When I started this series detailing how the United States became involved in the Great War (afterwards World War I), I envisioned two parts, but when I realized how complicated the story was, I realized it was going to take three. Last month’s episode involved the sinking of the Lusitania. The current blog describes how German agents in the United States used sabotage to keep American products from reaching the Allies, principally Great Britain and France. The third, in April, will narrate Germany’s attempts to involve the United States in a conflict with Mexico, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and how that finally tried President Wilson’s patience.
President Wilson’s attempt to keep America neutral was difficult for a number of reasons: first, American businesses were making money off the war. Second, there was a large percentage of foreign born persons living in the United States. The 1910 Census showed 1.21 million were British and almost double that were German. The latter population was targeted by the German Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich Andreas Hermann von Bernstorff, who was given the assignment of organizing a spy and sabotage network to keep Americans from helping the Allies with their war effort. The German military and naval attaches did the hands-on work to see to it the Imperial Government’s plans were carried out. (1)
In 1915, the German network was at work on the New York waterfront, using crew members from ships that had been quarantined for the length of the war to do their dirty work. Bombs went off on either vessels that were docked or ships that had left New York and were at sea. American authorities suspected German sabotage but could prove nothing. At that point the federal government had no agency like the FBI or the ATF to investigate and make arrests in cases like they do today. Instead, the Justice Department turned to the New York City Police Department. Howard Blum’s book Dark Invasion traces that story.
New York was not only the place where German agents were carrying out acts of sabotage. One was caught trying to blow up a newly built dam on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. Later, another confessed to blowing up a black powder magazine on Mare Island, California. In June 1915, a man of German descent, Erich Muenter, using an alias, set off a bomb inside the U. S. Capitol in Washington and then took a train to Long Island and shot financier J. P. Morgan. He was arrested soon after but died in jail before he could tried. (2)
Two of Germany’s top agents in New York were Franz von Papen and Franz von Rintelen. Von Papen was posted to Washington as a military attache in the German embassy. Papen’s colleague von Rintelen was a junior in the Admiralty staff who had worked in a New York bank before the war, and was sent there to oversee his nation’s efforts to undermine American attempts to finance and supply Great Britain and France’s war. German agents both in New York and Baltimore used real and shell companies as fronts. For example, Norddeutsche Lloyd (NDL) was a real German corporation, while the Eastern Forwarding Company (EFCO) was not. Von Rintelen set up cells in east coast ports and New Orleans; the members of each one did not know about the cells in other cities. Eventually the American declared both men personna non grata and expelled them from the country. With help from Room 40 British cryptanalysts, Rintelen was taken off the ship he was traveling on by British authorities and made a prisoner of war before being extradited back to the United States to face charges stemming from his activities there.
However, the biggest case of sabotage involved the Black Tom Munitions Depot in New Jersey. The depot was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the entity responsible for shipping war materials destined for Great Britain, France, and Russia. On the evening of July 16, 1916, a vast explosion ripped through the terminal, shattering windows in Manhattan, damaging the Statue of the Liberty, and waking sleeping people over a wide area. Night watchmen on duty at the terminal sounded the alarm when they first spotted flames, but with over two million tons of explosives on site a disaster was waiting to happen. The fact that the railroad had been violating federal regulations by keeping explosives on railroad cars and barges tied up to the pier masked the sabotage carried out by German agents. Not until a Congressional investigation in the 1930s was the truth uncovered. (3)
Further to the south, Baltimore was another port of interest to Germans, especially when the Imperial Navy constructed two commercial submarines, designed bypass the Royal Navy blockade of the German coast. The crews of these ships were ostentatiously civilians but in reality, for the most part, belonged to the Imperial Navy. The first of the two submarines, U-Deutschland, arrived in Baltimore harbor on July 10, 2016. When the resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the U-Deutschland was converted to a warship.
(1) British spies were active in the United States as well. Christopher Andrew’s books on the MI5, the British Secret Service, listed below, outlines their means for keeping track of the Germans.
(2) Muenter was a German professor at Harvard until he disappeared in 1906 after poisoning his wife. When he surfaced nine years later, he had re-married and was called Frank Holt. Before his adventure in Washington and Long Island, he volunteered to help the agents of the German IIIB network in New York. Blum, pp. 3-11, 279-333.
For further reading:
Christopher Andrew, Defend the Realm: the Authorized History of MI5. pp. 71-79
Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only, pp. 30-50
Christopher Andrew, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, pp. 86-127.
Jules Witcover, Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America.