It never ceases to amaze me how many individuals really have no understanding as to the prominent role El Paso has played in history, especially in the geopolitics of the world, even more so in US-Mexico relationships. El Pasoans, and others, have a view that the El Paso-Cd. Juárez region is nothing more than a cowboy, or vaquero-led small town where nothing of significance ever happens. The El Paso leadership is especially ignorant of the potential El Paso has in the global economy that is now the reality of the world. The El Paso region has played a significant role throughout history. It is a history that the city leaders could capitalize on, if only they focused on what is good for the taxpayers of the city, instead of lining their pockets or building fiefdoms for themselves. Today, I’d like to share with you a history about nuclear bombs, Nazi Germany and how El Paso was at the center of the political intrigue that led to the Cold War. This little piece of history is even more important now as the Cold War is being revived today with Vladimir Putin apparently trying to revive the old Soviet Union and interfering in the US political system.
Shortly after Nazi Germany was defeated by the Allies in World War II, the United States realized that there was much intellectual knowledge within the German scientists that could be exploited by the US. Among the institutional knowledge was rocketry and technology such infrared detection. As a result, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA launched Operation Paperclip.
Operation Paperclip was, in effect, a program to kidnap Nazi scientists from occupied Germany before they could make their way to other countries, like Argentina or Spain, or before the Russians would find them as the Russians began to take control of their sectors in Germany. Harry Truman, the US president of the time, issued the order launching Operation Paperclip on August of 1945.
The order to gather the Nazi scientists and put them to work in the United States specifically prohibited active Nazi members from being included. This, in effect, made most of the significant scientist ineligible to enter the United States and continue their work. The OSS decided to circumvent the prohibition and embarked on a plan to bring in the scientists illegally into the country and then legalize them at a later date.
Over 100 aerospace engineers were brought into Fort Bliss starting in late 1945. Their Nazi pasts had been erased from their dossiers and new family histories were created for them. The problem was that, like today, the immigration system’s processes were ignored for expediency. Thus, in 1950, the German scientists had to be legally processed into the country. They could not be legalized while in the United States, and thus their “green cards” were processed at the US Consulate in Cd. Juárez. The scientists crossed into Juárez and were then legally admitted into the US as legal immigrants. On paper, the Nazi scientists entered the US by way of Latin America, although the truth is that they were brought into the United States by the US Army, housed at Fort Bliss until they could be taken to Juárez and processed as legal immigrants into the country.
One of the scientists that was processed through El Paso was Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, or better known as Wernher von Braun to those that follow the space programs closely. Von Braun is credited with building the rockets that took men to the moon. During World War II, as a Nazi scientist, von Braun helped to develop the V-2 rocket.
What is seldom discussed in the history classes is that von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party as well as a member of the SS. Some historical accounts tend to excuse his Nazi membership was part of working under the Nazi regime, but the fact is that von Braun actively sought membership in 1937, according to historical records. Yet, in his US Army paperwork, von Braun minimizes his membership by misrepresenting that he was “officially demanded” to join the party in 1939. Von Braun was promoted to major of the SS before the end of the war. Because of the US government’s actively sanitizing of the official Nazi records of the scientists, it is unclear as to how active von Braun participated in the Nazi regime. However, the historical records clearly show that von Braun actively used Nazi slave labor for his rocket work while in Germany.
After surrendering to the US Army, von Braun was eventually relocated to Fort Bliss in late 1945. His legal residency, the prelude to his eventual US citizenship, was processed through the US consulate in Cd. Juárez by doctoring his immigration status and paperwork. His first daughter, out of three children, was born at Fort Bliss. He worked on rocketry projects there until 1950 when he was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama.
I point this out to you today for two reasons. The first is that the immigration issue is not as black and white as the politicos and the news media try to portray it to be. For all intents and purposes, the US government, as a whole, understood the need to keep these scientists away from the Soviet Union while allowing them to continue to work in an environment in which their inventions could be controlled and capitalized by the United States. The convoluted immigration policies forced the United States government to break the law in order to allow foreigners to “legally” enter the country. This is something that Donald Trump advocates should keep in mind when the issue of immigration comes up again in the campaign.
If you were to ask people on the street today about how the US space program came to be, most would wrongly tell you that it was led by US scientists at NASA. The few that know about the German scientists will wrongly tell you that they immigrated to the United States via Latin America, when, in fact, they were brought illegally into the United States and “legalized” through Cd. Juárez a few years later.
The second reason I point this out to you today is because many El Paso readers have little understanding as to the geopolitics that El Paso has played throughout history on the world stage. Understanding the historical context is important for those trying to make El Paso a prosperous city in today’s interconnected global economy.
The last thing I want to point to is something that has bothered me over the years. The United States likes to portray itself as the moral compass of the world, and yet, historically it has broken its own laws, not to mention world established protocols, to accomplish goals it deems necessary for the country. And yet, the United States has no qualms about complaining about the actions undertaken by other governments. Operation Paperclip protected Nazi war criminals and kept them safe from prosecution. In essence, the war criminals were rewarded for their war crimes work by the United States. This is a history most US citizens do not know about and much less acknowledge.