program. Well, I’m sorry to be a broken record on the topic of cultural literacy, but here we are again.
  • WTOP’s journalism here embraced incompetence, misrepresentation, and, in the end, cowardice, choosing to withhold information as the easier alternative to revealing unpleasant truths.

20 thoughts on ““Three Strikes And You’re Incompetent” : The Wernher Von Braun Fiasco, And What It Tells Us About Journalism

  1. I’ve always known he was a nazi and figured we were just using him.
    I did not know he was critical to the Apollo project but I would venture a guess that once we had gotten the rocket engines and propulsion systems mastered he was no longer the “rock star” scientist that was vital to the Mercury and Gemini programs.

    I can see your point that papers should give a complete story but this is or was supposed to be a feel good event. If they left his contributions out to avoid having to discuss his nazi affiliations over a decade before that would be equally as bad historically.

    I am going to liken this to the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If we need to expose all the warts and pimples of those important to this anniversary we cannot complain when some historians want to smear Thomas Jefferson or George Washington on anniversaries of events to which they played a major role.

    • Except that nothing requires us to go beyond the US effort in macro, and all the many people involved, to do a “feel good” overview. IF, however, you open that door of the moral and ethical compromises we made to get where we got, then you can’t just whitewash it, or worse, represent someone like von Braun as something he was definitely not—a hero or a patriot.

      • That’s the thing, isn’t it?

        Rarely has “The truth will set you free” been more apt. A truthful, honest report would’ve been welcomed by everyone. One wonders if that’s even possible in today’s agenda-driven journalism.

      • Agreed. I assumed the story – which I had not read/heard- was about the space program in general not just Von Braun. If he was suggested to be the central charater in the moonshot I would say WTOP got a hell of a lot more wrong than Werner’s past.

        We lost some true heros in Grissom, White and Chafee. Does anyone believe we will ever have the same level of commitment to success as Gene Krantz and the team he commanded at NASA in any current or future government agency?

        The fifty year anniversary commerates what many of us mean when we say make America great again. That is what we want to return to.

  2. “In German, und Englisch, I know how to count down
    Und I’m learning Chinese!” says Wernher von Braun.”

    Tom Lehrer

  3. They should also include a label on microwave ovens that they utilize technology developed by German scientists for delousing clothing in concentration camps.

  4. I took the time to read the WTOP piece and the article in the the Washingtonian.

    The Washingtonian article was making the same complaint as Jack such that the puff piece did not adequately describe von Braun’s nazi past and the station’s handling of complaints.

    The 1967 satire of Tom Lehrer which leads off this post is funny but would we see it as funny if the names were changed to Oppenheimer or Fermi. If we charged von Braun with war crimes for developing a weapon that reigned terror down on British subjects do we not have to charge all those who designed the incendiary bombs dropped on Dresden which was not a military target or those who created little boy and fat man.

    Braun was born in 1912 and was only 20 in 1932 when he was recruited for the German defense industry. (See how I spun that using the words defense industry instead of Army)

    How many of our current crop of college kids would understand the implications of joining a political group that wants strict social equality, limits individual expression through social intimidation and demonizes one group as the root cause of all the peoples economic inequality? Not many I would bet so I am cutting this guy a bit of slack. Given, that his government was willing to give him the resources for him to pursue his scientific passion or goals how many of our scientists are willing to risk their SBIR, DARPA, STTR, or other federal funding streams to become an anti-government activist? How many currently write their proposals for funding to match the wants of government?

    I wonder how many today can describe the conditions facing Germans in 1932. We see pictures of bread lines here but conditions were far worse in Europe.

    It should be noted that despite him holding an officer’s rank in the SS Himmler jailed him when WvB opposed Himmler’s attempt to control the rocketry program.

    I can see the criticism of a biography on von Braun if the effects of his activities producing V2 were ommitted. But for what purpose is it necessary to go deep into details of his participation in the German war machine in this piece? Did they go into his academic development in the piece? No. Did they go into detail regarding his family life and upbringing that may have lead to his joining the German military complex? No. Did they develop any material on his rationale for his joining and understanding of Himmler’s SS? No. So when we want a truthful article we need to explore who and why as well as the what. That will take a great deal of research and space.

    Personally, I am tired of people needing to make Nazi references to anyone.

    Apollo 11 and the space program in general was a joint national effort to compete for supremacy between 2 nations. It was a competition that required no indiscriminate killing to push a power agenda. We should be thankful given that was a period when “duck and cover” practice was an integral part of the school day. I recall the air raid sirens tested every Monday at 1 pm in Baltimore.

    Yes a significant person on the US team was recruited from another team who a generation earlier fought us on the battlefield but he is on our team now and never espoused any political ideology antithetical to ours during his life here. Why is it necessary to bring it up in a piece like this when his children are still in the area.?

  5. As an aside I’ve often wondered what happened to Von Braun’s nationally broadcast plan, in cooperation with Disney, to send humans safely to Mars by 1983.

    He may have been a bit of shite person, but his scientific mind was first rate.

    • I used to have a copy of “The Exploration of Mars” written by von Braun and Willy Ley in 1956. It was a beautiful book with a lot of paintings by Chesley Bonestell that presented a plan for a mission to Mars (and what might be found there).
      Hmmm, I see from Wikipedia that this book was the result of a series of articles in Colliers magazine in the 1950s about space exploration.

  6. Wernher Von Braun seems to have had a seriously flawed moral compass, but I sometimes wonder about his apparent failure to ethically meet the moral challenges he encountered. Von Braun claimed to have disapproved of the Nazi leaders, but he continued to make himself a useful tool of their evil. He feared what would happen if the Soviets defeated his country, and earnestly tried to help Germany win, saying “when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war”. I look at his actions and hope that if I were in his shoes, I would have had the character to step away from my career and aspirations instead of embracing such ugly moral compromises. I think of scientists, like Von Braun, and sometimes wonder what rationalizations they told themselves that let them look in the mirror when they came home at the end of the day.

    • “When my country is at war, my duty is to help my country win that war”.

      Who else could utter such words:
      Robert E Lee following Sumpter
      Tojo, and the Japanese sailors on 12/7/41
      Douglas McArthur on the 38th parallel
      John McCain and many others of the Viet Nam war.

      What moral compass was McCain following? Tell me what was the moral reason for our expanding our presence in that theatre of war.

      All of these men made decisions based on their sense of duty not to any moral compass. Why should the sentiment not be available to Germans during WW2

      • I want to be fair to those people with whose decisions I might disapprove, recognizing that few soldiers, or researchers, or leaders of industry really have the option of choosing which flag they serve. Nonetheless, when reading Von Braun’s explanations for his decisions, only a few reflect his concern for his nation’s future. Most reflect more concern for his career. I have more respect for someone whose position is difficult because he fears for his nation than for someone who worried he’d lose his job.

  7. Regarding the rationalizations they make, ask the ones whose research is fully dependent on government funding. There are thousands of them in the DC,MD, VA area.

  8. Funny how, with Nazis being found literally everywhere, WTOP could not find the one they were writing about until it was pointed out to them.

    Makes you think that the Nazi narrative is all a pack of propaganda.

  9. I am a sometime Rocket Scientist. I am also a sometime senior engineer on military projects – in this context, “Defence Industry” is an unhelpful euphemism to sanitise a regretably necessary evil.

    Von Braun is an object lesson. Although a member of the Nazi party, he joined to further his passion of developing rocketry. His later membership of the SS was coerced, though any man of principle would have resisted rather harder than he did.

    His boss, Dornberger, who arguably had more influence on the US space program than Von Braun, was a nasty piece of work. He wasn’t just an amoral mercenary with overly flexible ethics, he was quite approving of working slave labourers to death.

    I am in no danger of becoming a Dornberger. A Von Braun? Well, apart from the lack of talent on my part, yes, I could see myself becoming like him if I was careless. Just by getting too wrapped up in a technically sweet solution to an intractable problem, by telling myself I was advancing Science for all Humanity, and a hundred other justifications and excuses for selling my soul, one compromise at a time.

    Maybe I already have done. Some work I did 25 years ago is now in the hands of a regime I do not trust. Had they been in power then, I would not have worked on that project, just as I refused to work on some others.

    “Once the Rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department” said Wehner Von Braun.

    Yes it was. It is. Those who use what intellectual gifts they have to make weapons are exactly as responsible as those who press the buttons or pull the triggers. I am my brother’s keeper.

    In terms of consequences.. the A4 project materially contributed to shortening the war. The same resources directed nearly anywhere else would have been dozens or hundreds of times more effective militarily, and the gargantuan budget was comparable in size to that of the Manhattan Engineering District. For that, both Dornberger and Von Braun deserve a vote of thanks for advancing their careers at the expense of the Third Reich.

    As for Operation Paperclip – some moral flexibility was shown by its authors, but there were genuine issues of national security, and although Dornberger was beyond the pale, Von Braun was less so. I might well have let Von Braun in. Dornberger was more valuable, but he is even now so odious that the credit he deserves for US space development has been denied him.

    The granting of immunity to the scientists of the Japanese Unit 731 for their co operation in developing the USA’s biological warfare program was beyond the pale, far worse than anything in Operation Paperclip. These were monsters. I would have granted immunity, sucked them dry of their knowledge, then reneged and had them disappeared. Maybe I’m not as ethical as I thought.

    I wish history was taught better. Difficult when so much was deliberately covered up and falsified at the time for genuine reasons of National Security. Stalin was an existential threat.

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