A Matter of Conscience or Convenience?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Monday September 3, 1990

TORONTO -- In the spring of 1945, Arthur Rudolph had the Right Stuff.

One of Nazi Germany's foremost rocket scientists, Rudolph was boosted out of the rubble of the Third Reich by an American government eager to add to the arsenal of democracy, and to keep the likes of Rudolph away from the Soviets. The U.S. Army brought him to America, cleared him for secret research and development work on the Pershing missile, and later, after the establishment of NASA, moved him to the space program.

At NASA, Rudolph more than proved himself to his new patrons. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon in 1969, their ascent through space was powered by a rocket that Rudolph had built, the Saturn V. Three American Presidents shook Rudolph's hand over the course of his career. The Army and NASA each gave him their highest civilian awards. And in Huntsville, Ala., which is to rocketry what Detroit is to the auto industry, Rudolph retired a respected, pillar-of-the community type.

So when does the Right Stuff become the Wrong Stuff? When it's preceded by the Reich Stuff, in the eyes of the Justice Department.

In 1982, a special Nazi-hunting unit of Justice, the Office of Special Investigations, caught up with Arthur Rudolph in San Jose, where he had moved with his wife, Martha. The OSI men interviewed Rudolph, then told him they had evidence linking him with thousands of deaths in wartime Germany.

No, Rudolph hadn't tortured prisoners or conducted gruesome experiments on defenseless human beings, the OSI men said, but he had overseen the production line at a Wehrmacht rocket factory that relied on concentration-camp inmates for labor. Thousands of workers had died of hunger and exhaustion there. The OSI men said it was naive to think that Rudolph hadn't known about the deaths, or been unable to do something to stop them.

Rudolph, fearing a war-crimes trial and the resulting dislocations for his family, renounced his U.S. citizenship and returned to Germany in 1984. He agreed never to return to America; the Justice Department in turn promised not to prosecute him or cancel his government pension. The Arthur Rudolph case, it seemed, was closed.

But once in Germany, Rudolph began to regret what he had done. Friends, colleagues, even a small number of former prison-camp inmates turned up, seemingly ready to testify to his innocence and good character. One Rudolph supporter found a former prisoner who stated that Rudolph had gone out of his way to get extra rations for the suffering assembly-line crews. It occurred to Rudolph that he had acted foolishly in engaging an immigration lawyer back in San Jose, and not hiring a good criminal defense attorney.

Before long, Rudolph had converted a small bedroom in his Hamburg condominium to office space and was spending the days there, sifting through the record of the case against him and devising a strategy to clear his name.

In early July, Rudolph and his wife flew to Toronto, and here, in Canada, set in motion a re-examination of the OSI's case. Canada's immigration laws bar entry to anyone suspected of committing war crimes, and Canada, on a tip from Washington, stopped Rudolph when he arrived at the airport immigration counter. But that was to Rudolph's benefit, for Canadian law also calls for hearings on demand to anyone thus denied entry. Rudolph, his family and a circle of visiting well-wishers from Huntsville petitioned for one.

"They're trying to take advantage of Canada's generous immigration laws to get him a cheap trial, without the consequences," says Sol Littman, director of the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Littman notes that if Rudolph loses his Canadian case, he won't be any the worse for wear; he'll merely have to stay out of Canada. If, however, he persuades Canada to let him in, then he will have a "precedent" of sorts to cite south of the border--where, meanwhile, Democratic Congressman James Traficant of Ohio has introduced a resolution to have the House judiciary committee take a second look at his case.

"They know Canada is very likely to say, 'Look, he's an old guy. He isn't likely to hurt anybody while he's here. . . . What the hell--let him in,' " says Littman.

The Canadian hearings, with a single immigration adjudicator, are now in progress in a small, windowless room near the Toronto airport. The hearings have pitted Littman and like-minded people against those who fail to see the point in "hounding" a shrunken and enfeebled 83-year-old, 45 years after the crimes in question are said to have been committed and two decades after he proved himself an exemplary immigrant with the moon shot.

Rudolph's appearance on the witness stand emboldens this second group: His eyes appear to be failing as he peers through a magnifying glass at photocopied court documents, and when he pauses for a sip of water, his palsied hands shake the contents out of the glass.

"Fortunately, my health is holding up well," Rudolph said when asked how he was feeling during a recess, but his voice was faint and he asked twice to have the question repeated. A few days later, Rudolph told the Canadian government that he was feeling ill and flew back to Hamburg. Now the hearings on his fitness for entry are proceeding in his absence, with Rudolph's lawyer pleading his case.

Even more than the issue of prosecuting frail and elderly naturalized citizens, however, the Rudolph case poses broad questions about American official behavior throughout the Cold War.

If Rudolph was unsavory enough to be deported in 1984, after all, then why was he let into the United States in the first place, four decades earlier? What did Washington know about Rudolph in the 1980s that it overlooked in the 1940s? If the Army knew Rudolph was a war criminal and embraced him anyway, where then would it have drawn the line in its rush to beat the Soviets in guided-missile weaponry? At what moral cost did America land a man on the moon?

Linda Hunt, author of a forthcoming book on the U.S. Army's use of German weapons designers like Rudolph, thinks she has some answers.

"Ideology ran everything in this country during the Cold War," she says.

The way Rudolph tells it, he never set out to build weapons for the Nazis; he simply grew up fascinated with rockets and their potential for space travel, and the only way to get backing for rocket research in the 1930s was to win an armaments contract.

Rudolph started out at the northern German proving grounds of Peenemunde, home not only of the powerful V-2 rocket, with its 200-mile range, but also of the devastating German buzz bombs. He and his colleagues tested their first V-2 rocket in 1942; the following year, Adolf Hitler watched a launching on film and is said to have whispered, "If we had had these rockets in 1939, we should never have had this war."

In 1943, the British learned what was going on at Peenemunde and knocked it out with bomber raids. Rudolph escaped injury, but, since he ran the production line, was ordered to move the V-2 works to the safety of an old gypsum mine under the mountains near Nordhausen, in central Germany. The new rocket assembly plant would be known as Mittelwerk.

"He found there a Jules Verne nightmare," wrote a friend of Rudolph in a pseudonymous vanity-press biography. "Beneath the mountains, an underground labyrinth had been constructed like a ladder. There were two tunnels more than a mile long, running parallel 500 feet apart and connected by 47 cross tunnels. Several factories were to be set up here, and the V-2 line was to be one of them."

A concentration camp was built nearby, to house the slave laborers. Their working and living conditions were frightful: Even German munitions minister Albert Speer, in his autobiographical work, "Inside the Third Reich," called Mittelwerk "barbarous" and noted that its Nazi overseers had to be sent on forced vacations to "restore their nerves."

The air was freezing and thick with dust. Rations were always short. Weakened prisoners collapsed and died at their picks and shovels; others were crushed by falling rocks in the tunnels. United Nations and U.S. Army records suggest that 25,000 inmates perished at the underground factory and its affiliated concentration camp, known as Dora.

Rudolph, in an extensive interview with his friend and biographer, says that he was horrified to discover upon arrival at Mittelwerk that he would be relying on forced labor from a concentration camp.

" 'I had the overpowering, awful feeling that I was trapped in a cage like an animal,' " he is quoted as saying in the book, " 'and that I was caught in the claws of the SS system.' "

Evidence from Rudolph's case file suggests, though, that Rudolph in fact had wanted to use forced labor. Canadian lawyers have introduced into evidence a memo Rudolph wrote in 1943, before moving into Mittelwerk's tunnels, which tells of an inspection visit to yet another German armaments factory, one that used concentration-camp inmates and got good results.

Rudolph details the four-tiered bunk beds, the triple barbed-wire entanglements, the watch towers and machine gun--and then asks for a supply of inmates for his own operation.

Innocent bystander or policy architect? Canada is expected to rule in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, the OSI points out that Rudolph joined the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, and thus can't credibly claim to have joined simply to go along with the crowd. Rudolph argues that he joined the party because he saw National Socialism as the only alternative to communism. The OSI record also shows that Rudolph belonged to the S.A., Hitler's hated "Brownshirts."

None of these entries from Rudolph's resume were lost on the U.S. Army in 1945, when it liberated Dora and lassoed Rudolph and hundreds of other German weapons scientists. The Army had set up a scheme, Project Paperclip, for bringing the German rocketeers, aircraft designers, wind-tunnel experts and others to the United States and to clear them for immigration. It was a tricky project, since U.S. immigration laws of the day forbade entry to members of Fascist groups.

Project Paperclip empowered the War Department to screen the scientists, then present their dossiers to the State Department for visa clearance. No scientist found to "have been a member of the Nazi Party and more than a nominal participant in its activities" was to be cleared, and the State Department, which considered Nazis a security risk, was adamant about enforcing the law.

Initially, the military was candid in its analyses of the Nazis. Of Rudolph, for instance, an investigator wrote, "100% NAZI, dangerous type, security threat . . . ! suggest internment ." (Emphasis in the original.)

But later, when the Army realized how serious the State Department was about barring really hard-core Nazis, attitudes changed. For a time, a battle of memos raged as the Pentagon tried to convince the State Department that the Nazi scientists would pose a far greater security threat if sent back to Europe than if let in. But in the end, says author Hunt, the Army simply doctored the dossiers.

In Rudolph's, she discovered, the investigators now certified that "nothing in his records indicat(es) that he was a war criminal, an ardent Nazi, or otherwise objectionable." Rudolph became a U.S. citizen in 1954.

Hunt, who first published her findings on Rudolph and other Wehrmacht scientists in "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," and who won an Investigative Reporters and Editors award for her work, finds the Army's secret revisions of the Nazi scientists' dossiers troubling.

"It raises a whole lot of disturbing issues, which are very relevant today," she says.

In the relatively well publicized Rudolph case, she says, she sees a parallel with the use of deeper covert operatives such as the ex-Nazi Klaus Barbie. And the cozying up to Nazis strikes her as a precursor to more recent Cold War alliances with assorted dictators and strong men, many of them glorified by Washington while they were useful, then discarded just like Rudolph was when their usefulness had passed: Ferdinand Marcos, once deemed a bulwark of democracy in the western Pacific but later toppled in shame; Manuel Noriega, once a CIA "asset" in Central America but now awaiting trial in Miami; even Saddam Hussein, an erstwhile American ally but now the "Butcher of Baghdad."

"A pattern has emerged," says Hunt.

"Clearly the ideology (underlying) Project Paperclip was that the ends justify the means," she says. "The intelligence officers knew what was right for this country and they were going to use these people, and if that meant breaking the laws, so be it. The question is, 'How far are we willing to go?' "

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