America used Nazis during the Cold War. Does it still mean something?

In Cold War, U.S. Spy Agencies Used 1,000 Nazis, NY Times article says. How morally problematic or unproblematic do you find the fact the the US was using Nazis? Would you say that this fact still deserve some public attention? Read few comments.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

The use of Nazis as spies is more problematic as history than as policy. In the depths of the Cold War, when Western leaders were fearful that the Soviets would use any trick in the book to seize power, it made a certain sense to use any means to counter those tricks. Nazis and their sympathizers would be logical agents to use if one is in a struggle for life and death. Surely, the attempt to rebuild West Germany and rearm it between 1945 and 1955 involved many who were basically Nazis. I would like to think that I would have opposed the use of such agents, but given the fear of Communist expansion and subversion I am not sure that I would have supported a different policy.

The New York Times article suggests that US leaders recognized the potential that this decision had to compromise their public rhetoric, because they tried to parse differences between bad Nazis and moderate Nazis. I am sure that the United States uses equally nasty people today when it finds them useful in its fight against ISIS and al Qaeda. It has been a long time since Secretary of State Henry Stimson commented that gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail!

What is more troubling is the unwillingness to admit these actions. I cannot imagine a purpose to keeping files like these classified, except in the rarest cases. We do not have to brag about this policy or claim that it was morally unambiguous, but we should be able to discuss freely what limits there should be in struggles like the Cold War or the current war with ISIS. It is good, as an example, to have a public discussion about limits on torture and other harsh measures, and this kind of information gives context to the reality of making hard decisions in times of crisis, including the reality that those decisions are sometimes in error. And I mean that both sides–government officials and the public–should be able to discuss the past in its specifics and current policies in their broad outlines. The attentive public should be able to comprehend that foreign policy involves a large grey area, and policy makers will sometimes struggle to find just the right policy to protect both national security and national values.

Monique Laney, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Auburn University

In order to evaluate the U.S. use of Nazis for military purposes, we need to consider the larger post-World War II context. The Allies were all scrambling for German expertise in fields deemed potentially useful for their respective militaries, so that several countries employed former Nazis for various military purposes. Right or wrong, those who were making decisions often found that the Nazis’ former acts were not relevant in light of the potential new military threat that developed into the Cold War. There is no doubt that this led to moral compromises, which seem difficult, if not painful, to accept today.


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