Secrets in Plain Site – Camp Van Etten

This photo was taken in 1935 by the American Photo Service/Farm Security Administration. This aerial view of CCC Camp Van Etten shows buildings annexed by the U.S. Army in 1943. It was occupied by Idea Factory from October 1944 to March 1945. Photo courtesy of Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Dept. of Natural Resources, Cornell University.

By Jan Bridgeford Smith


A quote attributed to Harry Truman goes like this: “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” What follows is a story that for many will be “the history you do not know.” It’s the almost-not-quite forgotten tale of Camp Van Etten, once home to an improbable covert military operation nicknamed the “Idea Factory.”

To find out where Camp Van Etten once stood, set your GPS to this address: 611 County Road 13, Cayuta, New York. Do not include a zip code. This is the setting for the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, an educational preserve of more than 4,000 acres owned by Cornell University. Near the end of World War II, the forest hosted a group of German prisoners and American military advisors interested in educational pursuits of a particular kind. No residents in the surrounding area knew for sure when they came, when they left, or what they did.  “The greatest secrets are hidden,” noted storyteller Raold Dahl, “in the most unlikely places.”

Enemies brought to U.S. soil 

As 1942 drew to a close, the United States was on the cusp of the largest domestic prisoners-of-war (POW) operation in its history – or its future. That year, tens of thousands of captured enemy soldiers, mostly those in service to Hitler’s Germany, arrived on American soil. In short order, the number of German POWs in the United States climbed to more than 300,000 men.

Roughly 30 percent of the prisoner population was judged by U.S. officials to be enthusiastic followers of Nazi ideology. Yet, in a grim twist, at some camps these were the very individuals regularly relied upon by their American guards and German comrades to maintain the daily discipline, order and routine among the prisoners. There were consequences to this self-policing policy. It wasn’t long before ugly incidents arose.

By March of 1943, some officers at the War Department were alarmed that Nazi ideology remained a strong influence among German POWs. It seemed an omen that fascism might have a future in post-war Germany. To counteract the allure of Nazi rhetoric, a prisoner re-education plan was proposed. The idea was rejected in June of that year by Maj. Gen. Allen W. Gullion, then head of the Office of the Provost Marshal General, which had command oversight of all POW operations. He noted that prisoners were not children and added, “Those whose minds are sufficiently plastic to be affected by the program are probably not worth the effort.”

But as the war dragged on, stories surfaced about Nazi terrorism in the camps. Editorials ran in papers questioning the War Department’s management of the POWs. A tipping point was reached when two respected journalists – Dorothy Bromly of the New York Herald Tribune and syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson – held discreet discussions about Nazi-inspired camp violence with Eleanor Roosevelt. She, in turn, held discreet discussions with the President, and cabinet-level and War Department officials. Something, she insisted, needed to be done. They agreed.

“Re-educating” POWs

By the summer of 1944, the shelved re-education plan was dusted off and the Intellectual Diversion Program, sponsored by the newly organized Prisoners of War Special Programs Division, got underway. Use of “intellectual” and “diversion” in the name were deliberate. Though the Geneva Convention prohibited coercion through propaganda, Article 17 of the covenant stated, “…belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by prisoners of war.”

Name aside, U.S. authorities deemed the project top secret. The Roosevelt administration was concerned the re-education program would be recognized for what it was: a thinly disguised, gentle form of “brainwashing” that might incur retaliation against American POWs held by Germany.

Despite running afoul of the Geneva treaty, the project was authorized and placed under the leadership of Col. Edward Davison, a poet and university professor; and Maj. Maxwell McKnight. To assist them, Davison and McKnight “collected a group of leaders and educators who would make any university proud,” wrote Judith Gansburg in her book, Stalag U.S.A. This cadre of talented American intellectuals structured the program based on a core objective. “The prisoners would be given facts, objectively presented but so assembled as to correct misinformation and prejudices surviving Nazi conditioning. The facts … would be made available through such media as literature, motion pictures, newspapers, music, art and educational courses.”

By October, the Intellectual Diversion Program, nicknamed the Idea Factory, was staffed and active at Camp Van Etten. It would remain there for the next six months.

Camp Van Etten becomes the Idea Factory 

Cornell University petitioned state and federal authorities in 1933 to have its Arnot Forest property, owned by the school since 1927, designated a work site for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the popular Depression-era government-works program. The petition was approved, and buildings were constructed that October. From November until the outbreak of World War II, Camp Van Etten, or Camp Arnot as it was sometimes called, housed teams of young men, off and on, who were assigned to various projects in the surrounding forest.

In 1943, the camp buildings were appropriated by the army for use as a military-police training site, and then retrofitted in 1944 with guard houses and barbed-wire fencing for service as a German POW prison. That August, 200 captured German soldiers were transferred to the site. The prisoners were content with their lot, according to a 1980 monograph, “A History of Cornell University’s Arnot Forest,” by Amy L. Odell, James P. Lassoie, and Robert R. Morrow. “The local residents … heard the Germans singing as they were marched up and down Jackson Hollow Road for exercise … When a college forester visited … he found the [camp] gates opened and unguarded. Upon inquiry he was told the prisoners were too well fed and comfortable to want to leave.”

But leave they did – in less than a month.

The official story for the Germans’ departure was “…due to a poor water supply and bad sanitary arrangements and anticipated difficulties in heating the buildings in the winter,” reports the monograph. Camp Van Etten had certainly gone dark, but not defunct. The hasty exodus of the POWs was not prompted by problems with water, toilets or heat. The camp needed to be readied for its next occupants.

Some sources cite 82, others 85, as the number of German prisoners-turned-collaborators transferred to Camp Van Etten in October of 1944.  Like their American colleagues, they were academics, writers and intellectuals; men who had misgivings about fascism in general and the Nazi Party in particular. In one sense, these disaffected intellectuals were an odd choice to work on a campaign targeted to the average German soldier or sailor. This was an elite group of misfits with tastes and sensibilities far removed from most of their imprisoned comrades.

Acting in concert with their American counterparts, the German POW staff worked on developing a variety of educational and informational products. They translated into German selected books, texts and lessons on American democracy, history and culture; produced German language book and movie reviews, pamphlets and a newspaper, Der Ruf, which was disseminated to more than 500 POW camps across the country. Regardless of the medium, the message it bore was ever a positive spin on America, its people and its democratic institutions. A thorough discussion of the Idea Factory’s mission, activities and impact on German POWs can be found in Dr. Ron Robin’s book, The Barbed Wire College.

In the spring of 1945, the Idea Factory was relocated to Fort Kearney, Rhode Island, where the re-education program continued until the last of the German POWs were shipped home. In April, the U.S. Army released Camp Van Etten, liquidated all remaining military property there, and returned the buildings to Cornell University. On July 14 of that year, Cornell auctioned off the structures. It would be decades before the secrets of Camp Van Etten’s World War II service were fully revealed.


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