Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rocket Man by Wayne Biddle

Wernher Von Braun was the son of the Prussian (Junker) aristocrat who was the Minister of Agriculture in the last government of the Weimar Republic. As such he proved to be a valuable asset to the small circle of Lumpen-proletariat rocket enthusiasts who, at the time, had managed to obtain free space in a German Army ammunition dump near Berlin to carry on their few unpromising experiments in jet propulsion. Although he had limited scientific qualifications for the task he lent an air of sophistication and class to the endeavor and turned out to be a very successful manager and public relations man, helping to sell the project to higher-ups in the German Armed forces and the Nazi hierarchy including Himmler and Hitler. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and later, when the conquest of Europe began to falter and such actions became necessary to survive the in-fighting at the top levels of the ruling elite, the S.S. He became “technical director” of the first large scale rocket testing facilities at Penemunde by the Baltic sea. He performed the same role at the Mittelbau-Dora slave labor factory where the Nazis started producing their V-2 (V-4) rockets which were rained down on London, killing several thousand people but proved, in the end, to have been a big waste of resources with virtually no strategic effect.

Of course the slaves at Dora died in their thousands from malnutrition, disease, beatings and executions. Eventually the factory built their own crematoria to handle the bodies. Just before the end of the war, as the allies approached, most survivors were shipped off to the gas chambers or burned alive on site. Some survived to tell of Wernher von Braun's direct personal involvement in these affairs. Never-the-less, by that time Von Braun and a select group of his scientists had fled and managed to surrender themselves to American forces. Again, Wernher Von Braun's salesmanship served him well. He managed to convince the Americans that he was a pure scientist primarily interested in space travel who had not been able to avoid helping the Nazis with their weapons programs. He was brought to the United States to work on the Americans post-war weapons and then their space program, never being asked to give any testimony at the War Crimes Trials held in connection with the Dora slave labor camp.

In America he played a role very similar to the one he had in Nazi Germany: a technical manager, gadfly, purveyor of “idea-bubbles” and public relations impresario. Since he didn't play much of a role in the science of rocketry itself - in terms of theory, mathematics or manufacture- (picking up the words of the author):

Having a lot of time on his hands, he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages. The novel, titled “Mars Project”- in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atom bombs dropped from an orbiting space station- was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemunde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau in Mond-style pictures.

In 1952, however, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer of the American“space” program with a series of lavishly illustrated articles- pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all his writings- in Collier's magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released among his American captors at Garmisch- Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion.

The Collier's phenomena led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney's popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disney theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on the comedian Steve Allen's popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affair assistant, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and his wife Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “ hostess with the mostess”. Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier's and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of the baby-boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudo- scientific, but they helped to sell and adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.

When Russia but Sputnik into orbit, Wernher von Braun's Jupiter-C put Explorer I up there right along with it, vaulting him from a mere TV-star to a national hero. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December of 1958, an assistant answered a query from a researchers at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”

At any rate, the satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun's first non-military employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1962, it was von Braun's reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space age.


  1. Dark Side of the Moon; Wernher Von Braun, The Third Reich and The Space Race” by Wayne Biddle; W.W. Norton & Company, 2009

    'The saying that 'no one is voluntarily wicked nor involuntarily happy' seems to be partly false and partly true; for no one is involuntarily happy, but wickedness is voluntary.”

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

    “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

    - Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

  2. It's kind of amazing how the cover notes, the publisher's review and even individual reviews on Amazon side-step the author's main thesis about Wernher von Braun in this book. Actually Biddle himself is not that forceful in presenting it though one doesn't really have to go so far as read it between the lines. Obviously, there are some sacred cows involved in all this.

    Mr. Biddle won a Pulitzer prize for his writing on the "Star Wars" anti-missile project and is a member of the Writing Seminars faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

  3. I live in Alabama where von Braun used to be a folk hero. We had Wernher von Braun up in Huntsville at the space center and Alabamians were proud of it.

  4. One of the reviewers of this book on Amazon complained that it had scant biographical material on von Braun and focused too much on the circumstances of the collapsing Weimar Republic etc. But this was one of the author's main points. In contrast to the memoirs of Albert Speers, whose extensive personal accounts might well be suspected of being self-serving and unreliable but who at least felt the need to somehow justify his involvement with the Nazi regime, we have almost no biographical material from von Braun and a lot of what does exist in terms of brief statements taken in interviews is self-contradicting and sometimes just lying. The author suggests that the absence of any von Braun diary of the war years is, in terms of the general custom of the times, passing strange and it seems likely that he deliberately destroyed whatever he produced along with sheaths of papers related to his professional work.

    In regards to Huntsville, the author does make the point, though thankfully does not belabor it ( since from a personal perspective I am somewhat admiring of George Wallace however demonized he might be in the popular imagination- and not everywhere in the South can be counted as being as bad as Lake Charles Louisiana), that the "rocket folks" there seems to had no qualms about the segregation and discrimination of those times.

  5. My view of George Wallace is largely formed by Stephan Lesher's 1994 biography "George Wallace; American Populist" which must be a extraordinarily persuasive book since my father was an expert witness for the N.A.A.C.P in school desegregation speeches during the 50s and 60s and since I heard M.L.K Jr. speak personally in St. Louis, the memory of the truth and dignity of his words being among the most significant in my life.

    But, then again, I've learned, the view of people who actually lived through those turbulent times is apt to be far more understanding, tolerant and forgiving than those who came after and look back in the mode of self-justifying abstraction predicated on the notion of the moral purity and political progressivism of the present is inevitably superior to corruption and reaction of the past (LOL).

    Mr. Lesher makes the point that with respect to "The Negro Question" Governor Wallace's actions spoke a lot louder than his words which might be favorably contrasted with the common failing of politicians today whose words speak louder than their actions e.g. the way " ground-breaking reform" is almost unaccountably affixed to every minor adjustment to the status quo.

    It may be regretable that ( as Lesher states) "every successful presidential campaign since 1968 was founded on the popular issues and rhetoric first identified by George Wallace", especially the usual and often highly destructive "law and order" schtick ( almost always carried on during periods of distinct declines in crime rates), this does not exactly diminish the Governor as a giant of his times, "the most influential loser in modern American politics."

    And he was a human being, with all the inherent failings of a human being, though he was more willing to admit errors and mistakes than many others in the politics of our times that leap to my mind. Especially amusing to me was the brief account ( necessarily limited by 'confidentially') of his sex therapy with Masters and Johnson, mentioned in an earlier blog.

    The other connection I have to Alabama was by oldest daughter's long-time relationship to a punk rocker whose father is an oceanographer in Mobile. It's better that they broke up but the connection does leave me with some specific discomfort regarding the BP gulf oil blow-out and its possible consequences for the environment down there!

  6. I grew up in Alabama with George Wallace and I frankly despise him--the way he exploited race (easy to do in Alabama)for personal gain. I have not read the Lesher biography, but I might now that you mention it. I have read the one by Dan Carter which is very good.

    I remember hearing Wallace speak in my hometown of Winfield in 1958 when he ran the first time for Governor. He was the liberal (by Alabama standards) and lost to the incumbent attorney general John Patterson. Wallace made the famout statement that he would never be "out-niggered" again, and he wasn't.

    His populism had its strains of class division and what today we would call attacks on the "elites," but the core of his appeal was always race, at least in Alabama.

    Late in his life he made slobbering appeals in black churches for forgiveness, and many did forgive him, but some of us never did.

  7. I've been reflecting on what I wrote, thinking that "admiration" was a bit off but reflecting more the contrast by comparison to the opinion I had as a boy, which was one of horror and contempt. Lesher wrote that while he always played the race card in elections he seemed to have done a lot more for black communities-building roads, providing jobs- than previous governors and regarded his antics standing in the doorway of the university as a bluff to placate racist sentiment while actually facilitating the de-segregation process. So my eyes were opened to the complexity of things, that events and people don't always fall in "the darkness" or 'the light" but somewhere in between. Then, in some ways, isn't it preferable to have "straight talk" than everything in code? He lost because he talked straight, the others won by presenting the same views, generating the same consequences, deceptively, in a cloud.

    Then he was shot, and had other troubles and Jessie Jackson seemed to have been convinced that he learned a few things over time. It's encouraging when any politician even changes his face, admits errors, becomes a little different than he was before.. so that that's the meaning I was trying to convey, not without a note of sarcasm and irony, I suppose, which tends to confuse or even distress some people I know and are not quite to wrapped up in history.

  8. Then again, it's possible he just changed his tune when he saw which side of history the butter was going to be on. And I haven't read the book since it was published in 94. I might get a different impression today, like I would if I watched a movie I first saw twenty years ago. So a whole nother chasm of historical research yawns open before me, which I doubt I'll ever get around to.

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