A & S Interview: Michael J. Neufeld
How much did Wernher von Braun know, and when did he know it?
- By Diane Tedeschi
- AirSpaceMag.com, January 01, 2008
(Page 4 of 4)
Neufeld: He and about 120 of his associates were brought over as a group from Peenemunde. And they were working for the U.S. Army, so in that sense, he didn’t have to find his way or find a new job. The Army brought him over; the Army gave him a job. What was frustrating [for him] in the early years was that after World War II, the public wanted to demobilize. The Cold War started after only a couple years, but the U.S. was very reluctant to invest in a new arms race, and there just wasn’t much money being invested in rocketry.
[Von Braun’s group] had this small project in Fort Bliss; they were in El Paso, Texas, for four to five years. That’s when he decided to start writing a novel called Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon joke. Although the novel didn’t work out, in the end, it resulted in the Collier’s magazine articles starting in 1952, and that’s when he made his breakthrough.
It is kind of amazing—he could have spent the rest of his life as an Army rocket guy. Although he had that foundation in which to live, he constructed his own career as a great public figure in the 1950s. He was the one responsible for making himself into a household name. Ward Kimball at Disney suggested to Walt Disney that [they] ought to do something about space, because [Kimball] had been reading the Collier’s articles. So that led to von Braun appearing in the Disney TV program—in three major space shows, 1955 and 1957 they were broadcast.
A&S: So he assimilated fairly easily into American culture?
Neufeld: Yeah, he assimilated fairly quickly. His English was a little rough for a few years. One of the funny stories to tell about him is when he went to the Pentagon in the late ’40s, people would be embarrassed when he spoke because he spoke this combination of GI slang with a lot of swear words. That’s how he learned his English.
A&S: In the epilogue from your book you write that President Jimmy Carter released a statement after von Braun’s death that included the following: “Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work.”
Neufeld: Well, the Carter statement is a very interesting case of how von Braun was viewed during the Cold War—basically as a benevolent space pioneer. The fact is his work is much more ambiguous and two-sided. Of course the whole story of the concentration camp labor hadn’t really come out in the United States yet.
“Nazi Villain or Space Hero” is the title of one paper I’ve been giving. Everybody wants to reduce him to a stereotype: Either he’s the great pioneer of space or he is a bad Nazi with jackboots who’s tromping on concentration camp prisoners. I find him to be a much more ambiguous figure—much more complicated.