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Rocket man

A scrupulous new biography weighs both von Braun's accomplishments and his support for the Reich

Wernher von Braun with his design for a rocket to take man to the moon, in the 1950s Disney film 'Tomorrow the Moon.' Wernher von Braun with his design for a rocket to take man to the moon, in the 1950s Disney film "Tomorrow the Moon." (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
By Michael J. Neufeld
Knopf, 587 pp., illustrated, $35

In much of the West during the 1950s and 1960s, Wernher von Braun was a hero of the Cold War, a visionary of space flight who built powerful rockets for the military and NASA. But his image was always clouded by the major role he played in devising V-2 rockets for Hitler that rained indiscriminate destruction on English cities. When in 1960 a German filmmaker released a whitewashed production about him titled "I Aim at the Stars," the comedian Mort Sahl cracked famously that it should have been subtitled "But Sometimes I Hit London."

Beginning with his German boyhood, von Braun was obsessed with building rockets that would enable human beings to travel to the moon and beyond. He was 22 when he got his initial chance, in 1932, with the German Army, which hoped he could devise rockets that might deliver chemical weapons against an enemy. Five years later the Nazi government provided the resources for a sprawling complex for V-2 development at Peenemünde, on the Baltic. Hitler, whom von Braun briefed several times, eventually saw the V-2 as a superweapon that would save Germany. It was not, of course, but it influenced the development of missile technology in every major power after the war.

At the end of the war, eager to stay out of Soviet hands, von Braun surrendered to the Americans, and the US government hurried him, his team, and freight-car-loads of documents and equipment to the United States. He came into his own after 1950, when, in the wake of the first Soviet nuclear test, he was appointed technical director of a rocket research and development facility in Huntsville, Ala. He resourcefully managed the development of rockets capable of dropping nuclear warheads close to distant enemy targets, and soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik, in October 1957, a Huntsville rocket put the first American satellite, the Explorer I, into orbit. Michael Neufeld writes in his riveting "Von Braun" that he was suddenly "the Western world's most prominent gladiator in a celestial contest with the Soviets."

Von Braun was an unabashed and effective salesman, stressing in articles and books as well as on radio and television both the excitement of space flight and the national importance of achieving superiority in space over the Soviets. Under his leadership, Huntsville built the Saturn V, the mighty workhorse of the Apollo program that flawlessly launched two dozen astronauts to the moon between 1968 and 1972, handsomely fulfilling von Braun's dream.

Neufeld's "Von Braun" surpasses all previous books about the man. His biography is deeply researched, vigorously written, and balanced in its judgments, scrupulously sifting evidence to separate truth from falsehood, fact from myth. A prize-winning historian of technology at the Smithsonian, Neufeld deftly melds von Braun's story with the larger history of military and civilian rocketry as well as the history of the US space program. And he is concerned throughout to assess von Braun's attitudes toward building a weapon of mass destruction for Hitler.

Neufeld likens von Braun to a Faustian figure - not Christopher Marlowe's, who sold his soul to the devil for the possession of earthly powers, but Goethe's Faust, who for the sake of grand engineering accomplishments made himself complicit in the devil's work. He gives von Braun well-merited due, pointing to the managerial talents, including remarkable charm, drive, intellect, and energy, that he brought to the successive projects of long-range rocketry, both in Germany and the United States. He was indispensable to the V-2 effort and a brilliantly effective leader at Huntsville.

The author draws the line, however, at the claim made by von Braun and his defenders that he was an apolitical rocketeer who had nothing to do with the brutalities of the Nazi regime. The product of a Prussian Junker background, he was sympathetic to the Nazis - at least until he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 on suspicion of left-wing leanings - both because he was a conservative nationalist and because they were enabling the development of his rockets. While not an anti-Semite, he was indifferent to the Nazi persecution of Jews. When it was made clear to him that he should join the Nazi Party and then the SS, he did so, fearing it would jeopardize his work if he did not.

Neufeld suggests that von Braun's regard for the regime began to decline when in 1943 he saw firsthand the slave labor on which the V-2 project had come to depend - particularly the 10,000 concentration camp prisoners who lived and worked under ghastly conditions at Dora, a complex of underground tunnels near Nordhausen. Information about Dora was long suppressed by the American government (as was von Braun's membership in the SS), but it began to trickle out in the 1960s. Von Braun responded that he could have done nothing for the prisoners. Neufeld finds this plausible, but he sharply faults von Braun for his willingness "to participate in stoking the fires of hell" for the sake of his career, self-protection, and rocket money.

In 1976, the Gerald Ford administration considered von Braun, who was terminally ill with cancer, for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. David Gergen, a White House aide, nixed the proposal, writing, "Sorry, but I can't support the idea of giving [the] medal of freedom to [a] former Nazi whose V-2 was fired into over 3,000 British and Belgian cities." In the end, in one of his last presidential acts, Ford nevertheless approved an award to von Braun of a special Medal of Science. For all von Braun's seminal achievements in rocketry, Neufeld's biography convinces one that Gergen, though he got the city data wrong - it was 3,000 rockets that fell mainly on London and Antwerp - got the moral issue right.

Daniel J. Kevles is a professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of, among other works, "The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America."

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