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

This is going to start out as a history-heavy day at Ethics Alarms, and Zoe Brain’s terrific Comment of the Day regarding Wernher von Braun, the abuse of science, and the moral compromises of war  gets it off to a smashing start.

Quick: how much do you know about Japanese Unit 731? Here’s a sample (and here’s some more background) :

Unit 731 was set up in 1938 in Japanese-occupied China with the aim of developing biological weapons. It also operated a secret research and experimental school in Shinjuku, central Tokyo. Its head was Lieutenant Shiro Ishii.The unit was supported by Japanese universities and medical schools which supplied doctors and research staff. The picture now emerging about its activities is horrifying.According to reports never officially admitted by the Japanese authorities, the unit used thousands of Chinese and other Asian civilians and wartime prisoners as human guinea pigs to breed and develop killer diseases.

Many of the prisoners, who were murdered in the name of research, were used in hideous vivisection and other medical experiments, including barbaric trials to determine the effect of frostbite on the human body.

To ease the conscience of those involved, the prisoners were referred to not as people or patients but as “Maruta”, or wooden logs. Before Japan’s surrender, the site of the experiments was completely destroyed, so that no evidence is left.

Then, the remaining 400 prisoners were shot and employees of the unit had to swear secrecy.

Special thanks is due to Zoe Brain for raising the topic of these horrific  Japanese war crimes, which have received so little publicity compared to their Nazi equivalents.

Here is her COTD on the post, “Three Strikes And You’re Incompetent” : The Wernher Von Braun Fiasco, And What It Tells Us About Journalism”:

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.

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

  1. Previously on EA, it has been mentioned that we should attempt to evaluate a person’s accomplishments/actions in cultural context – Jefferson/Slavery/Declaration and Constitution.

    How would ethical analysis of the actions of Unit 731 be impacted by a cultural value that being captured as a POW was more shameful than death thus excusing/deserving of worse treatment – still monsters?

    • The victims of Unit 731 (and other Japanese bio-warfare units like Unit 100) weren’t just POWs. Political dissidents, criminals, mentally handicapped people, or just civilians who looked at a Kenpeitai officer wrong were all used as human test subjects by the Japanese. The Japanese at that time felt that all cultures and races were inferior to themselves, and that this gave them license to mistreat and abuse people they had conquered.

      • And the un-PC comment is that this attitude work in America’s favor when we occupied their country. We had just kicked their vaunted military’s butt, and quick roasted two cities in a flash of light. We literally wielded the power of deity, in their people’s minds.

        We were, by the only criteria that mattered in their culture, superior, and therefore had a right to treat them any way we wished.

        That we were decent and civil went far in our relationship. Of course, they soon learned we had feet of clay just like any other people,

  2. I had exactly the same thought when I heard of the history of unit 731. It would have been ethical to double cross them once we had them all. If you buy into the concept of capital punishment, they are among the most worthy of all.

    They are just a small part of the larger lack of addressing the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese though. I think McArthur was in large part responsible, but I have always thought the disparity between the treatment of the Japanese and German war criminals was highly unjust.

  3. Great Comment, zoe

    It is also important that Americans understand the complexities of the Nazi regime, especially since the current political climate is quick to cite it, but ignorant about its realities.

    The Nazi Party was never super popular in Germany (only 1 in 8 Germans were members) and membership was not mandatory. In fact, the Nazis shut down enrollment for two or three years when they realized people were joining just to get on the bandwagon and not because of any particular ideological fellow traveling.

    Von Braun claimed he only joined the party in 1939 (though it appears he was either mistaken or he deliberately misled as, in fact, he joined in 1937). He joined an S.S. Riding Organization in 1933, left a year later and only joined the S.S. again in 1940 which he claimed was required if he was going to continue his work.

    This could conceivably be true. The S.S. was largely a voluntary organization. You could join and you could leave. But professionals in Germany were sometimes required to joined Nazi organizations that related to their profession (such as education, law, medicine) or they were prevented from practicing said profession. Now it’s true that enforcement sometimes varied from place to place. If you lived in a predominately Catholic or historically working class area, it’s possible that you might have been allowed to slide by. The same was true of the Hitler Youth. Prior to 1939 – when membership became mandatory – considerable pressure was put on children to join, not the least of which was the fact that most other youth organizations were banned. When membership became mandatory, enforcement also varied from place to place. Joseph Ratzinger – the recent Pope Benedict – explained that he did join the Hitler Youth, but didn’t attend any of the meetings. That could very well be true. In places more enthusiastic about the Nazis, some parents were threatened with having their children taken away or with being assigned to the Labor Front – essentially a low-paid forced labor assignment used for those deemed hostile to the regime or were considered “work-shy” – as punishment for not enrolling in the HY.

    Von Braun says he was assured that no political work would be required of him. That’s also very possible. The S.S. had its hands in a great many things. During the war, the Waffen-S.S. recruited a number of young men and, later in the war, drafted teenage boys into its ranks. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for teenagers to be tricked into the Waffen-S.S. which might provide free X-Ray screenings and include in the authorization form some fine print stating that the signer agreed to be conscripted.

    But, and this is important to understand because we assume that totalitarian regimes just willy-nilly shoot people for little to no reason (I suppose we can accuse Stalin of that and, certainly, Nazi Germany became far more strict in the last year of the war than it had been for the last 11), it was really not commonplace in Germany to ship somebody off to a concentration camp or arbitrarily kill them because they turned down a job or didn’t belong to a party. As we’ve seen with Von Braun, his career could have been affected significantly, but it’s unlikely he would have been shot or even imprisoned.

    (By the same token, no one was ever punished under the law for turning down command of a concentration camp. It would have hurt a career, but not one’s life or liberty).

    For comparison (and most comparisons aren’t perfect because we aren’t talking about rocket scientist to rocket scientist here) is the story of Johannes Fest. Johannes Fest was the father of German historian Joachim Fest. During the 1930’s, Fest was a teacher. He did not join the Nazi Party or any of its auxiliary professional organizations. As a result, he was banned from teaching. Fest was so anti-Nazi that he refused to give the mandatory “German greeting” (the Hitler salute) when meeting others on the street. While many people simply chose to make sure they had both hands full when leaving the house in order to have a good reason not to salute, Fest went outside with both hands free and still wouldn’t salute. He was a courageous man indeed. His wife complained that he should just join to get along. After all, principles aren’t meant for “little people”. Fest replied,” We aren’t little people”. Eventually, he was blacklisted from taking any paid work at all.

    Joachim and his siblings did not join the Hitler Youth, even when it was made mandatory and it caused them no end of problems, including being expelled from school. As boys his age started being drafted, Joachim enlisted in the Army, over his father’s objections, because he didn’t want to risk being drafted into the Waffen-S.S.

    So this may be in TL:DR territory, but I thought it might be a good idea to debunk the idea that everybody in Germany risked life and limb for not joining Nazi organizations, that principled stands against the regime weren’t possible (not easy, but not impossible) and that, while the U.S. chose utilitarianism during the Cold War over punishing all Nazi Party members (and we certainly benefited tremendously from that practice), Wernher Von Braun did have options available to him. They just weren’t to his liking.

    I’m curious what the rest of you think because I’m a bit stumped on this myself. Based on the information above, at what point, if any, was Von Braun required to make a principled stand?

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