March 2008

Laurel Maury

nonfiction

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld

Michael J. Neufeld, whom you haven't heard of, has a book on Wernher von Braun, whom you probably also haven't heard of unless you're A) over fifty, B) a serious space geek, or C) the child of serious space-geeks. Von Braun was a German engineer, creator of the V-2 rocket that bombed the United Kingdom, and the principle architect of the rockets that put Americans on the moon and ICBMs into missile silos in Wisconsin. Neufeld has gone through great pains to prove that the man was a Nazi, which he was, and that he knowingly used concentration camp labor, which he did.

Personally I don't need proof von Braun was a Nazi. As the child of two NASA scientists, I sang camp songs about Wernher von Braun being a Nazi. Dad's best friend Unk (short for Eugene) was a branch had at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where Dad worked. Unk had an Explorer Scout Troup that he'd take camping, and he taught us songs by Cold War comedian Tom Lehrer, such as "So Long Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb," "Pollution!" and "Wernher von Braun" to sing around the campfire.

Stand 'round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
a man who's allegiance is ruled by expedience
call him a Nazi, he won't even frown
'Nazi-smatzi,' says Wernher von Braun…

(Space geeks have a strange sense of humor.)

After the fire died down, Dad, my friend Jess, and I would dim the lantern. Dad would pull out an ephemeris (satellite time-table) he'd printed out at work and we'd try and figure out what, up in the sky, we were seeing go past between us and the stars.

(They also tend to be kind.)

Author Michael J. Neufeld, a curator at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum, is one of those vastly intelligent, diligent people who keep the world of scholarship going. I imagine Neufeld has much in common with the grunts who actually ran the early space program -- dedicated, nerdy, hard-working, often brilliant, and not necessarily ones for self-promotion. Geeks before geekdom was cool. Von Braun, was a flamboyant aristocrat, a fundamentalist Christian -- and a Nazi complete with Hitler's seal of approval. In other words, the last thing good NASA-folk deserved. Ironic that he is one of the reasons NASA exists.

Von Braun truly didn't seem to mind how his rockets were used. "It was immaterial to him whether they were fired at the moon or on little homes in London, so long as he could prove his invention worked…" Or as comedian Mort Sahl said about this early proponent of space travel "I aim for the stars, but sometimes I hit London." Lehrer got it right: "Vunz the rockets are up, who cares v'ere they come down, that's not my department' sez Wernher von Braun…"

Why is Neufeld taking such pains to prove that an established Nazi was a Nazi? At first, I was stumped. Everyone in my circle was aware of the man. When I was eleven, I thought it rather funny that the guy had been packed off to the very boring Huntsville, Alabama. Mom had to go there on business trips and used to complain that Huntsville didn't even have a Krystal Burger joint. (Krystal Burgers, tiny hamburgers that allow a higher ratio of seared surface to meat, are one of the great delicacies of the American South.) What Huntsville had was the Klan. As child, I imagined von Braun felt right at home there. Besides, Nazis didn't deserve Krystal Burgers.

Recently I found out why this book is necessary. Talking to two white, male (straight-seeming) editors at a respected, but very white male magazine, I mentioned von Braun. One said "Who?" The other said, "He was a, um rocket guy, right?" These two guys are the sort who should have the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras down cold. When I was a little girl, the name would not have stumped two straight, white, college-educated males.

The twentieth century has closed and locked its doors. The purveyors of the grisly bits are beginning to die off, but scholars are making sure the next generation doesn't forget. This book is a kind of service bulletin, like one of those TV tests of the emergency broadcast system: this is only a test… had our country really been going fascist, our military engineers would be using slave labor housed in dormitories in mining shafts… However, the ability to forgive, even unwisely, is a symptom of a healthy democracy. We need to remember these things.

Here's the episode recap: World War II has ended. The choices are either take von Braun and other German rocket people to America or leave them to the Communists. (Remember the Communists? -- they used to exist.) The Americans got them and sent them to work. Within the decade Von Braun was well-ensconced with US scientists, writing magazine articles, and pals with Walt Disney. Thus he was  free to pursue his dreams of space travel. Soon there were TV shows about space stations starring Mickey Mouse's favorite Nazi. Then Sputnik launched. Walt, von Braun, Collier's Magazine, and a shiny orbiting, Russian beach ball that went beep helped convince the US that it needed a space agency.

Neufeld's scholarly work feels flawless, but the book has few road maps for anyone born after 1975. For instance Neufeld fails to drive home how important Disney specials were. Nearly every house in America with a TV and a child tuned into Disney specials. That's the whole Baby Boom generation watching -- cultural influence that makes Seinfeld look la-dee-dah.

Another point Neufeld doesn't quite get across is that the American space program flourished apart from the military. Dad and Unk have mixed feelings about von Braun, but they and many others were deeply happy to be working separate from the armed forces. Space geeks don't function well within a hierarchy; they can never figure out whom to salute, and they don't like formality (it gets in the way of them playing with their neat-o toys). Although von Braun initially opposed having a space program separate from the military, once Congress started throwing heaps of money at it, he quickly changed his mind. In so doing, von Braun helped build one of the greatest geek play-pens in human history. Early NASA makes Google look small.

This is the kind of book a person reads because it's the right thing to do. There are many things out there that shouldn't be forgotten: atomic fireballs (the candy), the vague homo-eroticism in Leave it to Beaver, why American men wear khakis, and Wernher von Braun. If you feel you're up to this noble endeavor, also consider Blanche Weisen Cooke's excellent biography, The Declassified Eisenhower. As with campfire songs, the best place to keep knowledge alive is in one's head, not on paper, and it's likely a more thorough book on this subject will not, possibly cannot, be written.

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld
Knopf
ISBN: 0307262928
608 Pages