The Big Lie
America’s Secret Government Program to Hire Nazi War Criminals
Mad that our government lied about the NSA spying program? That’s nothing. In 1945, it lied about recruiting Nazis as spies—and the truth lay hidden for decades. By Richard Rashke
When James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June about the National Security Agency’s top-secret program to spy on U.S. citizens, he did Americans a favor. He reminded us that government officials habitually lie, then hide behind the shield of national security. They get away with their deception for years, if not decades.
One of the biggest U.S. whoppers began in May 1945, just three days after Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces. It lay buried in classified documents until the mid-1980s.
When the Allies began trying Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in late 1945, Americans were proud of their country. What we didn’t suspect, however, was that the U.S. military-intelligence complex was simultaneously obstructing that very same justice system.
On May 10 of that year, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) sent a top-secret, 10,000-word directive to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Allied Forces in Western Europe. In it, the JCS ordered Eisenhower to “search out and arrest ... all persons who have participated in the planning or carrying out [of] Nazi enterprises involving or resulting in atrocities or war crimes.” The JCS went on to direct Eisenhower not to grant any “special consideration” to those arrested for war crimes.
Nothing could have been clearer or tougher.
Then JCS took it all back in an 18-word sentence tacked onto the directive like an afterthought: “In your discretion, you may make such exceptions as you deem advisable for intelligence or other military reasons.” The loophole was approved by the White House and the departments of State and War. Often overlooked by historians, the JCS directive applied not only to the U.S., but to its British and French allies as well. In effect, the JCS granted the U.S., British, and French military-intelligence complexes the pick of the Nazi litter.
Therein lies the deception. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was trying Nazi war criminals by day, while America and its allies were secretly hiring them by night. Why they did so was clearly pragmatic.
A year before the war ended, Allied scientists and industrial leaders secretly gathered in London to compile a list of German and Austrian scientists whom they planned to interrogate and possibly hire. The problem was that most of them were either members of the Nazi Party, belonged to Nazi organizations, or headed Nazi-controlled projects, some of which employed slave laborers.
Nuremberg defined as war criminals those who had held important positions in Nazi-controlled industries and war-related research projects, as well as those like rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who employed forced laborers.
At the same time, the Allies realized that their fellow wartime ally, the Soviet Union, would soon become their peacetime enemy. The Allies panicked. They didn’t even know the location of vital USSR factories, ammunition dumps, and military installations. And they didn’t have reliable spy rings operating in the Soviet satellite countries.
Eisenhower moved quickly to solve the spy problem for the U.S. Setting in motion a schizophrenic policy, he ordered the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) to find, investigate, and hand over suspected Nazi war criminals to Nuremberg for prosecution. At the same time, he commissioned the CIC to hire the most promising. The CIC recruitment program, codenamed Operation Daisy, is still classified.
The employment of German and Austrian scientists in America (Project Paperclip) presented President Harry Truman with a public relations headache. How could the White House sell a program to Americans involving nearly 2,000 men who had worked for the Nazi regime? The solution was simple. Tell another lie.
In August 1946, the Department of State submitted to President Truman for his approval a policy statement titled “Interim exploitation of German and Austrian specialists in the United States.” Adopted by the White House, the 200-word statement contained one sentence dealing with Nazis: “The War Department should be responsible … for excluding from the program persons with Nazi or militaristic records.”
By abdicating to the military, the White House and Department of State distanced themselves from future allegations that they had welcomed Nazi war criminals to America. “Don’t blame us,” they could later argue. “Blame the military for disobeying our clear policy.”
The subsequent chain of events shows that the White House policy was a faux policy. The government knowingly allowed the military-intelligence complex to repeatedly disregard its directive. But in order to bring Nazi war criminals and collaborators into the country, the military-intelligence complex had to circumvent strict regulations that made them ineligible for U.S. visas. According to recently declassified documents, which I reviewed while researching my book, Useful Enemies, the military-intelligence complex encouraged its hires to lie on their visa applications about their wartime activities, created false biographies for them, and hid behind the archetypal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”