It's because of Holocaust propaganda.
Eugene Cagle, NASA's engineering manager for the Saturn rocket program, regarded the role of Wernher von Braun in the American space program as crucial:
“(Von Braun) was the main player in all the work that went on. We might have been successful (without him), but not in the '60s. He was a great leader.” ()
How strange it is, then, that on the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of Americans on the moon, we have heard so much about the astronauts but very little about Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists from Germany—and that what we do hear about the German rocket-scientists today is largely negative.
Cagle's assessment is clearly correct. In the early 1950s the United States had two rocket programs, one run by the army, which had the Germans, and one run by the navy, which was plagued with failures. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed, it was built mainly around the team of Germans brought to the United States after the Second World War. We can safely conclude, therefore, that without Wernher von Braun and his team, there would have been many more failed rockets, and perhaps there would never have been a NASA.
As with many big ideas, the idea of traveling to the moon was a German elaboration of a French inspiration. Jules Verne's novel of 1865, De la Terre à la Lune, contained insights like the fact that Florida would be a good location for launches, but it was Hermann Oberth in the early 20th Century who made the physical calculations of how acceleration out of the Earth's gravitational pull and into outer space might be possible. Fritz Lang's movie about a voyage to the moon, Die Frau im Mond (1921), and Oberth's book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (1923), inspired a schoolboy named Wernher von Braun to learn the mathematics and the physics involved so that he himself might one day travel into outer space.
In 1927 the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) was formed and in 1931 a 19-year-old Wernher von Braun joined. Rocketry on a scale commensurate with eventual space travel was an exorbitantly expensive hobby, and it was convenient that the army and then the air force became interested in what rockets could do, and that they would fund this kind of activity. In 1937 Wernher von Braun was chosen to be the director of a program developing rockets at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea, with joint funding from two branches of the military. Note that there was no war happening when this arrangement was made.
In October 1942 the team had its first successful guided flight of the A-4 rocket, which was eventually publicized by Joseph Goebbels as Germany's second Vergeltungswaffe, or payback weapon for Anglo-American bombings of population centers, the V-2.
The V-2 had an impressive psychological effect that the British government tried for a time to suppress by denying its existence, but this rocket, given how expensive it was to build and the fact that each could only be used once, was much less cost-effective than the V-1 pulse-jet cruise missile. The real idea behind the rockets was always space-travel; while the V-2 was impressive as a wonder weapon it was not an optimal way to spend Germany's dwindling resources.
The main advantage of the V-2 as a weapon was that it could not be shot down or intercepted (as many V-1s were) before hitting its target, but it was an expensive way to deliver a conventional explosive. It makes more sense to spend lavishly on a missile if the payload will make the expenditure worthwhile, as in the case of a nuclear warhead. The big, interesting question then, if Hitler was so ruthless, is why the V-2 was never mounted with a nerve-agent warhead (a.k.a. the poor man's nuke).
The V-2 was used to attack London, where, according to Wikipedia, each rocket caused an average of two deaths, but above all the V-2 was used to disrupt Allied supply-lines at the harbor of Antwerp.
The suggestion that Wernher von Braun was a war-criminal because of the number of deaths caused by V-2 strikes is absurd for two reasons.
First, the number of civilian deaths caused by the V-2 is miniscule compared to the number deliberately caused by Anglo-American thousand-plane raids.
Second, bombing of civilians was deliberately excluded from consideration as a war crime by the drafters of the rules for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, not because it was not a war crime but because the Allies knew that they themselves were clearly guilty of it. If you were on the losing side of World War II, you were held to a different standard—as has been observed by no less than Noam Chomsky:
“How did they decide what was a war crime at Nuremberg and Tokyo? And the answer is pretty simple. And not very pleasant. There was a criterion. Kind of like an operational criterion. If the enemy had done it and couldn’t show that we had done it, then it was a war crime. So like bombing of urban concentrations was not considered a war crime because we had done more of it than the Germans and the Japanese. So that wasn’t a war crime. You want to turn Tokyo into rubble? So much rubble you can’t even drop an atom bomb there because nobody will see anything if you do, which is the real reason they didn’t bomb Tokyo. That’s not a war crime because we did it. Bombing Dresden is not a war crime. We did it. German Admiral [Doenitz] — when he was brought to trial (he was a submarine commander or something) for sinking merchant vessels or whatever he did — he called as a defense witness American Admiral Nimitz who testified that the U.S. had done pretty much the same thing, so he was off, he didn’t get tried. [ on Count One because of Nimitz's testimony that the U.S. Navy had done the same thing, but not on all counts.] And in fact if you run through the whole record, it turns out a war crime is any war crime that you can condemn them for but they can’t condemn us for.” (N. Chomsky, speech circa 1990)
The hypocrisy really is breathtaking. Nobody suggests that the designers of American weapons should have refused to serve their country the way they say that Wernher von Braun should have refused to serve his; nor do they criticize Americans for profiting from the war. They expect everybody to view events through the lens of American war-propaganda and to act accordingly. It couldn't be just our propaganda that characterizes those people as evil; no, no: they surely know that they are evil! They must conduct themselves in accord with American expectations!
Alejandro de la Garza, writing for Time, says:
“... much of the Cold War-era coverage of von Braun downplayed the darker details of his past: before he was building rockets for America, he was building them for Hitler.” ()
Americans knew perfectly well that Wernher von Braun and his team had created the V-2 before they came to the United States. An from the early 1960s, produced by David L. Wolper and narrated by Mike Wallace, discusses all of this. It was not considered a big problem by most Americans at the time.
The question can be turned around: why should the inconvenient former lives of America's German-born rocket-scientists have been emphasized and made the focus of a permanent grievance? Whoever takes this position seems to be trying to cause a problem.
To explain the high regard that the German rocket-scientists used to enjoy, several writers observe that the Cold War induced Americans to ignore possible concerns about the “dark past” of men who could help the anti-Communist cause, but that is surely not the whole explanation. With the Second World War in recent memory, Americans for a few decades knew what it meant to be compelled by the necessities of war to do terrible things that one would rather not do, and for that reason, because they had experienced war and been required to do things that they themselves hated to do (like, for example, shooting all prisoners in the early stages of the Italian campaign), or knew men who had been in that position, they could be forgiving.
Not everybody in the United States is unreasonable about this, but the unreasonable people have more and more gotten the upper hand. They have been rewriting our history to make it reflect their moral biases. The fact that some never-to-be-forgiven Germans were brought to the United States in 1945 is now said to have been a secret. Obviously, it must have been a secret, because how otherwise could it have been allowed? () Reality is thus replaced with fiction, because fiction can be made to conform to moral biases, while reality is too complicated for that.
Garza continues the indictment against Wernher von Braun:
“Germany launched more than 3,000 missiles of his design against Britain and other countries, indiscriminately killing approximately 5,000 people, while as many as 20,000 concentration camp prisoners died assembling the weapons.” ()
In the foregoing statement, the lack of perspective and the lack of reflection are striking. If 3000 missiles manufactured at great expense killed 5000 people, is that supposed to be a high rate of casualties? It is said that many rockets directed at London fell short of the city because the aim was influenced by British false-news broadcasts about where the rockets had hit and how much damage had been done. To some extent we can attribute the small body count to that. But the major use of the V-2 was definitely not an anti-personnel use: the majority of V-2 rockets were fired at the crucially important harbor of Antwerp to disrupt Allied supply lines. Goebbels' rechristening of the A-4 as a “Vergeltungswaffe” that would inflict on Britain anything remotely approaching equivalence to the suffering inflicted by Anglo-American bombing was thus quite misleading.
Not only the number of deaths due to the V-2, but even the number caused by all German bombing throughout the war, is insignificant compared to the death-toll from Anglo-American bombing. Let us not hear some Englishman whine about “the bombing of Coventry” where the death toll for the entire war, , is greatly exceeded by inflicted in one day on the French city of Royan, not by the Germans but by Anglo-American bombers on 5 January 1945. As Chomsky observes, this was not counted as a war crime because “we did it.”
The accusation about prisoners who died under the insalubrious conditions of the underground Mittelwerk V-2 factory has at least some truth in it. We can learn from Paul Rassinier's memoir of his time at Dora that there probably were many deaths from unhealthy conditions.
This was not however part of “the Holocaust.” We are told that the Holocaust is properly about Jews alone, but the work in the underground V-2 factory was not specifically for Jews. They were largely guerrillas or otherwise participants in resistance movements. Work in the underground V-2 factory was, largely if not entirely, for people who might otherwise have been shot, if Germany had not been desperate for manpower.
The main witness for accusations of atrocities against Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph seems to have been a résistant named Yves Béon, who says that he was arrested for his activities with the French Resistance in 1943—at a time when the movement was still overwhelmingly Communist.
Yellow journalist Tom Bower (who has been sued for libel several times) supplies these quotes from Béon in an article for The Mail on Sunday. About Arthur Rudolph, the future project manager of the Saturn V rocket, he says:
“If he suspected anyone of not working, he hanged them above the production line and left the body dangling above us for a few days, as a warning. Every week, dozens were killed that way.”
About Wernher von Braun, Béon says that he:
“just passed by us without looking at the bodies, without any sign of emotion.” (T. Bower, The Mail on Sunday, 21 July 2019)
Béon's accusations should be doubtful on their face, because he does not seem to have made any of these accusations until several decades after the war, apparently after he saw the moon-landing on television in 1969. There are also details in his account that should stir doubt. While Bower quotes Béon as repeating the canonical figure of 20,000 deaths among the V-2 factory-workers, Béon extravagantly claimed in a from the 1980s with another yellow journalist, Linda Hunt, “60,000 killed in my camp” (to which even Linda Hunt had to object). Béon says that he lied to the Germans about knowing how to weld, and thus became a welder. He implies that nobody ever checked his work, which is very hard to believe given the reasonable expectation that a captured Communist guerrilla would perform sabotage if given the chance. Béon rightly says that there was a risk of being hanged for sabotage, but claims that sabotage was a “common practice” by himself and others, and that he ignored the danger of execution because he did not believe that he would get out of Dora alive anyway. This seems to be false bravado of the kind that Rassinier characterized with a phrase in the title of one of his books, The Lies of Ulysses. The fact that Béon lasted from 1943 to 1945 as a worker in the underground V-2 factory without being hanged strongly implies that he was not the heroic, devil-may-care saboteur that he later claimed to be. Most likely he did as he was told.
Wernher von Braun did not live long enough to face a formal accusation of this kind, but Arthur Rudolph, in poor health and under pressure from the Justice Department's recently created Office of Special Investigations (which prosecutes alleged war criminals), renounced his U.S. citizenship and returned to the Federal Republic of Germany—where Alfred Streim, a prosecutor who wanted to pursue the matter, could find no incriminating evidence ("keine belastenden Erkenntnisse") ().
This not-very-credible and very likely politically motivated witness Yves Béon is the only alleged eyewitness that Bower bothers to cite in his recent article where he asserts that Arthur Rudolph, Wernher von Braun, and Kurt Debus were all "war criminals" and "mass murderers." If all three were not deceased, Bowers should be sued for libel again.
The fact that there has been an enormous change in attitude toward Wernher von Braun and the German rocket team is generally acknowledged, but explanations for it that I have seen from Garza and others leave out what seems to me the key factor. They leave out the ratcheting-up of Holocaust-propaganda, which began with the Holocaust miniseries in 1978 that taught ordinary Americans to use that word with reverence as a proper noun, and really went into high gear with Schindler's List in 1993. Probably most adults in the United States now cannot remember a time when whatever happened to the Jews during the Second World War was not treated as the most important event of all time.
A good representation of the normal attitude toward Wernher von Braun's team before this intensified anti-German propaganda, is the PBS Nova documentary from 1977. It is completely free of the obligatory moralizing that now characterizes discussions of this subject. Even in the parts that refer to Hitler and Himmler, there is no conspicuous moralizing. I recommend this documentary as a representation of what the mainstream view of Wernher von Braun and his team used to be, in a saner time.