American Might: Where "the Good and the Bad Are All Mixed Up"

At the end of World War II, the United States recruited Wernher von Braun and more than a hundred other Germans who had worked on the V-2 missile, which the Third Reich used against London and Antwerp.At the end of World War II, the United States recruited Wernher von Braun and more than a hundred other Germans who had worked on the V-2 missile, which the Third Reich used against London and Antwerp.
Pat Harrison

Diane McWhorter, the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at Radcliffe, investigates the military-industrial complex in Huntsville, Alabama, where the rocket that took the United States to the moon was built.Diane McWhorter, the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at Radcliffe, investigates the military-industrial complex in Huntsville, Alabama, where the rocket that took the United States to the moon was built.

Diane McWhorter RI '12 is renowned for her first book, the Pulitzer Prize– winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Focused on her hometown of Birmingham during the crisis year of 1963, the book is about history, class, race, the steel industry, and the McWhorter family itself. But its scope is narrow, McWhorter says, when compared with her new project.

In “Moon of Alabama: From Nazi Germany to Tranquility Base, via the Segregated American South,” McWhorter will describe how three 20th-century events—World War II, the Cold War, and the civil rights revolution—converged on Huntsville, Alabama. There, beginning in the 1950s, Wernher von Braun, who had been Hitler’s top rocket expert (and a former SS officer), led the team that built the Saturn V rocket and took Neil Armstrong to the moon.

At the end of World War II, the United States recruited von Braun and more than a hundred other Germans who had worked on the “Vengeance” missile, the V-2, which the Third Reich used primarily against London and Antwerp in the final months of the war. A concentration camp called Dora had been established specifically to provide labor for the mass production of the V-2. The horrific conditions there led to the deaths of more than 10,000 men—twice the number, McWhorter says, that were killed in V-2 bombings. 

McWhorter first became interested in Huntsville and von Braun even before she started Carry Me Home. She was living in Cambridge, working as a journalist at Boston magazine after graduating from Wellesley, when a friend told her about the German rocket engineers in Huntsville, just 90 miles up the road from Birmingham. During her childhood, McWhorter had visited Huntsville only once, for a swim meet at which she won her first and only gold medal. When the friend told her about the rocket community, she conjured a storybook image.

“I pictured this little German enclave with statues of gnomes around a lake, where everybody would get together and sing German lieder every night,” McWhorter says. What she would eventually discover was a high-tech mecca—not only NASA’s largest center at the time but also a leading laboratory of missile development. First, however, she had to write Carry Me Home. To her surprise (and frustration), that project took 19 years to complete, during which time she got married, moved to New York City, and raised two daughters.

Tom Lehrer on Wernher Von Braun

Tom Lehrer ’47, AM ’47, a mathematician and singer-songwriter who graduated from Harvard at age 18, wrote a satirical song during the early 1960s about Wernher von Braun. At the time, Lehrer was unaware that the V-2 rocket he sang about had been built with concentration camp labor. “He just thought the hypocrisy of von Braun creating this ‘wonder weapon’ during World War II and then becoming a Cold War hero here was absurd,” McWhorter says.

Gather round while I sing you of Wenher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.

Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown.
"Ha, Nazi schmazi," says Wernher von Braun.

Don't say he's hypocritical,
Say rather he's apolitical.

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?"
"That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun


In August of 2001, while her daughters were at camp, McWhorter went to Alabama to interview some of the aging Germans who had worked under von Braun. Only about 15 were left. When she asked one of the scientists if he had had any qualms about working on weapons of mass destruction, he told her they didn’t build weapons of mass destruction, merely the delivery system. “That kind of sums up the scientists’ quandary,” McWhorter says. “Do they bear moral responsibility for the uses to which their technology is put?”

 Wernher von Braun and his wife, Maria, sit on the  porch outside the living room of their home in Huntsville, Alabama, in November 1957. Wernher von Braun and his wife, Maria, sit on the porch outside the living room of their home in Huntsville, Alabama, in November 1957.

Von Braun, who died in 1977, was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Ford in 1975, “for his work in making the liquid-fuel rocket a practical launch vehicle and for individual contributions to a series of advanced space vehicles, culminating in the Saturn series that made the Apollo program possible.”

McWhorter says she understands the phenomenon of the “good German” after growing up in the segregated South. “Something similar happened in the South,” she says. “All these ‘good’ people went along with this system that was patently immoral. It violated their Christian beliefs. I know how something that’s really wrong can come to seem normal. I understand how that happened.”

Von Braun is the center of her story, McWhorter says, “his Nazi background trumped by the national interest.” After touching on milestones of the Cold War—the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War—she’ll cover the moon landing of 1969. She believes that the United States would never have made it to the moon when it did without von Braun. “No way,” she says.

Another strand of the book will be civil rights. “Part of the space-race story that hasn’t been told is that all of this Cold War, beat-the-Soviets narrative was going on at the same time that Alabama was host to the civil rights struggle,” McWhorter says. “The ironies abound. Old paradigms of the ‘master race’ regularly integrated black tennis courts and black jazz clubs. And at the encouragement of his Washington bosses, von Braun urged racial tolerance on the locals.”

In addition to Huntsville, McWhorter has traveled to Berlin and Washington to conduct interviews and archival research. She has also interviewed the singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer (see sidebar). And it was the folksinger Pete Seeger (he enlisted in the army at Huntsville during the war) who said, when she told him what she was working on, “Oh, yeah, the good and the bad are all mixed up.”

Her goal with “Moon of Alabama,” she says, is “for people to look at this well-known turning point in history—the first man on the moon—in a completely new way.“

Asked when she thinks she might finish, McWhorter wisely replies. “I just want it to be good.”

Excerpt from “Moon of Alabama: From Nazi Germany to Tranquility Base, via the Segregated American South”

In her forthcoming book, Diane McWhorter plans to include an epilogue on the space shuttle Challenger explosion of 1986, since the faulty rocket booster was Huntsville's responsibility. “Once the Germans left, in the early 1970s, the NASA culture changed,” she says. “Throughout the Apollo program, the Huntsville engineers had kept a tight rein on their contractors. But the shuttle program was more cost- and contractor-driven. They began to cut corners.”


Her goal with "Moon of Alabama," she says, is "for people to look at this well-known turning point in history--the first man on the moon--in a completely new way."Her goal with "Moon of Alabama," she says, is "for people to look at this well-known turning point in history--the first man on the moon--in a completely new way."

The Challenger Explosion: January 28, 1986

73 Seconds

The improbably cold weather had made things tense at NASA’s “forgotten” principality in the lush Tennessee River Valley of North Alabama. The George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville made possible the rest of the space program, but it was NASA’s least exciting division, the way the foundation is the least exciting part of a house. Marshall lacked the cowboy bumptiousness of Houston, where the astronauts roamed, or the fireworks of Cape Canaveral in Florida, where the rockets blasted off. As the maker of those rockets, Marshall simply stole fire from the gods, harnessing the energy that launched the spacecrafts, such as the one about to be sent to heaven on the frigid morning of January 28, 1986: Challenger.

The dull personality of the Marshall Space Flight Center had been sealed from the start by its German origins. After World War II, Huntsville had become the home base of Wernher von Braun, the wunderkind in charge of developing the deadly missiles with which Adolf Hitler once hoped to achieve his takeover of the world. The United States government had acquired von Braun and the 120 German scientists and technicians known as his “rocket team” to build weapons of mass destruction for the US Army. As the Cold War with the Soviet Union escalated, mutually assured destruction found a sublime adjunct: the space race. The von Braun team moved to the civilian side of rocketry, at the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But the army stayed in Huntsville too, and the city remained one of the world’s biggest missile research and development centers. In that frail moral ecosystem in the Heart of Dixie, aspiration shared office space with nihilism. Former Nazis gave literal flight to the American Dream, while their military counterparts dreamed up the machines that could wipe out masses of humanity at the push of a button. It was no wonder that the city didn’t advertise its existence. Local legend had it that the reason there were no highway signs directing Alabama motorists to Huntsville was that the government didn’t want to make it easy for the Russians to find the country’s high-tech weaponry brain trust. But there was also the sense that Huntsville’s history of getting no credit was because so much of the credit belonged to Hitler’s former protégés.

Even now, 16 years after Wernher von Braun was removed from that kingdom he had built, the Marshall Space Flight Center had something of the “good German” in its temperament. Not exactly that Huntsville followed orders. But neither did it share Houston’s naughty glee in ignoring the directives out of Washington. The Germans had had an arrogance that translated into stubbornness rather than rebelliousness—a sort of “my way or the Autobahn” insistence on their own engineering style. Though usually that style prevailed, even triumphed, their blunt-instrument tradition also accounted for the Germans’ vulnerability. Four decades after World War II ended, they remained shadowed by their elite role in a Wehrmacht bent on wiping out civilization. Von Braun had been an officer in the SS, albeit an honorary one. And the state-of-the-art “vengeance weapon” he had created for Hitler—the V-2 rocket—was the prototype for all the ballistic missiles developed by the major powers after the war. It was also the forerunner of the masterpiece of technological genius the Germans had given America: the Saturn V rocket. At 364 feet tall (the length of a football field including the end zones), it generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust, enough to get a man to the moon. Its combination of engineering elegance with massiveness had required an effort that was often likened to the building of the Pyramids.

Although he dealt in phallic symbols and male fantasy (albeit of the science fiction variety), von Braun liked to say that compared with Houston and the Cape, “Huntsville is about as sexy as Lady Godiva’s horse.” Von Braun himself was the striking exception to that claim: He was the only man in the space program to match the movie star dazzle of the president who had given him his mission, John F. Kennedy. Von Braun was both a pop icon, showcased by Walt Disney in a 1950s prime-time TV show on science, and the sole philosopher that the NASA bureaucracy had produced, as eloquent about the metaphysics of space exploration as about the really cool equipment. “A space scientist,” he liked to say, “is an engineer who loves poetry.” The natives at the helm of NASA were, to put it mildly, ambivalent about him, probably more out of jealousy than out of qualms about his Nazi past.

June 1960: Wernher von Braun sitting next to a mainframe computer in Huntsville, Alabama.June 1960: Wernher von Braun sitting next to a mainframe computer in Huntsville, Alabama.Von Braun had, in 1969, fulfilled his late president’s dream to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The commitment of resources to this end had been matched only by the construction of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project. But soon after the Huntsville team’s Saturn V rocket propelled Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew into history, von Braun had been shoved aside, removed from what was known as the “dirty hands” milieu of actual rocket-making and reassigned to the bureaucratic world of clean fingernails in Washington, DC. NASA either fired or demoted most of the remaining Germans in Huntsville.

The decommissioning of the Germans—they themselves referred to it as a purge—had arguably set the space program on the trajectory toward this day in January some fifteen years later. So muted did the voice of the Marshall Space Flight Center become within the NASA hierarchy that twice in those ensuing years Washington had considered shutting its Huntsville division down. From his exile in Washington, as NASA’s fourth-ranking officer, in charge of planning, von Braun had been assigned to figure out how to put a man on Mars. Instead he found himself walking up and down the corridors of headquarters looking in vain for someone to share his vision with. NASA had replaced von Braun’s romance of building human colonies in space with the relatively banal space shuttle, the type of the vehicle about to lift off on January 28, 1986.

If the moon mission had been about God and country and the triumph of freedom, the shuttle was about … transportation. The nomenclature said it all. The moon project had been called Apollo after the god of light (and the human values of striving and justice). The shuttle was named after a bus—literally. As the Apollo program was winding down in 1969, NASA’s manned space flight administrator had proclaimed that what they needed was “a vehicle that’s like a shuttle bus”! Though the idea of a reusable spacecraft—sort of a rocket airplane—dated back to the earliest sci-fi theories of space travel advanced in Germany and America, NASA’s shuttle was a reflection of good old American commerce. The hope was that the shuttle could be flown for profit.

This represented a revolution, or perhaps a devolution, in space culture. Huntsville’s brave new capitalist enterprise, like the vanishing German way of rocketry it replaced, was a stark example of the tension between ends and means—how good produced bad and vice versa. The excellence of the von Braun team, for example, was commonly attributed to the vaunted “arsenal system” under which it operated, retaining soup-to-nuts control over every aspect of rocket-making—from research and development to production. Von Braun preferred to fashion and test his own rocket and missile prototypes rather than turn that responsibility over to contractors from private industry—in the American way. Despite its undeniably fine results, the Germans’ so-called under-one-roof system had made NASA uneasy since its founding in 1958. As one of NASA’s early administrators said of the Germans’ unilateral management principles: “It seems difficult to get them adopted in a democracy.”

That was undoubtedly a dry reference to the origins of the Germans’ arsenal system in the Third Reich. In 1933, Adolf Hitler had hijacked the young von Braun’s pie-in-the-sky dreams of space travel and diverted them to the frontier of mass destruction: The first rockets von Braun made were bomb-toting missiles that the Nazis would within a decade unleash on the free world. Von Braun’s missile work had to be consolidated “under one roof” and covered in secrecy, since this ambitious rearmament project violated the terms of the Versailles Treaty concluding World War I, which forbade Germany to rebuild its military. That secrecy, in turn, bound its participants into a sense of mission that followed them to the Deep South of America. In Huntsville, they essentially re-created the workplace protocols that had been in place at Peenemünde, the remote, top-secret outpost on the Baltic coast where von Braun’s team had designed the V-2 rocket—the first to pierce the rim of space. Thus had the inexorable technological drive behind the giant leap for mankind, in the moon landing of 1969, initially been a hallmark of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

McWhorter’s Research Partner

McWhorter is working with Zuzanna Wojcieszak ’13, who has translated accounts by Polish prisoners at the Dora concentration camp where Wernher von Braun’s V-2 (Vengeance) missile was manufactured.

Photograph by Kathleen Doohere

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2012