NPR’s Arun Rath interviewed Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America.
One of those scientists, the German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, designed the rocket bombs that killed and injured thousands of Londoners during the war and later helped NASA develop the rockets that launched Americans into space and ultimately to the moon. Von Braun portrayed himself as a reluctant servant of the Nazi regime, and during his life a lot of people at least pretended to believe him.
According to Jacobsen:
In doing the research, one discovers that not only was von Braun a Nazi, but a member of the SS. And not only was he running the underground slave labor facility where his rockets were being built — he wasn’t running the facility but he was in charge of the science there — but when they were running low of good technicians, Wernher von Braun himself traveled nearby to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he hand-picked slaves to work for him as laborers.
When you see that kind of activity during the war, and you have to imagine what he saw and what he knew, it’s impossible to excuse him from his Nazi past.
So it seems Tom Lehrer was indeed onto something in 1965 when he performed this sardonic ditty at a time when von Braun was widely honored for his role in the American space program. In fact Lehrer may have gone too easy on him: