How America Educated the Children of Nazis after World War II
In just few short years, after World War II ended, America went from supporting the Nazi party to welcoming some Nazi scientists and their families into America.
A contingent of top Nazi scientists, their families, and their friends moved to El Paso in Texas to begin missile development at the height of Cold War. In 1947 and 1947 they were part of Operation Paperclip. After three years, the group relocated to Huntsville to build the American space program. They had almost all been given American citizenship by 1955. Wernher Von Braun (a former Nazi missile designer) would be the leader of this group. Chief architect of the Saturn V Rocket This brought the United States to the Moon.
A new bookThe Cold War Borderlands: Teaching Mexicans to Teach the Enemy, The education historian Jonna Perrillo zeroes in on the time that the 144 children of these Nazi scientists spent in El Paso public schools—and how the U.S. used them as propaganda tools. TIME talked to Perrillo about this history and how it’s relevant to modern-day efforts to Promote patriotic education
Why was America able to bring back families that worked for Nazis in the U.S.
Cold War started as World War II ended. The American military felt they required scientific knowledge from scientists to create the Cold War. V-2 Missile for the Third Reich possessed.
There were a few reasons their families were so important. This book reveals how the media used their children, the War Department used them, and the federal government used them to make a positive face about a controversial act. They were used to show how powerful our democracy was, how persuasive our public schools were—that our way of living was so powerful that we can even transform the children of fascists.
Was there any kind of ‘Americanization’ process that the group had to go through?
Nazis saw how the white population settled America West and believed they could do it in Europe. [similarly]. Germans are very familiar with the stories of Indians and cowboys. They have even idolized American western mythology. This was an important part of German culture.
These scientists had been vetted to make sure that they weren’t “ardent Nazis”—that’s the language that the War Department used—[rather]They were decent people, but they got seduced into the government or felt compelled to do so.
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It was required that they watch videos of the concentration camps. The memoir of one scientist who saw the film and wondered what to do opens my book. His own guilt, his complicity in the films and his sense of collective guilt were all questions he was asking. And he ruminates in a really interesting way about how he got to the place that he got to and what he could have done—and he says nothing in his childhood prepared him to do anything other than to go along.
How was America’s response to educating the children of Nazi scientists so different from the way it educated Mexican-American children in El Paso?
It [El Paso] school system was over 60% Mexican American at the time—a majority of the city’s public school population. There were two kinds of schools in El Paso, and this was familiar nomenclature throughout the Southwest: what were called “American schools” and “Mexican schools.” American schools were schools to which white children were assigned; Mexican-American students were sent to Mexican schools. American schools were used to send the German-speaking children.
America was interested in assimilation of German students, to prove the quality and ability of American public schools. It was often seen as a higher-skilled assignment in American schools. It was more stable. South El Paso had Mexican schools where students took classes in the hallways. Mexican-American students were not prepared and were often treated like they weren’t ready.
There wasn’t the same vested interest in assimilating Mexican-Americans and in educating them. It was clear from the beginning that they would be considered a drain, an economic and social burden.. However, at the same time they were seen as competition; there was an underlying fear over these people. [white Americans]They saw them as less than others, and had the ability to get jobs. We must understand this history because it reveals how different students are treated in modern and historical times.
Your book describes how children were shown a fictionalized account of the American frontier. Is this a false depiction?
It helped to preserve whiteness. It put forth specific models of white heroes—self-reliant, industrious, strong—while it also worked as a pedagogy of erasure. Cold War heroes were mythic figures of cowboys who were independent and self-sufficient but also could collaborate with others. This was what the schools wanted for children to believe in, especially white children. [that these were the]These were the civic values they had to accept and embrace. They found that German children easily fit into this.
In the end, the mythology as well the El Paso civics course erased Native Americans and Mexicans from the West. It also erased a history that saw genocide and which led to the establishment of the nation and borderlands. Students were taught that genocide can be ignored and that social power is a result of civilized living, not violence.
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Did Operation Paperclip succeed?
They did indeed build the missiles they had been brought to construct. The scientists went on to build more missiles. [help]My view is that NASA was built with far more accomplishments than it actually deserves. Wernher von Braun was the group’s leader and is deeply embedded in the history of NASA. In that sense yes. But there was definitely a sense that it wasn’t clear why we needed German scientists to do this. There was a lot of protest, and not only because it was ethically wrong but also because many felt American scientists were just as great as them and could have achieved the same result.
A good number of Operation Paperclip kids were there. [are still]Many of these people went on to work at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. Many of these people had remarkable professional careers, and some were extremely successful. They’re a close group. Everybody I spoke to was still in contact with others from the group.
What is today’s relevance of Operation Paperclip?
It feels most relevant now because of the idea that happy white children are symbols of democracy. There are a whole lot of culture wars and anxiety around that right now, particularly in Republican states where there’s been legislation about how children [should not]Feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety due to race are a sign that you feel uncomfortable. This sort of concern with protecting white children, or seeing white children’s own sense of self privileged over that of all other children is an echo of [the way that]German Nazi-era German scientists’ children received far better treatment and were considered more valuable than Mexican American siblings. Talking about happiness or guilt, or discomfort [is]Often, we are talking more about political power than the emotional truth.