Who would have thought that Nazis would be the surprise prize in a crackerjack package being aired next Wednesday night on WHYY-TV12?
But that's exactly what "The Hunt for Nazi Scientists" is – a chase-of-a-saga spun out of truths and revelations about how the American government trusted its scientific future to Hitler's braintrust post-World War II.
Think of it as an "I've Got a Secret" that would have stymied even Kitty Carlisle.
"Hunt," which launches the fifth season of the "Secrets of the Dead" series of Thirteen/ WNET-New York, is at once unnerving and intriguing as it demonstrates how the Allies – postwar – scrambled for what they thought was the golden egg of the goose-stepping Nazis they had just defeated: Their scientific know-how.
Know how the United States stepped to the forefront in its arms/space race with the Soviets? The U.S. had a better supply of Nazis.
"It certainly is unusual," says Jared Lipworth of the notion of Nazis as a prize to be sought.
But that's not what Lipworth, executive producer of science programs for WNET, thought he had netted with this project at first. "It started out as a revelation of what technology the Germans had," as in their advanced aviation prowess. "For me, it was a big surprise what I learned by the program's end."
Indeed, there is no end of revelations in the program, which details how such SS sign-ups as physicist Werner Heisenberg, chief of the Nazi A-bomb project, and Wernher von Braun, the fuse behind Germany's rocket systems, became prized collectibles in a chilling Cold War board game spinning out of control.
Science fiction? Science fact: "What was interesting was seeing how the Allies were preparing for the Cold War near the end of Word War II; they were doing as much to prepare for that as they were putting World War II to bed."
But this is no banal bedtime story: This one ends in hidden pasts and erased histories that are as nightmarish as they are numbing. It is a stunning scenario that even a Mel Brooks couldn't brook. Springtime for Hitler? More like springing his henchmen and making them out as U.S. patriots.
Indeed, one of the program's most probing – and disturbing – elements shows how souls once stained with swastikas were suddenly purged of their impurities, of how the United States put scientific needs over social morality.
Ironically, some of these adopted American scientists were as comfortable spouting "Icht been Nazi" as they were in their new role as American icons.
Adds Lipworth, "The story of Wernher von Braun is the face of American rocketry."
The rocket's Red glare – the fear that the Soviets would grab von Braun for their own before he could be "convinced" to come to the United States – is one of the bombs bursting in air Wednesday night, a startling discovery that the U.S. had given harbor to Hitler's heroes in the name of science.
Yet, "The Hunt" is not hobbled by a limiting point of view. The age-old question of whether the ends support the means is given a means test according to the individual viewer. "On a personal level," says the executive producer, who had family in the Holocaust, "I am aghast" at the way the U.S. government coddled what was essentially human contraband.
But that is on a personal level. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see how the Cold War may have put some souls on ice, and how the bigger picture was by far no Kodak moment for those whose vision was unclouded by moral implications.
What will this TV series' science lesson yield?
The program may encourage "people to call for documents to be declassified," says Lipworth of truths protected by paperwork. "And it will temper existing feelings about von Braun" as a hero.
But will tempers flare enough to ensure that such duplicity not be duplicated today? That if a prominent Saddam Hussein sympathizer were secreted out of Iraq today to work on an American science project, his terrorist credentials wouldn't be quashed?
Who knows, questions Lipworth of practicality trumping truth, if "the government wouldn't do the same thing today?"