Wernher von Braun and Peak Whiteness

Part 3: “Rocket State Cosmology,” or, WvB’s Secret America

Michael Mark Cohen
Apr 1, 2016 · 26 min read

By Michael Mark Cohen

Part 1: A Romantic Urge
Part 2: The Rocket and the Third Reich
Part 4: The Counterforce

“… a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle.”
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Hitler understood the biggest military problem with Werner von Braun’s V-2 Rocket back in the Wolf’s Lair in ’43. What good was having this sexy missile if all you could do was stuff conventional explosives into the tip? Not much bang for the Deutschmark, or Dollar, Pound or Ruble for that matter. What if you could put something far more lethal up there, like chemical or biological weapons? Or better yet, how about one of those new Atom bombs the Americans used on Japan? Now there’s a world changing science and engineering project!

The Americans were a full decade behind the Germans in Rocket technology, and the Germans a similar decade behind the Americans in Atomic weapons design. Germany had long since given up on its Nuclear program as too expensive and uncertain. Many of the scientists who designed and built the American bomb — like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller — had fled Fascism in the 1930s. Besides, Rockets were easier to explain to the Führer than fission (which he always suspected was some form of Jewish sorcery). So the real magic weapon, the one actually capable of ending this War, was still a secret in the hands of the enemy, not ready in time to be dropped on a German city. Its destiny lay in the East. Yet WvB felt the lure of this new, greater power, this new aspirant to a still higher stage of Peak Whiteness, and he made up his mind to surrender to the Americans.

Like Candide or Forrest Gump, WvB seemed to simply wander through the world unscathed by either consequences or conscience, believing that Peak Whiteness, the upward path of scientific Progress as a map for white supremacy, was still in his future, a goal to be chased from Nazi Germany to Jim Crow America to the Moon.

On 12 March 1945 — with the end of the Third Reich well in view — WvB’s driver fell asleep at the wheel, struggling to keep up with his boss’ frantic schedule. When their big German sedan rolled over WvB broke his arm in three places. WvB plotted his surrender from a hospital bed, ordering two loyal subordinates to collect millions of pages of technical documents on the V-2, box them up and bury them in a mine to use as leverage with the Allies.

Two weeks later, the last combat Rocket of the War blasted off — falling short of Antwerp and killing about 20 big pine trees and injuring dozens more. By April Fools Day, with the sound of Soviet guns audible to the East, the order came to evacuate Peenemünde, sending hundreds of German scientists south to Bavaria with the knowledge that special units of American, British and Russian intelligence agents were on the hunt for the Rocket men. On 11 April American troops liberated the camp at Dora-Mittelbau, uncovering a smoldering pit of high-tech, half-built Rockets and jet planes, countless unburied bodies and a few thousand starved and battered survivors. It was in places like Dora, through the photographs circulated among soldiers and the press at home, that Americans came to appreciate the real (and largely retroactive) reasons why we fought “the Good War.”*

At the same time, some two and a half million Soviet troops encircled Berlin. In this final battle, more than 125,000 Germans die and tens of thousands of German women raped, while most high ranking Nazi party officials either scurried for the rat-lines to Switzerland and Argentina, or plotted mass suicides in a final act of loyalty to their Führer.

Meanwhile, privileged to the last, WvB and Dornberger drank champaign in the finest hotel in the Austrian Alps, awaiting the rescuing embrace of their former enemies. “There I was, living royally in the ski hotel on a mountain plateau,” WvB recalled for The New Yorker. “There were the French below us to the west, and the Americans to the south. But no one, of course, suspected we were there. So nothing happened… Hitler was dead, the war was over, an armistice was signed — and the hotel service was excellent.”* The story of his capture is almost quaint. Once they had had their fill of Austrian luxury, WvB sent his brother Magnus down the mountain on a bicycle to find the Americans. There arrangements were made for WvB and Dornberger to come down and surrender on 3 May 1945.

In his post-war recounting, WvB never worried about his safety, feeling confident that if the circumstances were reversed, and the Nazi invasion of UC Berkeley a success, he would have made Professor Oppenheimer the same deal. “We wouldn’t have treated your atomic scientists as war criminals,” WvB said, speaking in the conditional on behalf of the victorious Nazis, “and I didn’t expect to be treated as one. No, I wasn’t afraid. It all made sense. The V-2 was something we had and you didn’t have. Naturally you wanted to know all about it.” So WvB turned on the charm for his next round of new friends, his penchant for braggadocio unleashed. “If we hadn’t caught the biggest scientist in the Third Reich,” said one confused American GI, “we had certainly caught the biggest liar.”*

Dornberger and WvB surrender to the Americans, 3 May 1945.

Liar or no, his surrender made for some awkward photos. The handsome young scientist, his broken arm suspended in an involuntary salute, smiles into the camera to celebrate the death of his homeland. To his left, wearing his best I-am-not-a-Nazi-in-disguise leather trench coat and fedora, is General Dornberger. US Army and British intelligence officials debriefed WvB for the next several weeks, easily concluding that the man was totally amoral. In their reports, WvB exhibited no guilt whatsoever for his participation in anything, seemingly unable to recognize how his lack of empathy might appear even to British officials whom he had been trying to kill more or less randomly for the past seven months.

The Americans took far less offense, easily classifying WvB: “Not a war criminal and not an ardent Nazi.” Ideology be damned, Operation Paperclip had gotten their top man. By September 1945, WvB was on his way to the United States as a “warden of the Army.” “My country had lost two wars in my young lifetime,” said WvB explaining his understanding of loyalty. “The next time, I wanted to be on the winning side.”*

Operation Paperclip may well have been the first move in the Cold War. Daniel Lang’s New Yorker profile of WvB, entitled “A Romantic Urge” (21 April 1951), describes Paperclip as a “melancholy contest” in which each of the Allies, now turned competitors, deployed “uniformed talent scouts” across the occupied Zone in a race to capture Nazi scientists. The Americans that stumbled upon WvB and other “strategically valuable German expatriates” were among those “carefully chosen units to forage for this human booty.” The Russians had their own talent scouts in the German Zone, the British too, “but our military leaders are of the opinion,” reports Lang, “that the Paperclip agents got the better bag.”*

In the end, Operation Paperclip brought more than 1500 German engineers, scientists and intelligence operatives into the United States to work for the Pentagon, the CIA and the Military Industrial Complex. Like General Dornberger, who became just Mr. Dornberger when he went to work for Bell Helicopters, the largest supplier of US military hardware during the Vietnam war. As a former Wehrmacht General, Dornberger was too compromised to work for the US Army, but private industry, especially a defense contractor, had no problems at all. President Truman tried to ban the recruitment of Nazi party members to Paperclip, so the OSS simply scrubbed the records of dozens of recruits like WvB and Arthur Rudolph, to conceal their SS membership.* In the end, Paperclip recruited biological and chemical weapons experts, doctors who participated in medical experiments on prisoners, various anticommunist spies and intelligence officers, along with nearly all of WvB’s Peenemünde Rocket team.

104 of members of WvB’s Germans Rocket team gathered for a group photograph near their barracks at the Army Ordinance base at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas in 1946 (image top). Of WvB’s original Paperclip team, 90 were under the age of thirty, 14 held Ph.Ds, more than half were members of the Nazi party, 21 had joined the Stormtroopers, and two — including WvB (#73) — were members of the SS.

“I’m fairly sure that these men became members [of the Nazi party] more or less as a matter of expediency, rather than ideology.” These are the words of Major James P. Hamill, the Army officer in charge of the German contingent at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. “In fact, any political attitude they have have towards their work seems to shape up as a neat syllogism out of some latter-day Goebbels:” explained Major Hamill. “Germanic culture has always been the leader of Western culture; Western culture is now being championed by the United States against Russia’s Eastern culture; therefore, the United States is the champion of Germanic culture.”*

This Goebbels syllogism is an apt depiction of Peak Whiteness, and Major Hamill’s admission reveals just how seamlessly these former Nazis fit into the new Pax Americana. Hamill carefully explained just how little had changed for WvB and his men since they left home, how much working at Redstone was like old the Peenemünde. Army work is Army work. “Still developing military rockets. And still hoping for spaceships. Only now I’m doing it in a different country,” WvB explained. “But soon it won’t even seem like a different country.”* Yes, he’s brazenly opportunistic, but that last line is so chilling because it leads me to wonder if he is talking about how the Germans were assimilating into America or if his secret America was transforming itself into a new Reich?

The New York Times, 22 June 1947.

“There is nothing secret about the broad objective” for WvB and his team, writes Lang, “that objective is to build a guided missile capable of carrying an atomic warhead to any point on the face of the earth.”*

In the Spring of 1946 WvB submitted a report to his superiors, originally written in German as a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer, entitled: “Use of Atomic Warheads in Projected Missiles.” It took no great imagination to combine the two most significant technological achievements of the War into one theoretical superweapon. However, the problem for WvB was not ethical but technical, the serious matter of how much an Atom bomb weighs? Such information was deeply classified, and WvB did not yet have top secret clearance. The V-2 carried only 2k libs of explosives, and bigger Rockets were on the drawing board that could carry 6k lbs. However, the Atom bombs tested over the Pacific in the fall of 1946 weighed over 10k lbs. So a true Atomic missile would have wait for the Hydrogen bomb to miniaturize the warhead. WvB was once again living “in the future.”

In the meantime, demobilization meant cuts. “‘Frankly, we were disappointed with what we found in this country during our first year or so,” recalled WvB. “At Peenemünde, we’d been coddled. Here you were counting pennies.’”* Because no one could stop WvB from fantasizing on the government payroll, he wrote a novel.

“It is the vision of tomorrow which breeds the power of action,” writes WvB, sounding a bit Mein Kampf-ish in the forward to his novel Project Mars: A Technical Tale(1950). Written in the mathematical-realist style, the novel offers a technological exploration story, lacking in all melodrama, and backed up by an appendix of equations that doubled the length of the already unreadable text. No publisher would touch the book, it was dull, full of math, no sex, and the author was of dubious character. But WvB was persistent and when the book did see print, the speculative geopolitics behind the trip to Mars reveals just how little of his world view changed with the end of the war. Indeed WvB seems to be refighting the same War.

WvB sets the fictional stage in A.D. 1980. “The final catastrophic conflict was over. The great Eastern Bloc,… had finally succumbed to the last despairing blows of the almost exhausted Western Powers. The great Asiatic mass had become a group of smaller states, slowly digging out from under the ruins of the war.” And now the Congress of the United States of Earth sits under a great dome built “overlooking Long Island Sound from the hills above Greenwich, Connecticut.”* Peace reigns, maintained by the threat of prompt death and destruction at the hands of Rockets fired from space.

“And above it all,” continues WvB in awe of its imagined beauty, “invisible yet omnipresent Lunetta, the man-made Moon, circled silently far above the stratosphere.” While Lunetta keeps the peace in the present, back in the War she was a first strike angel of death. “Lunetta’s acid test had taken place in the final World War,” writes WvB. “During the dread winter of 1974–75, the motorized forces of the Western allies had ground to a solid stop in the vastness of the Asian steppes. The chilling cold had numbed the blood and the courage of the most intrepid soldiers. Air attacks on the industrial centers of Siberia had almost ceased by reason of the incredible accuracy and effectiveness of the adverse anti-aircraft rockets. But these rockets could not reach Lunetta in her dizzying heights, and the courageous crew of 440 men and women who manned her directed their atom bombs by remote control at the enemy’s manufacturing plants to such good effect that the scales of victory could only incline towards the Allies.”*

This introduction reveals WvB to be a wholly unreconstructed Nazi, dreaming in detail about completing the Führer’s promise to destroy the Soviet Union. The military narrative is an explicit rewriting of Operation Barbarossa — Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 — right down to the terrible winters and racial conflict along the vast “Asian steppes.” Rockets seem to be the key strategic factor in all phases of the battle, including submarine mounted missiles (doesn’t get more German than a V-2 on a U-Boat), anti-aircraft missiles and most importantly, the Nuclear Rockets launched from space. But this time, blessed with Lunetta — the annihilating techno-woman on the moon — der Führer, uh, excuse me, the “Western Powers” prevail, destroying the enemy through weaponizing space.

Lunetta is the ultimate high ground in the last war in Earth’s history. The rest of the novel is about where we should invade next: Mars. But in the meantime, did Wernher von Braun want to leave the Earth or blow it up?

The Men’s Room: NASA’s Special Committee on Space Technology, May 1958.

At first, WvB’s life in the West Texas desert was “a romantic Karl May affair,” referring to a popular writer of boy’s adventure novels most beloved by Hitler.* But living in an Army barracks, surrounded by engineers, WvB decided that he needed to change his life. On the one hand, he chose to marry, and in a letter to his folks, then living in an Army relocation camp in Germany, WvB proposed marriage to Maria von Quistorp, a beautiful woman, just over half his age, who was also his first cousin. Right around the time he received word of an enthusiastic yes from his family, WvB decided to become “born again” in a small wooden church in West Texas. That’s right, if there is one thing Southern Evangelicals and German Aristocrats have in common its a propensity for marital consanguinity.

Shortly thereafter, more than 300 family members of Operation Paperclip men arrived in El Paso. If WvB discovered the American racial order in a Pullman car on a secret cross-country trip in 1945, the rest of the Germans came to learn what it was to be an American on a desegregating Army base along the Mexican border. New German families took root in the Southwestern desert, including three blond children for happy Wernher and Maria von Braun. “‘They learned English with a Texas twang,’ Major Hamill said. ‘They had sombreros and cowboy boots to go with it. Their children went to El Paso schools, where they generally received high grades from their teachers, and bloody noses from the American and Mexican kids, who thought the war was still on.”*

Typical immigrant stuff, I suppose. Except WvB and gang did have just about the strangest Southern border crossing in history.

Funny thing about whiteness, it is its own kind of passport. When WvB and his crew first entered the United States they did so as a military secret. None of them entered the country legally, leaving open the question of whether these former Nazis and their families were illegal aliens or merely undocumented workers? To fix this problem, on 2 November 1949, WvB and his crew crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande into Cuidad Juárez where they took the street cars to the US Consulate. There they filled out their visa forms in an act of theater prearranged by the State Department. According to their papers, WvB and family embarked at the port of Juarez, their port of arrival was El Paso, the method of travel indicated as the Juarez city trolly line. When they arrived at the border to present their visas, they claimed to have arrived from not from Germany but from Mexico. With stamped passports and a job from the Army, they became resident aliens of the United States with the possibility of becoming US Citizens. Whiteness wins again.

In 1950 the Army moved WvB and family, along with most of the remaining Germans, to Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville has a history not unlike the rest of the region, a small town surrounded by farms and slavery, long since turned into sharecropping. The Depression lifted in this part of the deep South only when the War Department built the Redstone Ordinance Plant to manufacture chemical weapons. The city once again went into recession after the War, to be revived again when WvB and team relocated to what became the US Army Ordinance Rocket Center at the Redstone Arsenal. By 1960 the cite was handed over to NASA, renamed the Marshal Space Flight Center, and commission to build the Saturn V Rocket. In 1958 Time Magazine described Huntsville as a city of “gracious antebellum homes, squalid Negro slums, and $15,000-per-unit development homes for Redstone’s 16,000 employees.”* Though this sounds like a Jim Crow version of today’s gentrification, it was enough for Huntsville to declare itself Rocket City, USA.

Time Magazine, 17 Feb 1958.

In oral histories collected by Monique Laney, many long time black residents of Huntsville recalled that during the war German POW’s were held at the Redstone Arsenal. These are bitter memories for Huntsville’s African American community, as most recall German prisoners receiving better treatment than they did, claiming a greater measure of freedom than black Americans by virtue of their Teutonic whiteness. Enemy prisoners outranked even second class citizens when crossing the color line.

So when a second wave of Germans arrived at the Redstone Arsenal, many black residents felt the same distance, the same insult. Although other black residents of Huntsville recalled the moderating force the high-tech sector had in their city. “It was a very pleasant kind of place to be,” recalled one resident. “It was just as segregated as anywhere else, but it was not rabid. You seldom heard ‘nigger,’ you know.” As Laney argues, the Germans in Alabama were model, even liberal middle class citizens, but their role in Huntsville was never neutral.*

When WvB arrived in Alabama, the lush green of Huntsville after the dry desert of Texas reminded the him of Bavaria, or at least that is what he said. No longer required to live on the Army base, WvB and the Germans gradually assimilated into suburban life in Alabama. Whiteness is a passport, and WvB and crew became “Our Germans” in the Jim Crow South, meaning that their children went to segregated schools with all the other white kids, they took up seats on segregated busses, spent weekends at the segregated public library, pool or movie theater, and they lived in segregated neighborhoods, rarely if ever mixing socially with Negroes.

“We were no longer surprised when people called each other by their first names a few minutes after being introduced,” noted WvB, the old Aristocratic ways dying hard. “And when we saw a supermarket here in Huntsville, we knew we were all set.”* The von Braun family found their Lebensraum in suburban Alabama.

At home with the family Von Braun, Huntsville Alabama, 1957. Photo from Life Magazine, 18 November 1957.

Huntsville began to grow rapidly into a high-tech center in an otherwise poor state. The town grew from 16k in 1950 to more than 72k in 1960 (growth of 340%), adding again to 123k by 1964. But as Huntsville grew in size and wealth, it also grew more unequal. Blacks in Huntsville were largely cut out of the Cold War boom in space spending, in which the government built all of their major Rocket instillations across the South: in Huntsville, Houston and Cape Canaveral in Florida. Jim Crow segregation meant systemic educational discrimination, and local black colleges did not teach the higher level engineering courses needed to work at MSFC. Black engineers with required skills were hard to attract to Alabama, especially when there were so many new aerospace jobs available in California. The results in Huntsville looked a lot like what we now think of as gentrification: the city got richer and the black population of Huntsville actually shrank as a percentage of the population from some 32% of the in 1950 to 14% in 1960.

IBM Ad, Collier’s Magazine, Jan 1952. / Aerojet-General Ad, Time Magazine, Feb 1958.

With all this government spending, came an all white male technocratic workforce complete with a new array of ultra-modern white collar anxieties. Take for example the deep worry on the face of the lead engineer in this IBM ad from January 1952. Slide rule in hand, he ponders the fate of his white on white tribe which multiplies into free floating cubicles behind him. Together these anxious employees of the Military Industrial Complex fear that their talents — like slide ruling, or slide rulering or whatever the now extinct verb was for using a slide rule — will some day be rendered obsolete, replaced by a big, expensive electronic brain. Perhaps some fraction of them also worry about their moral identification with the huge white thumb that presses the big red FIRE button that launches the missile —“Ready as a rifle bullet” — that ends the world. Personal anxiety and universal annihilation have rarely stood so closely together as in the all white male world of Rocket science.

As the leader of thousands of tech workers like these, WvB never showed the slightest hint of fear. “‘The more you’re in this business,’ he says, ‘the more conservative you get.’”* In fact, he seems to have been especially talented at managing men like our depressed slide-ruler-er here. WvB encouraged these men to wield the big white thumb of doom with confidence and to dream big, one calculation at a time.

WvB and Illustrator Chesley Bonestell in Collier’s Magazine, 22 March 1952

He had escaped the Nazi Götterdämmerung, found the American God in the desert, married the girl next door, moved to the all white suburbs and gotten the top job, and now (despite that first part) WvB became a major celebrity selling Americans the Moon.

“I have to be a two-headed monster,” WvB told Time Magazine, “scientist and public-relations man.”* In these years, as his name and still thick accent became more familiar, WvB became pop culture’s living embodiment of the “Rocket Scientist.” In the early 1950s WvB worked in collaboration with Collier’s Magazine and Walt Disney to produce a complete model of a future American Space Program. In a series of magazine articles and TV programs directed at the center of the 1950s American mass market, WvB and his collaborators narrated the history of rocketry, offered a scientific prophecy of orbital spaceflight, outlined a mission to land on the Moon, and prepared for the future colonization of Mars.

Published to great publicity in the 22 March 1952 issue of Collier’s, WvB explains how “Man Will Soon Conquer Space.” Beautifully illustrated by Rolf Klep and Chesley Bonestell, the series offers a complete overview of the still theoretical science of human space flight. “If we do it,” writes WvB, “we can not only preserve the peace, but we can take a long step towards uniting mankind.”

This universalism of the Space Program sounds nice, right? For all Mankind and all that. But to read WvB’s words it becomes clear that his immediate goals are far more militaristic. Preserving the peace means that the beautiful space station is actually his old love Lunetta. “No place on Earth, from pole to pole,” writes WvB with pride, “would be safe from such a weapon fired from a satellite in space.” Such a space station is also an observation platform of unrivaled access that “will keep under constant inspection every ocean, continent, country and city… Nothing will go unobserved…” After the space program’s essential lethality and superior surveillance potentials are established, the rest of the essay delights in design details, from how fast the Rocket would need to go to escape into the proper orbit (17,500 mph) to what is the best color to paint the space station to regulate temperature (white). In his estimation, such a project could be ready in 25 years if we were only willing to spend more money than on the Manhattan Project.*

WvB’s sense of why we needed to enter space was a harmonious union of military objectives and the fantasies of exploration, and in the followup “Man on the Moon” issue from 8 October 1952, WvB set out a plan for “The Journey” looking as much like Columbus as possible. He imagines a convoy of three ships, carrying 50 men (and only men), “bound for the great unknown.”*

The relationship between the voyage of Columbus and the Rocket, between settler colonialism and the “conquest of space” is no mere coincidence, it is legally binding. At least this is the argument in the accompanying article “Who Owns the Universe?” by Oscar Schachter, Deputy Director, Legal Department, United Nations. Jurist Schachter argues that the extension of national sovereignty to celestial bodies must be based upon the legal precedents set by Columbus and the Pope in the early 16th century. Schachter asserts three components of a legal theory of establishing interplanetary sovereignty over extraterrestrial territories. The first is the principle of mare liberum or freedom of the seas, that all ships in space must fly under a national flag and preserve the shared commons of outer space (and yes he is worried about space pirates). Secondly, territory can be claimed on other planets on the basis of terra nullius, or of empty land (a legal claim designed to prevent wars between competing colonial powers that amounted to a warrant for genocide for indigenous and aboriginal peoples in the 16th to 18th centuries). Lastly, Schachter argues that legal claims to planetary territory cannot be made on the basis of discovery alone, but that “through settlement it acquires sovereignty.”*

Collier’s Magazine, 22 March 1952.

Nowhere in this essay on the legal basis of settler colonialism as extended into the universe does the author mention the existence of indigenous peoples, they have been erased by the United Nations legal dept. Perhaps Collier’s already had a good idea that there were no Indians or Tasmanians on the Moon. But it does make one wonder: is it for want of Indians and Tasmanians on the Moon that we never went back, that we don’t live there now, nearly five decades after the first landing? Columbus left much of his crew behind after being the first white man to land in Haiti. All the Apollo missions left on the Moon was junk and the American Flag. But then, all they found on the Moon was dust and rocks.

Walt Disney made the same connection between the Western frontier and the Space frontier. Disney was keen to use Television to promote his new theme park, Disneyland, which opened in Anaheim California in 1955. When Disney read the Collier’s essays, all but one of the park’s four sctions was fully designed. Frontier Land offered a pastiche of the American West via Davey Crocket; Fantasy Land relied upon the Disneyfied German fairytales and king Ludvig’s castle; and Adventure Land promised a simulated safari through a Kiplingesque Dark Continent. Disney, it seemed, was building an animatronic nostalgia factory for the lost eras of Peak Whiteness

What the park lacked was an understanding of what Tomorrow Land should be or where Peak Whiteness will go in the future. After reading the Collier’s articles, Disney and his producer Ward Kimball reached out to WvB, who leapt at the chance to promote his vision of space travel in the park and on TV. On his many trips to the West Coast to confer with various aerospace contractors like Rocketdyne and Aerojet, WvB began spending a great deal of time with Kimball and the Imagineers at Disney. Together they produced three “Science Factual” movies about the potential for space travel. The films worked so well because they consciously combined the language of Frontier Land, the white male explorer tropes of Adventure Land with the bright colors and magic sparkle of Fantasy Land to produce a Rocket-centric vision of Tomorrow Land.

Stills from ABC-TV, Disney Special “Man in Space,” Aired 9 March 1955.

Airing on ABC television on 9 March 1955, “Man in Space” reached some 42 million viewers, an absolutely enormous audience.* Though the film featured three Germans on camera, including the Antifascist rocketeer Willy Ley and space medicine scientist Heinz Haber, WvB stole the show. WvB played the “Ghür-mann” scientists roll to perfection. Wearing white shirtsleeves, waving around a sliderule and playing with his model Rockets while speaking in a high pitched, rigorously cadenced, deeply accented English, “Man in Space” made WvB an instant star. With the grandfatherly Walt Disney vouching for him, this former Nazi slipped the political yolk to become the face of a new technocratic stereotype, a postwar American fantasy of what a scientist looks and sounds like.

One month after making his world television debut, WvB and his family gathered at the segregated Huntsville High School auditorium to be sworn in as US citizens. “I have never regretted the decision to come to this country,” said an emotional WvB. “As time goes by, I can see even more clearly that it was a moral decision we made that day at Peenemünde… Some how we sensed that the secret of rocketry should only get into the hands of people who read the Bible.”*

With power (and citizenship) came Top Secret clearance. And there WvB learned just how much work there was for him to do. The truth was that the US had fallen well behind the Soviet Union, a fact made evident to the world on 4 October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — Russian for “Fellow Traveler” — the first man-made object to reach orbit.

The response of American political and military leaders was… well, let’s call it TOTAL PANIC! After the stakes that WvB and others had raised about weaponizing space, how could the US really be loosing the Space Race to the Soviets? After we stole all the best Germans? Maybe Sputnik was watching us? Maybe it was a bomb? All that anyone in the USA knew about it was that it was up there and that we did not make it, and though it only weight about 180 lbs, we should all be very afraid of it.

WvB and team had been ready to reach orbit all along, and when they got the green light to match the Soviet example, it took less than 90 days to launch Explorer 1 atop a modified Redstone Rocket (designated Jupiter-C). After Explorer, American military and cultural ambitions went into high gear, NASA was founded under civilian administration in 1958, the Mercury manned spaceflight program began, and WvB became a bonafide American hero, as in cover of Time Magazine famous. Before long WvB became the head of the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he forged critical relationships with JFK and LBJ, directing the design and assembly team for the enormous Saturn V Rocket that would, between 1969 and 1972, land a total of 12 white men on the Moon.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface, Apollo 11 Mission, 21 July 1969.

But to what end?

That achievement, putting a Man on the Moon, should be the climax of this story. The achievement of WvB’s life-long goal to imitate Columbus and conquer another world in the name of Peak Whiteness. Yet, the first manned missions to the Moon did not become a permanent human expansion into the Solar System. Rather, in the midst of the Vietnam War and the first post-war recession, the Apollo missions were cut back by a third, from nine planned landings to just six. Plans to build a permanent settlement on the Moon, to voyage to Mars, all that WvB dreamed about as a boy were abandoned in favor of a genocidal war in Vietnam and a turn towards Neoliberalism. The lunar landing turned out to be just a symbolic gesture, the apex of the flight path of a purely ballistic Peak Whiteness. The escape promised by WvB and the Rocket never materialized, its big science, state sponsored dream betrayed by the gravity of colonial war and corporate greed.

So if we want to find the high-point of WvB’s story, the true consummation of his life’s work, the one that hangs over our heads to this day, then we need to mark a lesser known, even secret event in WvB’s career.

New York Times, 17 April 1957.

On 1 August 1958 WvB flew damn near all the way across the Pacific, to Johnson Island in the Mariannas (Kalama Atoll), to witness the fulfillment of his destiny. He came to witness Operation Teak, the first Rocket to carry a live Nuclear weapon. A Redstone Rocket blasted off from the Island carrying a 3.8 megaton hydrogen bomb to an altitude of 43 miles where it detonated in the world’s first exoatmospheric Nuclear test. Due to what an Army film called a “programming failure… [the weapon] burst directly over the island at the desired elevation” nearly a half mile closer than it should have been. Army film shows spectators flinching under the sudden light and heat of the blast. But WvB never expressed any fear, of the test or of what it meant for the future of humanity.

Incapable of considering the consequences of his actions, he seemed instead to have been singularly fascinated by the size of the fireball. “The fireball reached a diameter of approximately 11 miles in three tenths of a second,” WvB told an audience upon returning to the US, “and a diameter of more than 18 miles in three and a half seconds. The fireball continued to glow brightly for about five minutes.”* Perhaps, when staring directly at the heavenly ball of Nuclear fire that he had made possible, his only cognitive response was to measure it, a self-protective, technocratic response to his embrace of the angel of death, a visceral denial of his own annihilating accomplishments.

This test was a crowning achievement of the Military-Industrial Complex, a project of missile building that the New York Times reported in 1957 would be vastly larger than the original Manhattan Project, just as WvB had demanded not five years earlier. “Psychologically,” reported the Times, “the ballistic missile will confront the resident of a major target with the insistent knowledge that nuclear death is only thirty minutes away.”*

And for this we have WvB to thank.

Nuclear Missile Test Hardtack/Teak, Johnson Island, 1 August 1958.

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.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Michael Mark Cohen

Written by

Father, husband & American Studies Professor at UC Berkeley. Fan of Honeybees, Gramsci, Messi, and the One Big Union.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

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