I've always had the desire to discuss this topic.  It's just a fact that throughout history, Science, and Scientists have been used, and their knowledge has been tapped for destructive and for lack of a better term, evil purposes.  And these Scientists have used it for the opportunity of their work, even if it was to be used for purposes other than what they originally intended and even if that meant their knowledge would be used to cause death and suffering. 

For example, I've ALWAYS had mixed feelings about Werner von Braun.  While his burning passion was rocketry, and it's use in space exploration, at some point, and without a doubt, he used his knowledge to create devastating weapons for Nazi Germany, and used concentration camp laborers during the development of his V-2 missile.  So did Von Braun whore out his soul just so he could build his rocket?  Yes this man was brilliant.  He has contributed incredibly to the technology that has allowed human beings to travel into space.  Was he a total opportunist who would sell his soul to anybody just so he could build rockets?  Did he deem his work so important to the progression of technology, that he could justify the deaths his rockets caused and the jewish slaves he used to build them as a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things?? 

How do you feel about this kind of thing?  How would you compare the motives and morals of Von Braun to say Jonas Salk, who gave away the cure to Polio?  (I know, two different Sciences but certainly medical science has used unethical means to obtain knowledge, so the dilemmas are comparable.)  Please feel free to add any other names to this discussion that you feel need to be mentioned.  Is giving Von Braun a pass because of his scientific value just as hypocritical or maybe even more so, than the hypocrisy we complain about coming from religion?  Von Braun, hero, villain, good person or morally bankrupt? 

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Von Braun - a single goal to discover how rockets work. Side effects were immaterial.

I think that the families of the people his rockets were used to kill, would say otherwise.....

Would you say the same if it had been your family blown to bits?

We humans have an ability to "compartmentalize", to put conflicting issues in the mind/brain where they can "live" without encountering each other.

Does this ability increase or decrease with whatever "intelligence" is?

Does it increase or decrease with ambition, either economic or political?

I read years ago that President John F. Kennedy's so-called "best and brightest" fell heavily for the lies our political leaders used to take us to war in Viet Nam.

Indeed compartmentalization is not something that is unique to religion, and is dangerous no matter what it is being used for.  Humans being human, are imperfect, and in my opinion, every person has parts of themselves that are for lack of better terms, base, self serving, and wrong. There is no shame in that.  It's part of being human! I think there could be some real benefit, in openly acknowledging this fact, instead of burying it. You have to take the bad with the good.  In von Braun's case, his actions during his tenure as a Nazi weapons designer, is not openly discussed or is it put beside his achievements, and indeed was completely overlooked upon his arrival in the United States and he is now hailed a Hero.  I think there is value though in acknowledging his questionable actions as well.  Maybe then, the act of compartmentalization, would be more open to scrutiny, and by that principal alone, a less workable or appealing action.

I don't know enough about von Braun to have an opinion.  Can anybody recommend a balanced biography?

Compartmentalizing is a good way to put it. Operation Paperclip is another way to put it. What was it called for similar Japanese  designers?

A sword may strike friend or foe; the difference depends on the one wielding it.

-- me


On this premise, are we also to blame the Wright brothers for inventing the airplane, so that a handful of religious idiots could fly modern-day versions into buildings?  Should we get upset at those who learned how to mass-culture penicillin because someone else would use the same technique to create anthrax by the carload?

For that matter, do we know under what circumstances von Braun worked under?  It would not surprise me at all were I to discover that he had a gun to his head in one fashion or another while he did his thing at Peenemünde.  For what I read in Wikipedia, von Braun was cooperative with the Waffen-SS, but then a LOT of people cooperated with them, as it was preferable to losing their lives.  He described the first use of the A-4 / V-2 against London as his "darkest day."

Whether von Braun was a naif in the Nazi scheme of things may be arguable.  Still, the overall impact of the V-2 in the European war I think pales against the performance and success of the Saturn C-5 launch system, which took us to the moon 40 years ago.

I think that there is a huge difference between the Wright brothers invention being used for a purpose in which it was not created versus Von Braun's deliberately developing his V-2 rocket for the specific task of killing.  One thing you can always count on with humans, (history proves this one) if there is a way to weaponize something, then they are going to find it.

While it is true that Von Braun was arrested for making statements that were critical of the Nazi party, and the war, it doesn't change the fact that regardless of whether he wanted to or was forced to or not, he used his genius against human beings.  It's an interesting debate for sure.  I go through a lot of different rationalizations when it comes to him.  I know there is no way for any of us to understand the circumstances.  The hard part for me is that von Braun understood that his weapon would kill and maim thousands of people, and therein lies my moral dilemma.  Could you, would you, create something that you KNEW was going to KILL thousands of people, and could you justify sparing your own life by indirectly killing thousands including children?  Could you make the same decision if you were asked to pull the trigger yourself on these people if they were standing right in front of you?  Would you choose to kill them to save yourself?  

I think there is an interesting and maybe ironic way that, just like apologists for religion, there are apologists for people like von Braun because we attach more value to their knowledge than we do to the human lives they used their knowledge to destroy.  How would we feel about this man if his rockets were used to bomb NYC and kill thousands of US citizens and then scooped up by the Soviet Union and given a pass because his knowledge would help them gain the upper hand in the race to space and developing ballistic missiles for the delivery of nuclear warheads?  How would we feel about him then??  I'm just saying......I don't want to get caught doing the same apologist dance as the non rationalists..and you must admit, in some ways, this case seems, at least to me, to have a fair amount of that attached to it.  It just bothers me....a lot...

No doubt von Braun was brilliant, and made exponential contributions to our space program.  I just get an icky feeling deep down inside when he's made a HERO....because clearly, to some he was the ultimate villain.  My brain hurts....

Okay, fine ... but answer me this (regardless of whether it applies directly to von Braun or not):

You're a scientist.  The bad guys have both you and your family.  They say, "you do as you're told, or either YOU get it or your family does.

I MIGHT tell the SS to fuck off if it's just ME.  If they're threatening someone dear to me and I have no other option ... I'm not so sure.


Oh I agree with you!  But I think it's a bit dishonest to omit the struggles and even the questionable actions a person may have committed before they achieved or in order to achieve their goal, even if what they achieve is extraordinary.  There is value in studying that struggle.  There is value in seeing the truth of what people are, rather than what is presented to slant their opinion to suit an agenda.   

My stepdaughter went to Space Camp one summer, and it was apparent that von Braun was presented to these kids as a spotless, intellectual titan.  Spotless and shining.  Not human and full of struggle and conflict.  The conflict is ignored, covered up, conveniently forgotten as to avoid question or scrutiny. 

I guess my issue is, that in order to truly understand the brilliance of any one human being, it's important to look at all the issues of their human lives.  Good and bad, so that you can learn from the struggles that person had, know that person wasn't perfect, and see what kind of moral dilemmas people with extraordinary genius, or talent can be presented with.  I think there is value in knowing that about people like von Braun.  To gloss over the dirty details, and in some cases even attempt to hide or minimize certain actions of a person, in order to promote an image that is more conducive to manipulating the opinion that best serves an interest to me is wrong.  That's bad wherever it's done because it's just not honest. Maybe this is what bothers me most of all about this issue.   I'll go ahead and apologize for my tail chasing Loren :)  I certainly always do enjoy any interaction I have with you!  Even if we don't always see eye to eye....lol.

Intellectual titan?  Probably.

Spotless?!?  Not especially.

Question also becomes: just how far down the not-so-spotless road do you want to go with grammar-school-aged kids?

Also, one could posit the same kind of argument for Albert Einstein, and let's not leave out Robert Oppenheimer while we're at it.  Of course, THEN we could get into the whole "what-if-we-hadn't-used-the-A-bomb" routine, too.

E = MC2 is pretty straightforward by itself ... but its implications are staggering!

All of these I think, have value, and probably the most important thing of all, to me at least, IS consideration of the implications.  At least if you have carefully considered all of these things, then the answer you come up with is more honest and has a better shot at being the BEST answer.  It's I guess an informed decision.  Like knowing what complications are possible from a surgery you are going to have.  If you weren't informed fully, then you weren't fully able to give your consent.


As for elementary students, and how far down the not so spotless road to go, I KNOW my son knew what Nazi's were in elementary school.  Maybe not from elementary school, but still, he knew.  It helped him develop his understanding of how important it is, for people to question their leaders, and what can happen when they are followed without question.  So there is value in that knowledge, even and maybe even especially at an early age. 


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