Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lichtblau, author of an exposé of the Nazi era’s shameful American aftermath, is worried what a future historian might say about today’s War on Terror.
He said he feared “we’ll find out in 10 or 20 years” that we’ve made immoral tradeoffs similar to those he describes in his 2014 book “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men.”
Addressing 260 people Wednesday night at UC San Diego’s Price Center, Lichtblau also saw parallels between the treatment of Holocaust victims and Syrian refugees.
“The two really have everything to do with each other,” said the former Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporter — now with CNN. “The most galling to me was the treatment of the survivors after the Holocaust.”
Despite “sepia images” of the 1945 liberation of death camps by U.S., Soviet and British troops, Jews and other Nazi victims didn’t emerge to joyful cheers like coal miners saved from a cave-in, he said.
Many were kept in wretched conditions into 1946, said Lichtblau — whose talk was videotaped for airing at 8 p.m. June 26 on the UCSD Library channel and website.
U.S. Gen. George Patton, in fact, was a “raving anti-Semite” who referred to Jews in displaced-persons camps as the “greatest stinking mass of humanity” and “lower than animals.”
Lichtblau said President Harry Truman sent an emissary to check on stories of horrific conditions at the postwar camps, and a report came back: “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them” but without extermination.
Patton later “got in hot water” for letting Nazi inmates run the displaced-person camps, Lichtblau said. The U.S. Seventh Army commander even handed three cigars to the Nazi scientist in charge of the V-2 rocket program.
In a 40-minute talk followed by a 35-minute Q&A session, Lichtblau recalled how 1,600 Nazi scientists and engineers were brought to Alabama, Ohio and even San Diego to jumpstart the space race amid the Cold War. It was called Operation Paperclip.
But less well-known was the fact that 40 percent of all visas went not to help the 7 million stateless victims of World War II but to the “captive” Baltic nations, whose populations were deemed of “good stock and breeding.”
Through that program, thousands of Nazis and Nazi collaborators were able to make a home in the United States.
Lichtblau’s interviews, research of national archives and FOIA requests also revealed efforts by eventual CIA Director Allen Dulles to deploy ex-Nazis as European spies against the Soviet Union.
The program was pretty much a failure — and even counterproductive, he said. Some spies were double agents working for the Soviets.
Lichtblau also exploded the government-fostered myth that German scientists and engineers weren’t “ardent Nazis.” (The Wernher von Brauns behind the moon shot eventually became celebrated by Disney TV shows.)
He documented that such recruits “gleefully and eagerly” executed their Nazi orders. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that the government began seeking to denaturalize and deport Nazi war criminals.
During the question period, a reader of Lichtblau’s book noted how evil was hidden in the name of fighting communism.
“And I’m wondering: Do you see any dangers of our government doing similar things in the name of fighting terrorism?” asked a man who had flown down Monday from Marin County for the talk.
Lichtblau replied: “I fear that we’ll find out in 10 or 20 years that we have done that. Certainly we know that [for] the last 10-12 years Al Qaeda operatives have [been] developed as informants — with horrible, hideous pasts — in the Middle East mainly….
“There certainly is this mind-set that, going back to Allen Dulles, that if you’re fighting the enemy — whether it’s the Soviets [in the] Cold War or the War on Terror — that sometimes you get your hands dirty, and we need to have some unsavory cohorts to win the war.”
But Leanne Howard of Santaluz, a frequent attender of UCSD talks, asked a “devil’s advocate” question.
Given that Nazis snuck in with Baltic state visas, “don’t you think at the same time it’s easy for ISIS people to sneak in among the refugees from Syria?”
Lichtblau called that “a legitimate concern” but pointed to “all sorts of vetting measures.”
“But the reality is that has hardly ever happened. … Almost none of those attacks were carried out by Syrian refugees,” he said, alluding to studies by George Washington and Fordham universities.
“Everyone worries about that. But some in Washington … fan the flames for political ends,” he said. “I think the answer is obvious. They’ve made that fear into much more than it is in reality.”
Lichtblau was introduced by famed lawyer Bill Lerach, who with his wife, Michelle, sponsored the talk at a UCSD Holocaust Living History Workshop.
Naziism was 80 years ago — and its events seemingly “stale and old,” said Lerach, whose lawsuits recovered $8 billion for Holocaust victims.
But “to me, recent events confirm it has lots of contemporary relevance. Our country today is ripped apart by a legal and political fight over whether refugees — victims of totalitarianism — can enter our country.”
In the context of “extreme vetting” and travel bans, he said, “Let’s remember: Our country refused to admit refugees attempting to flee Nazi totalitarianism before the war, condemning many of them to their deaths. And afterwards, we were ever so parsimonious in granting visas to the victims of the greatest human rights abuse in history. … The perpetrators got in. The victims were excluded.”
Lerach also noted how Lichtblau recently moved to CNN to head its investigative unit — “and God knows, he’s got a lot to do right now.”
But Eric Lichtblau of Washington took time to acknowledge Erich Lichtblau of Greenbrae — the long-journeyed Marin County questioner.
Erich, a lawyer for Pacific Gas & Electric who also works on prisoner-rights issues, had never met Eric the journalist until Wednesday night.
They first connected online when the West Coast Lichtblau accidentally got an “evite” to a party intended for the East Coast Lichtblau, Erich said. (He made sure the proper Lichtblau was notified.)
The lawyer had been following his double’s career starting with bylines in the Los Angeles Times, and eventually heard about “The Nazis Next Door” shortly after it came out.
“It sounded fascinating, so I bought a copy,” he said. “And I’ve since bought five more to give to friends. I was so blown away by the story.”