The children of Nazi scientists attended El Paso schools for four years at the outset of the Cold War, a fascinating and largely forgotten part of history. Jonna Perrillo’s book “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands” is a long overdue exploration of a key moment in El Paso and world history.
This University of Chicago Press book is gripping in large part because Perrillo, an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, centers both the German children brought to the United States after the end of World War II, and the Mexican American children who were attending El Paso schools at the same time.
Put simply, the German children received vastly better treatment and a superior education than their Mexican American counterparts. As Perrillo makes clear, this disparity was driven by a history of white supremacy that diminished – and continues to diminish – Black and Mexican American children.
That the children of Nazi scientists benefitted from American white supremacy is chilling, if unsurprising to those familiar with our country’s history.
As World War II ended, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to capture German scientists who had helped build the Nazi war machine, particularly its missile program. The U.S. government conducted its efforts through a program dubbed Operation Paperclip.
The crown jewel of the U.S. effort was the Nazi team, led by Werner von Braun, who had developed the V-2 rocket, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. Von Braun and his fellow scientists would go on to play key roles in building both the U.S. military ballistic missile system and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program that would lead to landing man on the moon.
Shortly after the war, U.S. officials began bringing the German rocket scientists to Fort Bliss to continue their work. Starting in 1946, they were allowed to bring their families.
Eventually, 144 children of the German scientists attended El Paso schools, with the largest concentration at Crockett School in what is now Central El Paso.
They entered a school system that was largely segregated – de jure for Black children, and de facto for Mexican American children.
Perrillo’s research skills produce a bleak picture of Mexican American education, a predictable result of the mix of low expectations and even lower investment in children.
Armed with higher expectations and more resources, the German children quickly mastered English and largely flourished in El Paso schools, until their families were moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950.
“As a group, the Paperclip children served as an affirmation of beliefs about democracy, national identity, and white supremacy in the context of American Cold War politics,” Perrillo writes.
Like all good history books, “Educating the Enemy” is about the present as much as the past. El Paso – like Texas and the United States – has seen numerous advancements over the years, including in the education of Mexican American children. But we have not escaped our past, especially in dealing with our foundational history involving race and ethnicity.
“The symmetries between the present and the Cold War are multiple. Our commitment to pluralism is unclear. We are at best a model of flawed democracy,” Perrillo writes in the epilogue. “Nativism, white supremacy, and the suppression of poor communities hold a visible, violent role in American public culture, incited and nurtured for four years by a presidential administration that disregarded American law and global public opinion. Voter suppression, police violence, and government corruption have become endemic, almost normalized, even as a culture of public protest has thrived alongside the catastrophe.”
El Paso Matters Book Club discussion
“Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands,” by Jonna Perrillo, University of Chicago Press, 2022.
Available at Literarity Book Shop, 5411 N. Mesa. Profits from sale of the books at Literarity go to El Paso Matters.
Copies of the book are also available for checkout at El Paso Public Library branches.
Learn more about the book in a discussion with Perrillo and El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore at 5:30 p.m. May 23 at Armijo Branch Library, 620 E. 7th Ave.; and noon May 24 online.
Sign up here for the in-person conversation May 23, and here for the virtual conversation May 24.