Neutrality: an Explosive Step Closer to War

 

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.

Black-Tom

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.

(3) Witcover.

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.

Howard Blum,  Dark Invasion: 1915, Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America.

Robert Koenig, The Fourth Horseman: One Man’s Mission to Wage the Great War in America.

Jules Witcover,  Sabotage at Black Tom:  Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America.

Samuel Eliot Morison

I believe it was when I was in Junior High that friend of our family gave me a copy of Samuel Eliot Morison’s book Admiral of the Ocean Sea:  a Life of  Christopher Columbus.   That was my introduction to the writings of Dr. Morison, who, unbeknownst to me when I was a teenage boy, was a historian studying the naval history  of the new world.  Over the years, and he wrote and published just short of his death in 1978, Morison produced seven books relating that aspect of American history, besides publishing his fifteen volume History of United States naval operations in World War II,  and multiple books on the history of  his native New England, as well as co-authoring an American history textbook in 1930 that is it’s 7th edition.   For the purpose of this blog I am going to concentrate Morison’s book  The Great Explorers.

 The Great Explorers is an abridgment of  The European Discovery of America :  The Northern Voyages and The Southern Voyages .  When Morison wrote the preface to the latter volume, he dated it exactly two years before he died at the age of 88.  While writing these two volumes, he was traveling all over the world tracing the voyages of Columbus and the men who followed him to the coasts of North and South America, and in the cases of Magellan and Drake, circumnavigated the globe.  Morison concentrates on the voyages, how they arrived at the Americas, the ships they sailed on, not what happened after they got here.  For some reason I can’t figure out, Morison wrote about the northern voyages before the southern ones, although he suggests Columbus’ trips laid the ground work for the rest of the fifteenth and sixteenth century explorers.

Columbus made four trips to the Americas.  The first one as we learned in school was in 1492.  Although Columbus sailed under the colors of the Spanish kingdom Castile and Aragon, he was born Cristoforo Columbo¹ in Genoa long before it was considered Italian.  Columbus and a number of other Europeans believed if one sailed west across the Atlantic they would find a short cut to East Asia.   On his first voyage he took three vessels:  The Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina.  The first was 85 feet in length, the two were smaller. Morison reckoned Columbus touched San Salvador and Cuba on that trip.  The Nina was only the one that made it back.  During the second and fourth voyages Columbus visited Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola.

A quarter of a century after Columbus set foot on the “New World,”  Ferdinand Magellan was in Seville, giving up his Portuguese citizenship to become a subject of Emperor  Charles V of Spain.  Two years afterwards Magellan was in command of five ships with a commission to explore the Pacific Ocean.  His fleet sailed south along the coast of South America, through the strait which now bears his name, and out into the Pacific in the latter of November 1520.  By February the following year, he reached the Caroline Islands and by March, after touching at Guam, he was in the Philippines; where he died during a battle with natives on April 21.  Eighteen survivors made it to back to Seville on the Victoria, Magellan’s flag ship, which had sailed three and month before.

Unlike Magellan, Sir Frances Drake survived his circumnavigation and went up the west coast of the Americas besides.  Drake was regarded as a naval hero to the English and a pirate to their enemies, the Spanish.  The purpose of this voyage was two f0ld:  first, harassment of the Spanish settlements in the Americas, second, exploration. Unlike the voyages of the Spanish and Portuguese, Drake’s was funded by private monies.  There were six vessels in his fleet, which sailed in December 1577, headed by the “The Golden Hind,” armed with a total of 56 guns and, in addition to crew members, men at arms.  Each time they found a Spanish  settlement  it was attacked.    The English expedition traveled as far north as what is now known as San Francisco Bay.  Despite Drake claiming that part of Calfornia for Queen Elizabeth I,   the Spanish built a series of missions there.  The voyage ended in Plymouth harbor on September 26, 1580.  The whole expedition was profitable for the investors, the throne, and Drake as well.

Unlike Drake, John Cabot was an explorer. Cabot is the anglicized version of his Italian name, Giovanni Caboto.   Cabot’s home base in England  was at Bristol on the Avon River which empties into the Irish Sea.  Cabot made his first seaworthy trip to North America in 1497 by sailing due west to the southern tip of Ireland, then west northwest before resuming a more westerly direction, which took him directly to the island of Newfoundland off the coast of what became Canada.  For the next 36 years several Englishmen and a Portuguese, Joāo Alvares Fagundes, made voyages to Newfoundland and Labrador on the mainland. Toward the end of the 16th century, the English became involved in the search for the fabled Northwest Passage.  Martin Frobisher  made several voyages, all of which ended in failure.  John Davis was another mariner who failed to find it.

The first voyage under French colors was led by a man of Italian descent, Girolamo da Verrazzano, whose first trip led to landfall of the present coast of North Carolina.  Sailing north from the outer banks, he came the Narrows that leads into what is now New York harbor.  From there he explored the shore opposite what we now call Long Island and from there proceeded to what become Maine, where he had contact with natives.  Verrazzano was followed to North America by a native of Normandy, Jacques Cartier.    Cartier made three visited North America three times between 1534 and 1542.  On his third voyage, Cartier founded a colony named Charlesbourg-Royal after the Charles duc d’Orléans, son of the King of France.²

Morison’s book is filled with illustrations of old maps, which gives readers an inkling of the geographical ignorance that Europeans had of the western approaches to the Far East from Europe.  Particularly not realizing there was a whole large continent between Europe and Asia.  In addition to those maps, there are portraits of many of the explorers and photographs the author took from his flights which traced to routes used by the explorers to find their way west.

Author’s note:   To be sure the Europeans brought war and disease to the indigenous peoples of the “New World,”  and started a genocide that lasted in North America until late in the nineteenth century.  But Morison concentrates on the voyages, how they arrived at the Americas, the ships they sailed on, and how they navigated without any of the modern aides modern sailors have at their disposal.

 ¹ In Portugal he was known as Christovão Colom.

² Archaeologists discovered remains of the colony in 2006 at the junction of the Cap Rouge River and the St. Lawrence River.