The Whitest Man Who Ever Lived

Wernher von Braun and Peak Whiteness — Part 1: “A Romantic Urge…”

By Michael Mark Cohen

Part 2: The Rocket and the Third Reich
Part 3: WvB’s Secret America
Part 4: The Counterforce

“This ascent will be betrayed to Gravity. But the Rocket engine, the deep cry of combustion that jars the soul, promises escape. The victim, in bondage to falling, rises on a promise, a prophecy, of Escape…” 
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

This is the official NASA portrait of Wernher von Braun, Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The photo was taken in his personal office in May 1964. By way of introduction, Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) was a Prussian aristocrat turned Nazi Rocket scientist, who became Walt Disney’s friend and an American hero by inventing the Nuclear Missile. Here he is, the head of NASA’s biggest facility, in charge of constructing the largest Rocket ever built to launch a white man to the Moon.

Wernher von Braun (WvB) blazed a Rocket’s trail across Western Civilization’s greatest adventure stories, the master-narratives of exploration, discovery and scientific Progress. Yet he did so just as these grand and supposedly universal projects faced their most profound crisis in the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima in 1945.

I call this historical crisis Peak Whiteness. It is my contention that whiteness, the world historical racial project of white supremacy that began with Columbus’ arrival in the New World, reached its peak, its moment of maximum destructiveness in the Second World War.

World War II was a global race war, motivated on every side by nationalist fantasies of racial purity and superiority, whether it was the Nazi war in the East, the Italians in Ethiopia, the Japanese in China or the US fighting Japan with a Jim Crow army. The ideological insistence on the biological reality of race fueled the War’s unprecedented brutality. Because when lines between Friend and Enemy are drawn across categories of (imagined) biological difference, the boundary between soldier and civilian can be erased and mass death becomes the purpose of War.

Race War in Vinnista, Ukraine, 1941 and Nagasaki, Japan, 1945

At this moment, advancements in science, engineering and design, led by the most modern capitalist nations in the 20th century, were revealed to be servants of War, both evidence of technological Progress and agents of racial genocide. In designing and manufacturing the world’s first spaceship, the V-2 Rocket, for service as a weapon of mass destruction, WvB must bear responsibility for both a major technological triumph and Nazi war crimes. And that is only half the story, because after the war, midway through his life, WvB escaped to America, where he built bigger Rockets still, Rockets designed to carry either a Man into space or Nuclear warheads to the end of Civilization.

WvB is the embodiment of this Peak Whiteness. His life’s work spans the very top part of the arc, the moment when the Rocket engine shuts off, what the German Rocket scientists knew as the “end of burning” or Brennschluss,* the point at which the Rocket becomes purely ballistic, flying upward only until the pull of gravity reclaims its control and pulls the Rocket back to Earth.

As both scientist and celebrity, WvB sought to propel the narrative of human exploration beyond the Earth and into the vastness of space, all while serving three of history’s most destructive forms of white supremacy, namely Nazism, Jim Crow and US Empire. And yet he faced no sanction in his lifetime harsher than a satirical song.

All of which makes him my candidate for the whitest man who ever lived.

The official NASA portrait of WvB as Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville AL, May 1964

From the photograph, we can see that he wears his good breeding rather well. Broad shoulders frame a finely tailored suit, his Aryan charm emanating from Prussian blue eyes that match a head of wavy blond hair, perfectly styled just like Governor Reagan’s. He stands like an athlete posed at the starting line before a great race, his posture revealing an individual ambition that is made to look like the march of human evolution.

Rich, handsome and powerful by birth, despite these enormous advantages WvB managed to earn a Ph.D. at the age of 22 in Engineering Physics in a secret Army lab at the University of Berlin. Unlike most dissertations, his thesis was of such practical importance that it was classified until well after the war. His honored academic title, his Herr Professor, was given to him personally by Adolf Hitler. Beat that Alpha types.

In 1950, The New Yorker described WvB as “startlingly handsome… his manner as that of a man accustomed to being regarded as indispensable.”* He stands here in what is obviously his office, one hand on his well polished mahogany desk (the other rests casually in his pocket), as we the viewer, looking through the eye of the camera, approach the boss, the Baron, and request the favor of his image. His face, lit like a waxing gibbous Moon with curved light and dark sides, offers an expression of exuberance just touched by a mild impatience. He has work to do, what with the Space Race and all. Using his big brain and blue eyes, sharp #2 pencils and neat stacks of paper, rotary dial telephones and his collection of Toy Rockets, this calm and self-assured white man turns the great wheel of Progress.

But what does he do exactly? Looking at the photo, we see a man who is neither politician nor capitalist, yet somehow both. Not a brave explorer, handsome movie star or mad scientist, yet somehow all three. He is quite simply the postwar pop-culture’s definition of a “Rocket scientist,”as in making a good risotto is hard, but it ain’t rocket science. It means he is smarter and more important than you.

For better or for worse, the world no longer does big state projects like the Post-War Rocket State. In the 21st century, War has been privatized, space is the stuff of disaster films and instagram feeds, and government neither holds the public’s trust nor shows any ambition. WvB’s identity, especially his perceived heroism, seems ever more a part of the future’s lost past.

This portrait’s theatrical representation of Technocratic Whiteness — a term combining technology and bureaucracy, of tekhne or skill and kratos, or power — shows a self confidence that belies the fact that, in 1964, its values and foundations were under serious threat from Feminism, Civil Rights and De-Colonization all of which challenged the supposed universality of modern whiteness. By 1964 Civil Rights protests had desegregated Huntsville, where WvB lived and worked, pressing NASA to diversify its workforce. In 1970, in the midst of the six Apollo missions to land on the Moon, the black radical poet Gil-Scott Herron wrestled whiteness back down to Earth:

Rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey’s on the Moon.
Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey’s on the Moon.
I can’t pay no doctor bills while Whitey on the Moon.
Ten Years from now I’ll be payin’ still while Whitey’s on the Moon.

The monochromatic domination of technological power and innovation can only be the result of elaborate systems of discrimination in education, opportunity and the law. The Nazis, like Jim Crow in the United States, denied both women and non-whites access to higher education in technical fields. And given Western Patriarchal Capitalism’s attachment to the narrative of scientific Progress, racial exclusivity in these fields furthers still other assumptions about the natural superiority, rationality, bravery and good looks of the white man. Technocratic Whiteness, the ideological association of scientific Progress and machine technology with white male power, therefore, is the self-fulfilling prophecy of five centuries of Western science in the service of imperialism, racism and War.

Yet because several of these areas of achievement seem to be open to contest, via democratic elections, capitalist competition in the marketplace, or the rewards garnered through scientific inventiveness, WvB’s supporters (like NASA) want to see in this photograph not evidence of imperialist white supremacy, but a celebration of the technocratic forms of meritocracy. WvB is not the self-anointed vanguard of the white race (though he was back in the War). He is, rather, the smartest, most persuasive and charming rocket scientist in the world; or what his biographer calls “the most influential rocket engineer and space flight advocate of the 20th century.” He earned that desk at NASA, and the moral absolution that comes with it. And he needed it too. Because behind the surface appearance of reason and Rockets, of mathematics and merit, we find a set of political fantasies that are anything but rational, anything but universal. We see the myth of Columbus’ “discovery,” the technology of mass death behind Hitler’s Aryan supremacy, and nuclear threat behind a Pax Americana.

Which brings us, finally, to the best part of this photo: the toy Rockets. Just look at that row of model Rockets, that mathematically engorging bar graph of tumescent metal missiles. These are scale models of the Saturn rocket series, with the enormous Saturn V model directly at WvB’s back and extending outside the frame. So yes, the choice of decor speaks to his profession and his obsessions.

But sometimes a phallic symbol is really just a phallic symbol. Whatever the psycho-sexual conditioning, this has got to be the most blatant “insert dick joke here” moment you are likely to find in the history of formal portraiture. But there is clearly something more important going on here, something about white men and their need for these giant high-tech toys to conquer the stars.

In what follows I want to use the life of WvB and the Rocket to explore the idea of Peak Whiteness and to tell a story of the relationship between technological Progress and the imagination of white supremacy in the twentieth century.

This matters now because when we talk about whiteness and diversity in the technology sector, about encouraging women and people of color to go into STEM fields in the hope of diversifying both the University and Silicon Valley, we need to understand that this is not just an issue of bias in hiring (although it absolutely is), or the so-called “corporate culture” in tech (although it absolutely is), or even systemic sexual harassment in the Astronomy department (although it absolutely is).

What the life of WvB helps us see, is how our ideas of scientific objectivity and technological Progress — with us since the 18th century European Enlightenment — are embodied exclusively as Western White Men. Since Columbus first reported that the Arawaks carried no metal weapons, the bodies of people of color and women have been understood as bound to the State of Nature, leaving them without the capacity for Reason and higher forms of art and science. “The Genius” is the great white male thinker — Newton, Darwin, Einstein — chasing universal pursuits like mathematics, science and exploration. The non-white male majority of the human race exist beyond the borders of Civilization (even when as slaves or housewives or prisoners they are contained within these borders). And it was the mark of universal progress to see the frontier between Civilization and Savagery protected and expanded by White Men.

Over the past 500 years there have been many contenders for the dubious honor of being the whitest man who ever lived. Tight competition arises from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Reinhard Hydrich, John Mayer, John Elway, Jay Gould, or the guy who started it all, Christopher Columbus.

I offer up this particular photograph not because WvB can contain the totality of experiences imagined to reside within the historical fiction we call “white men.” No one white man can, not even Tom Hanks. As we know, there are many ways of wearing or claiming one’s whiteness, one’s white male-ness, such as it is. White men are, like everybody else, just a social construct. Yet the whiteness of WvB was particularly spectacular, tied historically to the crisis of Peak Whiteness, and deliberately fashioned though an imaginative relationship to Columbus himself. Youthful dreams of space travel “filled me with a romantic urge,” WvB told The New Yorker in 1951. “Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to! … I knew how Columbus had felt.”*

Columbus Landing on the Island of Hispaniola 1492, Engraving by Theodore de Bry, from 1592.

One can see a providential similarity — and thus the historical continuity — between the portrait of WvB in his office and this depiction of Columbus’ arrival in the New World by the engraver Theodor de Bry in 1592. At the center of the image we see the heroic explorer, flanked by soldiers bearing banner and cross, standing before a crowd of primitives. In the background are three portraits of the technological marvel of their time, the deep water sailing vessels. These ships, like WvB’s Rockets, are both vehicles of discovery and weapons of mass destruction. What begins with Columbus and the conquest of the New World — Western progress as a product of Western expansion — seems to continue in WvB’s office. In each case, the end product of this exploration is the mass death of the great white man’s audience. For Columbus it is the Arawaks who greet him with gifts and food (though some flee in a wild fit of rational action). For WvB, the potential victims are us, everyone looking at the photo who stand as supplicants before the desk offering admiration and absolution only to face the threat of extinction in what Alan Ginsberg called “a cloud of sexless hydrogen.”*

The project of European colonialism and white supremacy begun with Columbus reached its world historical peak with World War II, when Hitler took the post-Darwinian theories of racial science (Eugenics and Racial Hygiene) that had hitherto been deployed in the name of British, French, Dutch or Belgian empires in Africa and Asia, or the predicted extinction of the Indians of the Americas, and turned them loose on the poly-ethnic killing fields of Eastern Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. “Auschwitz,” writes Sven Lindqvist, “was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested.”*

At the same moment, in the fused rubble of Alamogordo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the march of Western scientific Progress opened up the future possibility of escalating the Total War just completed into a cosmic War capable of killing all life on Earth. WvB played a critical role in both of these horrors, despite looking like a very nice man.

In unleashing a Race War inside Europe, Hitler started a global cataclysm that, together with the inter-imperialist war fought over the Pacific, undermined all the empires of the Old World. And along with them, so too fell the old theories of racial supremacy that relied upon a biological theory of history. A process of global self-emancipation from whiteness began, a process and a movement that continues in our time, its project uneven and utterly incomplete, but not without its considerable humanitarian achievements.

Out of the ruin of the worst War in human history (so far) grew the modern social movements we recognize today as challenging global white male supremacy: the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s liberation, LGBT rights and most radically of all, the decolonization of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. White Supremacy dominated the planet for damn near 450 years, we are only 70 past this peak, yet the arc of history is bending. That we today recognize race as a “social construct” rather than a fixed biological destiny is a recognition, all the more so in its current banality, of our intellectual progress since the Brennschluss of Peak Whiteness.

And so I offer the tale of WvB, a man who embodies both the brutality and the banality of whiteness, its utopian desires and its annihilating fantasies. In his story, we can see the crimes of twentieth century whiteness as well as the ruses by which whiteness continues to represent itself as universal on the one hand and invisible on the other. In bridging this gap, between genocide and the science lab, reaching for the stars and threatening all life on Earth, WvB stands as the whitest man who ever lived.

Zak Smith, #209, Pictures Showing What Happens On Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (Walker Arts Center, 2004)

This story is told in four parts. Part 1 offers an introduction to Peak Whiteness and the life of WvB. Part 2 deals with WvB’s youth and service to the Third Reich. Part 3 begins with his surrender to the Americans and his work building Rockets for the American empire. And part 4 considers the Counterculture’s challenge — in humor, film and literature — to WvB and the Military Industrial Complex.

Part 1: A Romantic Urge
Part 2: The Rocket and the Third Reich
Part 3: WvB’s Secret America
Part 4: The Counterforce

Michael Mark Cohen teaches American Studies and African American Studies at UC Berkeley. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and two kids. Follow him on twitter at @LilBillHaywood, check out his archive of radical cartoons at www.cartooningcapitalism.com, listen to a webcast of his Intro to American Studies course on YouTube, and you can see him play himself in Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour documentary At Berkeley (2013).

Thanks for all your responses, comments and feedback.