Wernher von Braun and Peak Whiteness

Part 4: “There is a Counterforce in the Zone”

Michael Mark Cohen
May 1, 2016 · 21 min read

By Michael Mark Cohen

Part 1: “A Romantic Urge…”
Part 2: The Rocket and the Third Reich
Part 3: WvB’s Secret America

“Once civilization is committed to technical advance, we have to keep going. We can’t go back to a pastoral existence. That would destroy the social bases of our modern life. … But you don’t get something for nothing. There are strings attached to that chance.”
Wernher von Braun (1950)

For a former Nazi responsible for war crimes, Wernher von Braun led a very public life in the United States. This is a testament to how little anyone in power really wanted to talk about the last War, the Holocaust or the Nazis in our midst. But by the early 1960s, with JFK promising America the Moon, WvB suddenly became both too big to fail and too hard not to mock. Through it all, from Prussia to the Sea of Tranquility, WvB wore his technocratic whiteness as a kind of armor. His big brain and Aryan good looks, top secret military clearance and charismatic salesmanship made him a man of the future, cut out from his own past and re-cast as a techno-teutonic-mystic. Time and Life magazines rechristened WvB the “Profit of the Space Age” and “The Seer of Space”*

When he died in 1977 at the age of 65, WvB had walked the line of respectability in America for half his life. In West Germany he was admired as a figure of scientific accomplishment in service of the Western Alliance. To the Communist East German government he was a fugitive and war criminal. Millions of Americans held his name in reverence as the genius Rocketeer behind the Moonshot while casually shrugging off his cloudy past. Better to collaborate with a Nazi than let the Commies beat us to the Moon, right?

Well, by the 1960s this kind of moral compromise with racism and evil no longer seemed quite so viable or so necessary. In the years between Sputnik and Apollo 11 America began to change, and with it changed the public’s image of WvB. If it was the paranoid, Disneyfied culture of the 1950s that made WvB a household name, by the time of the first Moon landing in August 1969 fewer and fewer people were so convinced of the universalism of the mission. After all, what was there to find (or plant) on the Moon besides the racialized symbolism of Manifest Destiny, American Empire and Peak Whiteness? The Civil Rights movement, second wave Feminism and a growing Counterculture of the 1960s and 70s began to challenge the power of whiteness by dragging WvB back down to Earth. In the end, the Moonshot marked the last great state project in the history of the West and the beginning of the end of technocratic whiteness.

As a way of drawing our story to a close I want to consider the place of WvB in popular culture. Satirists like Tom Lerher and Stanley Kubrick found in WvB a means of ridiculing and resisting what former president Eisenhower called “the Military Industrial Complex.” Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the epic novel of Peak Whiteness, deploys WvB as both guiding spirit and splintered talisman of the Rocket state. And lastly we will consider the moment in which WvB grasped his opportunistic betrayal to become a Civil Rights activist (which, of course, Gil Scott Heron didn’t buy for a second).

President Eisenhower never fully trusted WvB. In his postwar memoir, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower claims that “if the German had succeeded in perfecting and using these new weapons six months earlier than he did, our invasion of Europe would have proved exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible.”* This is an example of the general turned military historian playing at counterfactuals. But it is also a profound compliment between military men, a show of respect paid to WvB and the power of his new, Fascist technology.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, Aired on 17 January 1961.

As President, Ike fully funded WvB’s missile program, especially after getting caught out on Sputnik. But Eisenhower resented WvB’s public persona, his constant campaigning for bigger budgets. So when the two term Republican President gave his farewell address on 17 January 1961, he explicitly warned the nation about the growing arms race and about men like WvB.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” With this term — Military Industrial Complex — Eisenhower gave the new generation a name for the System behind American power. Combining militarism with monopoly capitalism, the MIC put scientists at the center of the National Security apparatus. “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger,” warned Eisenhower, “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”* Asked later by a reporter who he had in mind by this “scientific-technological elite,” the unburdened former President unhesitatingly replied: “Teller and Von Braun.”*

Eisenhower had a point in naming Edward Teller, the Hungarian born nuclear physicist know as “the father of the Hydrogen bomb,” and WvB the Rocketeer. Together they were the two biggest brains with the biggest budgets that were changing War in ways that the aging general could no longer comprehend. Teller and Von Braun had made D-Day obsolete. What is perhaps more striking in Ike’s comments is the menace, even the fear, manifest in the idea of two foreign scientists holding the nation hostage to their annihilating visions. It truly is the stuff of comic book supervillains.

“Teller and Von Braun” or The Military Mad Scientist. The Incredible Hulk #1 (1 May 1962) Written by San Lee and Art by Jack Kirby.

It is startling just how similar Eisenhower’s warning of 1961 is to the arguments put forward by the radical sociologist C.Wright Mills in his 1956 blockbuster The Power Elite. In this book Mills details “the great structural shift of modern American capitalism toward a permanent war economy” in which “the military manipulation of civilian opinion and the military invasion of the civilian mind” serves to expand the power of “the Warlords.” This shift in the balance of American power impacts not only our domestic politics and foreign policy in which “the military metaphysics” becomes “the only reality,” but it transforms the nation’s relationship to science, technology and the production of knowledge. “Since World War II,” writes Mills, “the general direction of pure scientific research has been set by military considerations… it is these senior circles [of scientific research] that have become deeply involved in the politics of military decisions, and the militarization of political life.”*

For WvB, political life had always been militarized, his scientific pursuits always paid for and governed by military men, needs and ends. So what is important here is not only that WvB spent his life building Rockets for the German then American Army, but that in so doing he managed to become an important public figure, one capable of advocating for the weaponization of space alongside visions of colonizing the solar system. According to both Eisenhower and Mills, it would seem, WvB had not only joined the Power Elite, but he had the country by the throat.

If there was a beginning of the end of WvB’s heroic persona, it came at his own hubristic hands. For whatever reason (his huge and growing ego), WvB became the major promoter behind his own cinematic biopic, a German-American co-production of the WvB story called “I Aim At the Stars” (1960). Today the film is blessedly hard to find, it comes across TMC every once and a while at 2:00 am. As one might expect, it soft pedals WvB’s involvement with Nazism, painting our scientist hero as a somewhat reckless idealist, dreaming of the stars though he is surrounded by darkness. “Look, I’m a scientist,” protests the movie WvB. “I couldn’t care less about party stuff. Hitler, or the man in the moon, it’s all the same to me. Come to think of it, I prefer the man in the moon.”*

“But sometime I hit London… “ Mort Saul

The film was a dud, especially after protesters picketed the World Premier in Munich where police had to be called in keep the crowds back. Anti-Nuclear protesters showed up at the film’s debut screening in New York City bearing signs denouncing WvB as a Nazi and the father of the nuclear missile. In the end, the most relevant thing about the film was comedian Mort Saul’s addendum to the title, “but sometimes I hit London.” This punchline proved a much bigger hit than the movie itself. While the film’s failure did nothing to hinder WvB’s career in Rocketry, Saul seemed to open the comedic flood gates.

The improv comedy team of Nichols and May carried the satyrical counterforce forward in 1961 with a take on the Von Braun family’s domestic life. In an improvised sketch, Mike Nichols becomes WvB returning home from a long day at the laboratory to Elaine May as MvB and the “little woman’s cooking.” Both feel blessed by their new country’s dedication to “the arms race.” Yet they hint at a teutonic, husband-and-wife conspiracy to conquer, ending with Maria shouting orgastically: “Ya! Today America, tomorrow the World! GOD BLESS AMERICA!” WvB apparently took issue with Nichols and May and threatened to sue the duo. As a result the skit did not appear on subsequent releases of the album, but lucky for us, we have YouTube.

The most direct pop confrontation with WvB came in 1965 from Tom Lehrer. Lehrer was a former Harvard Math professor turned satyrical songsmith who wrote cheery tunes about Nuclear war. In a song simply entitled “Wernher Von Braun,” Lehrer offers an acidic, ironic defense of WvB’s battered reputation. “Call him a Nazi, he wont even frown,” begins Lehrer, and though there are no references to the SS or Dora, the song delivers a clever unfolding of Saul’s punchline with a Gilbert & Sullivan flourish: “A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.”

Lehrer’s song seemed to capture the rising New Left’s critique of the System, the Postwar arms race and the evil commonly done in the name of science. Lehrer’s light tone conceals a dark vision of WvB, less an insult to the man personally than an indictment of the entire technocratic, Cold War state that puts men like WvB at its head. In spite of the directness of Lerher’s challenge, the song’s feigned defense of WvB underscored the fact that comedy remained the only way to publicly challenge the American Rocket State.

At the same time, a pair of rebellious directors adapted the persona of WvB in disparate ways to set a new tone for 1960s filmmaking. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville used the modern architecture of contemporary Paris to shoot a science-fiction film noir about a hardboiled detective out to destroy the dystopian dictator of Alphaville, a computer intelligence built by the evil mastermind “Dr. Von Braun.” Godard’s detective discovers that if the tyrannical computer is bent on the destruction of illogical systems, then poetry and humor are weapons of mass resistance.

Peter Sellers plays the title character in Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964).

Stanley Kubrick wrestled with the duality of the Rocket in two films fueled by the visions of WvB. Dr. Strangelove is a biting satire of the Cold War and the oversexed military leadership whose embrace of technocratic decision-making creates a deliberate, accidental doomsday. Arguably Kubrick’s darkest film, Dr. Strangelove is also his funniest.

The titular character, Dr. Strangelove played by Peter Sellers, appears only twice in the film but easily steals the show. The character is bound to a wheelchair and possessed of a Fascist right arm that seems either bent on his self-destruction or is involuntarily springing upward into a Nazi salute. Dr. Strangelove sports WvB’s wavy blond hair and high pitched, heavily accented voice. And as “Director of weapons research and development” Dr. Strangelove is first brought in to explain to the President how the Soviet’s Doomsday Device works. Later, with the bombs detonating at film’s end, Dr. Strangelove offers a eugenics inspired, 14 year old boy’s sexual fantasy solution to the problem of human survival, imagining a future where select members of the human race are selected by computers, along with all top military and government men, and sent down into mine shafts to breed for 100 years while the “Doomsday Shroud” covers an irradiated planet. Dr. Strangelove is not explicitly WvB, but he is rather — perhaps even more harshly — the whole of Operation Paperclip, synthesized into a single demented maniac who twice slips and calls the President “Mein Führer.”

If Kubrick savages the nightmare WvB in Dr. Strangelove, he embraces the utopian WvB in 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). Arthur C. Clark was one of WvB’s closest friends in America and Kubrick’s co-author for the script of 2001. Clark clearly put in a good word for WvB, for much of the production design was inspired by the WvB’s fantasies from the pages of Collier’s magazine and Disney’s “Man in Space.” If Dr. Strangelove uses WvB the former Nazi weapons scientist to create black comedy that ends in the annihilation of humanity, then 2001 gives us WvB’s utopian vision of orbital space stations and interplanetary travel, imagining a voyage of escape “beyond the infinite,” a cosmic leap in evolution and the rebirth of the human race. But only after the machine intelligence tries to kill everyone.

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

It is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the Epic novel of Peak Whiteness, that marks the counterculture’s most profound confrontation with WvB and the Rocket. As the novel begins, it is the winter of 1944 and V-2 Rockets are falling on London in a pattern British intelligence officers soon discover maps precisely on to the sexual conquests of the American Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop. Conditioned since infancy by Pavlovians and German chemists alike, Slothrop’s erections appear to predict the V-2’s trajectories in a feat of reverse causality, like how the explosion of the V-2 precedes its screaming sound. This uncanny psycho-sexual connection to the Rocket sets off a wild chase across postwar Europe, the Zone in which Slothrop, along with hundreds of displaced characters, seek out the meaning of the Rocket 00000. Taking place in the nine months spanning the end of WWII in Europe, from December 1944 to August 1945, the novel covers the geography of this story, between London, the Mittelwerk and Peenemünde. All of which ends, via a cinematic jump cut to the Orpheus Theater on Melrose in LA, with the Rocket ooooo transformed into the death Rocket, frozen like a broken projector, suspended over our heads awaiting “the last delta-t” and a final song.

No brief description can do justice to the terrifying variety of dark satire, silly songs, funny names, wild sexual acts, Rocket limericks -

There once was a thing called a V-2,
To pilot which you did not need to —
You just pushed a button,
And it would leave nuttin’
But stiffs and big holes and debris, too.*

- drug hallucinations, corporate seances, Tarot Card readings, cybernetics, thermodynamics, mathematics and an encyclopedic array of literary and historical references that make this a novel well unlike any other.

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

With the V-2 Rocket, Pynchon inscribes a meta-symbol for western history and technology at Peak Whiteness. And insofar as the novel’s form embodies its politics, it marks the countercultures’ most expansive effort to map out a terrain of freedom in a world in which They dominate everything through a dizzying array of technologies and conspiracies of control. “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” writes Pynchon, “his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit.”*

Page 1, Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

In addition to placing the V-2 — like Melville’s White Whale — at the novel’s thematic core, Pynchon makes broad use of the figure of WvB, fragmenting his moral-narrative line into at least three different identities. WvB is the first voice we hear in the novel’s opening epigraph: Beyond the Zero: “Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”

Though this theme of transformation (as well as questionable spiritual practices) sets the tone for the entire novel, we never actually see WvB. We hear about him a couple times, but his Elect path through the world keeps him too many steps ahead of our bumbling, Preterite anti-hero Slothrop and his gathering counterforce.

Secondly, WvB is abstracted and reconstituted as Major Weissmann, the SS man in charge of the Rocket, also known as Dominus Blicero, the figure of sadomasochistic evil whose names mean “white man” and “Lord Death.” An original practitioner of racial genocide against the Hereros in German Südwest Africa, Weissmann is an embodiment of the novel’s paranoid They, a torturing and manipulative colonial officer turned leader of the Rocket State cartel. Yet Pynchon seems to have WvB in mind when he describes Weissmann at Peenemünde: “All things to all men, a brand-new military type, part salesman, part scientist.”*

At the novel’s end, Weissmann launches the 00000 with his abused but adoring sacrificial object, Gottfried, into space. This Rocket, satirically blasting an Aryan boy into space as a symbol of Peak Whiteness, transforms into the Nuclear missile falling on the novel’s last page. “…what is this death but a whitening,” writes Pynchon as the Rocket transforms from a V-2 with a boy aboard to an ICBM with us in its sights, “a carrying of whiteness to ultrawhite, what it is but bleaches, detergents, oxidizers, abrasives… he is Blicker, Bleicherode, Bleacher, Blicero, extending, rarefying the Caucasian pallor to an abolition of pigment, of melanin, of spectrum, of separateness from shade to shade, it is so white that…” This Rocket is both an attempt at escape, a dream of colonizing the stars and the realization of our own mass deaths figured as a burning, toxic whiteness. In other words: Total Mind Fuck (especially if you are a white guy who once loved Rockets like me).

Weissmann is an angel of death and he makes his private escape not to the Moon but to America. “If you’re wondering where he’s going,” writes Pynchon in cold anger, “look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisers, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. He is surely there. Look high, not low.”*

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

But we also find a fictional version of WvB embodied in the naive engineer Franz Pökler, the supposedly pure scientist who is willfully seduced and coerced by the Nazis into specialized work at Peenemünde. When we first meet Pökler, back in his impoverished Weimar days, his militant Communist wife threatens to leave him “swimming his seas of fantasy, death-wish, rocket-mysticism.”* Later, while working at Peenemünde, Pökler becomes the “prematurely aged adolescent whiz” who is manipulated by Weissmann through control over his daughter Ilsa. Once a year Pökler is given a pass to visit Ilsa (if it really is her) at a German Disneyland-type kiddie park, itself a dark satire of Nazi utopian ambitions. In their last visit, as the park is bombed and abandoned, Ilsa is too grown to maintain the fiction and lets slip that she is a prisoner in the Dora camp, and has been all along. She and her mother have been held just the other side of the cave entrance from where Pökler worked at Nordhausen. In the last days of the war, the shocked Pökler again helps Weissmann to modify the Rocket 00000, after which Pökler receives a note saying that Ilsa has been released.

“The odors of shit, death, sweat, sickness, mildew, piss, the breathing of Dora,” writes Pynchon as Pökler enters the Mittelwerk, “wrapped him as he crept in staring at the naked corpses being carried out now that America was so close…” This passage becomes the emotional encounter with the Nazi abyss that we know WvB must have seen, must have smelled, albeit without “the inconveniences of caring” that so burden Pökler.

In the darkest, foulest part of the tunnel, Pökler finds a dying woman and gives her his gold wedding ring, an anonymous act of generosity to one victim of his ambition. Or maybe is he trying to buy off his guilt cheaply? “All his vacuums, his labyrinths, had been the other side of this,” writes Pynchon, asking of Pökler the same question demanded of all “ordinary Germans” under the Third Reich. “While he lived, and drew marks on paper, this invisible kingdom had kept on, in the darkness outside… all this time…”* This sequence, the very center of the novel’s formal arc, gives us through postmodern fiction the moral confrontation between the engineer and his capitulation to evil, between pure theory and real violence, between the Paperclip men and the ethical consequences of their phallic Rocket’s visions of escape.

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

Pynchon finds in WvB and his surrogates a figure of historical continuity, the deep imperial and corporate scientific roots of the Rocket State passing from Germany to the United States. After all, this was the world that Pynchon found himself in while living on the West Coast in the 1960s. As a young, broke and aspiring novelist, Pynchon spent more than two years writing for Boeing Aerospace’s in-house magazines in Seattle, publishing articles on Rocket maintenance and safety. He had personally worked inside the machine, renting his skills as a staff writer to the same system of mass death that WvB helped create. And all at a moment in which the United States began blasting men into Space while waging a colonial war in Vietnam. Gravity’s Rainbow is Pynchon’s epic yet irreconcilable confrontation with the moral problem of WvB, War, the Rocket and Peak Whiteness.

Governor George Wallace, NASA administrator James Webb and WvB on an official tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville AL, 9 June 1965.

Despite the Moonshot’s effort to keep the fantasy alive, the countercultural resistance to WvB and the Rocket was but one sign that the world had passed Peak Whiteness. The most important such sign in the United States was the presence of large Civil Rights protests and even the progress of Civil Rights legislation. Like everywhere else in the American South in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement came to Huntsville and forced WvB to make a choice. Unlike Alabama’s other big cities, Selma and Birmingham, Huntsville’s identity as the “SPACE CAPITAL OF THE UNIVERSE” contributed to its liberal politics. In 1962 a wave of direct action protests ended formal segregation in the city. Though later that year pro-segregationist George Wallace was elected Governor without the majority of Huntsville’s voters.

All the same WvB, Governor Wallace and NASA administrator James Webb smiled for the cameras at an official tour of the MSFC (photo above). NASA built its largest installations across the South, the MSFC in Huntsville, the Johnson Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. So when the Civil Rights Movement came to NASA it came in the form of LBJ, sidling up to WvB to tell him that he needed to hire more Negroes at the MSFC if he wanted to get to the Moon.

New York Times, 14 June 1965.

Threatened with the loss of funding and talent, WvB went to work again politicking for the Rocket, this time on behalf of Civil Rights. On 14 June 1965, the New York Times reported that WvB “has quietly become the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” In speeches to businessmen’s lunches, Rotarians, legislators and other groups of white men, WvB told them that resistance to Federal desegregation orders could mean big cuts in space spending in Alabama.

In opposing segregation did WvB finally do the right thing? Am I trying to give this cynical story a happy ending? Or was WvB again being an unprincipled opportunist, following the orders of the federal government in a conflict with local authorities over desegregation? Probably. Maybe this was the only time in his career where these two opportunities — for righteous moral action and serving state authority — actually coincided. In this case, WvB’s well documented hypocritical opportunism actually led him to being on the right side of history, social justice wise that is. And it worked, because WvB is revered to this day in Huntsville, where you can visit the Von Braun Civic Center, and see buildings named after the man at both the MSFC and the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

The last word on this story has to go to Gil Scott Herron, and his poem “Whitey on the Moon,” released on Small Talk on 125 and Lenox (1970).

Rat done bit my sister Nell, and Whitey’s on the Moon.
Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the Moon.
I can’t pay no doctor’s bills, with Whitey on the Moon.

This song is probably the most potent the white racial slur “Whitey” ever got. But more than that, it undercut in the quickest and coldest way, the fictitious universalism of the Moon landings in the face of a sick and poor black family. What Herron expresses is the frustrations of inequality, inequality of conditions and of opportunity between poor and black and white and whatever is on the Moon. Herron’s story of poor Nell, poisoned by a rat, pulls as the force of gravity on Whitey drawing him back to the Earth. No, the song does not mention WvB, but it does not need to, we all know now that he is the whitest of all the whiteys who put whitey on the Moon.

Landing on the Moon did not represent the ever upward trajectory of Peak Whiteness, it did not lead to the colonization of the Moon or anywhere beyond except in the Movies. In a path to other worlds, that moment had long since passed, the Brennschluss of Peak Whiteness, the cut off point, came with the end of the Nazi regime. The Space Program represented a giant collective fiction, a huge nationalist show of progress, a forced narrative, sponsored by the US military and American corporations to keep the story of Peak Whitness soaring upward, when in fact, its historical fuel had run out, and it only flew by momentum alone upward, until it began to come down. The only question remaining is how will it return to Earth?

Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State (Verso 1988).

Arthur C. Clarke, editor, The Coming of the Space Age (Meredith Press, 1967).

Walter Dornberger, V-2, Translated by James Clough and Geoffrey Halliday (Viking Press, 1954).

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (Doubleday and Co., 1948).

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich At War (Penguin, 2009).

Luc Herman and Steven Weisenberger, Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and Freedom (University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Lynda Hunt, “US Coverup of Nazi Scientists,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (April 1985).

Annie Jacobson, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Back Bay Books, 2014).

Monique Laney, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past in the Civil Rights Era (Yale Press, 2015).

Daniel Lang, “A Romantic Urge,” The New Yorker (April 21, 1951).

Daniel Lang, From Hiroshima to the Moon: Chronicles of Life in the Atomic Age (Simon & Schuster, 1959).

Sven Lindqvist, “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, Translated by Joan Tate (1996).

Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, Translated by Linda Haverty Rugg (The New Press, 2001).

Peter Longerich, Goebbels: A Biography (Random House 2015).

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Michael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space / Engineer of War (Vintage 2007).

Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999).

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (Penguin 1973).

André Sellier, A History of the Dora Camp, Translated by Stephen Wright and Susan Taponier (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Christopher Simpson, Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and It’s Effect on the Cold War (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988).

David R. Smith, “They’re Following Our Script: Walt Disney’s Trip to Tomorrowland,” Future #2 (May 1978).

Zak Smith, Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (Tin House, 2006).

Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (Macmillian, 1970).

Khachig Tololyan, “War as Background in Gravity’s Rainbow,” (1983)

Wernher von Braun, “Crossing the Last Frontier,” Collier’s Magazine (March 22, 1952).

Wernher von Braun, “Man on the Moon: The Journey,” Collier’s Magazine (October 18, 1952).

Wernher von Braun, Project Mars: A Technical Tale, Translated by Henry J. White (Apogee Books, 2006).

Kikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (FSG, 2015).

“Hitler’s Secret Weapon,” NOVA documentary (1977)

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

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade