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The FBI Files of Werhner Von Braun--Part 9
By Tom Carney
Reprinted with permission of Old Huntsville Magazine

One of the most esteemed members of the rocket team later explained von Braun’s actions. “Germany, in many ways, was like the United States. You could support your country without liking the president. The difference was that as a US citizen you are entirely free to express your opinions. In Nazi Germany, you lost at least your freedom, and possibly your life if you did so.”

Another scientist explained it differently. “Don’t kid yourself, we were at war. Our cities were being bombed daily. When the V-2s hit London there was an opening of Champagne bottles.”

For von Braun, however, there was no explaining. The government, of which he was now a citizen, had instigated a cover-up years earlier and to have said anything would have exposed the government’s actions, as well as jeopardizing the future of the space program.

Despite being under constant surveillance and enduring relentless attacks on his character, von Braun had nothing but praise for his adopted country. When one person wrote him, suggesting that severe measures be taken with people who opposed national interests, he wrote back, “Years of direct exposure to the Hitler regime, and its excesses, taught me a few unforgettable lessons and made me solidly opposed to any form of government which would deprive man of  human dignity.”

Army Intelligence

Werhner von Braun

Subject had dinner and two drinks at Murray’s Restaurant on west 47th street at 7:15 until 8:20. Subject was accompanied by two males, one known and one unknown. Subject returned to hotel approximately 9:00 and did not leave room for the rest of the night. More information on unknown not available at this time.

In private, however, von Braun was willing to talk. When an acquaintance wrote him about the accusations, von Braun replied, “... yes, I was a member of the Nazi party and the SS. I would appreciate it if you would treat this as confidential ... for the sake of NASA.”

A high official at NASA offered his view. “We lied when we brought von Braun over here, and then told him to keep his mouth shut. Can you imagine him holding a press conference to explain why he joined the Nazi Party? That would have been the end of him and the space program. The poor S.O.B., didn‘t have a chance! He just had to stand there and take it. People say von Braun used us, but the truth is ... we used him.“

Urgent, FBI

Domestic Intelligence

Source advised that a group of concentration camp survivors picketed Werhner von Braun, NASA official who attended a banquet. ... Twenty-five pickets paraded from 5 to 7 PM carrying signs referring to von Braun’s Nazi background.

In 1968 an enterprising reporter uncovered documents from von Braun’s 1947 background investigation. After comparing the files to the official records from Germany he realized they had been altered, and assumed von Braun had done so. The following story was entitled, “Nazi Lies!”

“That was hardest for von Braun,” recalled one scientist, “to be called a liar. The only time I ever mentioned it to him, he told me to be patient and everything would work out.”

Von Braun had suffered in silence, for decades, for the dream of sending a man to the moon. In 1968 the huge Saturn V rocket was at Cape Canaveral waiting to be launched. All systems were go and it would have been virtually impossible to kill the program at that point. Von Braun, realizing this, seized the opportunity to do something he had waited years for. The German government had quietly been investigating rumors and collecting documents concerning his war time past. In February of 1969 he appeared at the German Embassy in New Orleans to answer the accusations. The Embassy was supplied with the relevant files from the FBI, the CIA, the Army, and the German Archives. After days of intensive probing and questioning, Werhner von Braun was completely exonerated.

It barely made the news.

Several months later in July of 1969, Werhner von Braun saw his lifelong goal of putting a man on the moon come true. To honor the occasion, President Richard Nixon invited von Braun and his wife to a dinner at the White House.

Secret

John Ehrlichman,

Counsel to the President

Reference is made ... in connection with the White House Affair. ... Dr. Werhner von Braun ... was subject of investigations conducted by the FBI in 1948 and 1961 ... information was developed that he received an honorary SS Commission as a Lieutenant and had been a member of the Nazi Party. ...

He had worked for the United States for twenty-eight years, placed a man on the moon and was the Director of Marshall Space Flight Center with a budget of 1.5 billion dollars and 8,000 employees, but to the FBI he was still a Nazi.

In 1977 President Ford awarded von Braun the National Medal of Science. He was in the hospital, his body wracked with cancer, and unable to attend the White House ceremony. Later a friend visited the hospital and gave him the medal.

As von Braun looked at the medal he probably remembered when he was a small child dreaming of building a spaceship someday that would carry men into outer space. He probably thought of the country he had grown up in and how it had been devastated by war. And he probably thought of his adopted country, a former enemy, which had given him the medal.

They said a tear rolled down his cheek as he laid in the hospital bed with the medal clutched tightly in his hand.

Werhner von Braun supported his native country in a time of war, and for that he bore the stigma of Nazism for the rest of his life. When all the accusations are finally put to rest, perhaps historians will look at the man and discover who he really was ... a loyal German citizen, who became a great American hero.

Return Part 1

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