Q: I am having trouble resolving the many ethical issues arising from Operation Paperclip, in which known Nazi scientists were airlifted from Germany to Texas rather than forced to stand trial for their active research into V-2 rockets that killed and injured thousands of people in Great Britain and Belgium. Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein voiced their opposition to the program, but President Harry Truman was persuaded to approve it.
Wernher von Braun, in particular, was guilty. Yet when he reached America he was treated as a savior against the rising Soviet menace and even helped NASA put men on the moon in 1969. This is a matter of consequential ethics – do the ends ever justify the means? When did humankind decide that some acts are more evil than others and on what basis? When did people come to believe that the Ten Commandments have asterisks or winking emojis after them, almost as soon as they were revealed? Is there any biblical basis for rationalizing any of these wartime atrocities? – A
A: War is hell and you are asking about the ethics of hell. Actually, the Bible provides us with important moral guidance. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20 we read of the commandment never to cut down the fruit trees outside of a walled city to which you are laying siege. The trees are vulnerable and they take years to develop fruit. This is the first prohibition of a war crime.
To some pacifist traditions, both religious and nonreligious, a war crime is a contradiction in terms because by this view all wars are crimes. For most ethical theories however, wars of self-defense as well as personal acts of self-defense are moral because the attack on you or your family or your country is itself an act of immoral aggression that can be justifiably repelled. I believe that self-defense argument is sound.
Catholicism has built on its biblical roots and articulated “Just War” theories that also differentiate the killing done to repel an attack and the killing done to promote an attack. This is the way we make a valid moral case against the Axis powers and in favor of the Allies during WWII. What they did was immoral aggression and what we did was morally justifiable defense. Of course, the firebombing of Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons against Japan were correctly questioned as acts that may have exceeded the moral limits of warfare. However, the argument offered in their defense was that, despite the thousands of civilian casualties they caused, Dresden and Hiroshima shortened the war and thus ultimately saved lives. I agree.
Your question concerns the morality of using war criminals to help defeat new enemies. The Soviets had their pardoned Nazis and we had ours and they were both employed to speed the arms race for intercontinental ballistic weapons. That arms race produced the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that helped keep a hot peace until the end of the Cold War. I agree with you that this case of pardoned German scientists goes right up to the line dividing moral acts of self-defense from immoral miscarriages of justice. The ethical theory called utilitarianism, which holds that an act is moral if it provides the greatest good for the greatest number, would support using pardoned Nazi scientists. Millions of Americans were kept safe because of the knowledge they provided to the United States. However, I am not a utilitarian and I agree with you in your judgment that using such poisoned knowledge was unnecessary and immoral. We had our own American scientists and they were on the road to the same nuclear and missile technology.