Shameless self-promotion

Final Logo I’m sure I’ve mentioned that the library is hosting a year-long remembrance of WWI.  I’ve coordinated the program with the Evanston History Center, and we are super excited about it.  Dark Invasion is actually one of the first programs in the series and I want to thank you all for being my guinea pigs.  Also, there is a “community blog” dedicated to the program.  By community, I mean it includes voices from ALL the employees at both institutions (not just me).  You can find it at www.evanstonrememberswwi.wordpress.com.  I think there is a lot of information on there that directly relates to our book this month, and it is interesting overall if you don’t know that much about the Great War.  

So I invite you to check out the blog, in addition to the program as a whole.  Thanks and I hope to maybe see you at some programs. 

- Kim

It’s not official until we hear from the CIA.

In doing research for this book, I came across an article on the CIA website, by a CIA historian.  Naturally, I had to share – and, hopefully, I’m giving it enough publishing credit that I don’t end up on a watch list.  – Kim

 

The Kaiser Sows Destruction

Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around

Michael Warner


Intelligence officers responding to the attacks on 11 September 2001 perhaps had little inkling that they were following paths trod long ago by their forebears. On a summer night in New York City in 1916, a pier laden with a thousand tons of munitions destined for Britain, France, and Russia in their war against Imperial Germany suddenly caught fire and exploded with a force that scarred the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel, shattered windows in Times Square, rocked the Brooklyn Bridge, and woke sleepers as far away as Maryland. Within days, local authorities had concluded that the blasts at “Black Tom” pier were the work of German saboteurs seeking to destroy supplies headed from neutral America to Germany’s enemies.

Photo: Black Tom pier, after the explosion.

Black Tom pier, after the explosion

 

Black Tom was neither the first nor the costliest incident in the two-year German sabotage campaign in America, but it made perhaps the deepest impression. Although this campaign was the work not of terrorists but of German agents—and despite the fact that it took comparatively few lives—it marked the national psyche, as well as America’s laws and institutions. Indeed, some of the very organizations and processes being tested today in the war on terrorism were created to deal with the German sabotage campaign, or to prevent a repetition. A quick look at the campaign and the American response provides some striking parallels between our time and an earlier age.

Germany Attacks

World War I erupted in July 1914, with Britain soon joining the French and Russians against the Germans and Austrians. The Royal Navy quickly blockaded Germany’s ports and swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships, more than a hundred of which scurried for refuge in the harbors of neutral America. The British blockade made it impossible for Germany and Austria to import war materiel and foodstuffs from overseas, while leaving the British, French, and Russians at their leisure to buy the products of America’s farms and factories. American businessmen welcomed the foreign customers who bought huge quantities and paid cash when necessary.

Photo: german Ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

German Ambassador,
Count Johann von Bernstorff

The government of the United States and most Americans regarded the war as an Old World squabble best avoided. The German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, protested the fact that the British, French, and Russians were buying armaments in America, but he received no satisfaction from official Washington. The United States was neutral, and willing to sell to anyone who could pay. President Woodrow Wilson sympathized with the British, despite his advice to Americans to remain neutral “in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls.”1 Politicians and editorialists lamented the war in Europe and complained of the British blockade, but increasing exports to the Allies (swiftly turning America from a debtor to a creditor nation) gradually and surely yoked the nation’s economy to the Allied cause.2

After months of fruitless complaints, Germany decided to take bold action to stem the flow of American arms and supplies to its enemies. On 4 February 1915, Berlin ordered its submarines to sink any vessels—even those flying the flags of neutrals—sailing within an exclusion zone around Great Britain. At roughly the same time, the General Staff confirmed its prior authorization to Germany’s military attache in Washington to mount sabotage operations against “every kind of factory for supplying munitions of war.”3 Despite this sweeping grant of authority, however, the attaché, Franz von Papen, had no training in clandestine activities, and accomplished little over the next few months.

Berlin sent von Papen some help in April 1915. An aristocratic naval officer, Captain Franz von Rintelen, arrived in New York carrying a Swiss passport and orders to run a sabotage campaign under illegal cover. Rintelen spoke fluent English and knew Manhattan’s banking and social milieus. He was as unschooled in covert action as his Embassy counterparts, but was more innovative and seemingly inexhaustible. Within weeks of his arrival, he had enlisted sailors and officers from the 80-odd German ships languishing in New York harbor, turning a workshop on one of the ships into a bomb factory. He convinced a German-born chemist across the river in New Jersey to fill cigar-shaped firebombs, and claims to have used Irish dockworkers to plant the devices on Allied ships in American ports. The shipping news soon noted a rash of mysterious accidents at sea; ships carrying munitions from America were damaged and their cargoes ruined by fires.

 

America Responds

Until this point, the Americans had been baffled and fumbling in their response to German secret activities. The United States had no national intelligence service beyond its diplomats and a few military and naval attaches. There was no codebreaking agency and only rudimentary communications security. Still more remarkable, no federal statute forbade peacetime espionage and sabotage. Planting bombs and committing passport fraud—to name only two of the transgressions already perpetrated by German agents—had to be investigated piecemeal by federal, state, and local authorities. No federal agency had either the power or the resources to follow leads that hinted at a foreign-directed conspiracy to violate the laws of multiple jurisdictions. That soon began to change, however, thanks to Captain Rintelen’s colleagues in the German navy.

Photo: The sabotage cable of 26 January 1915, intercepted by the British: German text, left; actual message with decoding, right.

The sabotage cable of 26 January 1915,
intercepted by the British: German text, left;
actual message with decoding, right.

 

In May 1915, a U-boat off the coast of Ireland sank the British liner Lusitania with appalling loss of life, including 128 Americans. The sinking turned public opinion against Germany and angered President Wilson, who ordered the Secret Service—previously confined to protecting presidents and hunting counterfeiters—to watch German diplomats. Although the Secret Service officers did not spot Rintelen, they filched the briefcase of the German commercial attaché on a New York streetcar in July 1915, and found in his papers several leads to the sabotage campaign. Officials in Washington began to see what was afoot.

Photo: German bombs seized in New Jersey.

German bombs seized in New Jersey.

 

Not long afterward, Captain Rintelen was ordered to Berlin for consultations and boarded a Dutch steamer for the long trip. He never made it. Tipped by a decoded German message, the British stopped his ship in the English Channel and detained him. His Swiss passport only delayed the inevitable, and soon Rintelen admitted to his captors that he was an enemy officer.4

American authorities by late 1915 had enough evidence to expel other German diplomats. Military Attache Franz von Papen held diplomatic immunity and thus could not be arrested by the British when they stopped his ship in the Channel, but His Majesty’s officers decided that von Papen’s immunity did not extend to his luggage. The British found various incriminating documents, some of which they turned over to the Americans to assist their growing investigation of German activities.

Photo: Wanted Poster issued for suspected German agent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wanted Poster issued
for suspected German agent.

 

The departure of the key diplomats corresponded with a shift in the center of gravity of the investigations. With no obvious targets left to investigate, federal authorities could do little to help. The trail of the ship bombers thus shifted to the Bomb Squad of the New York Police Department, which found itself for a time hamstrung by the inefficiency of coordinating with police and authorities in New Jersey. The NYPD also discovered that it needed Germans to catch German saboteurs. America in 1915 was home to more than 2.5 million German immigrants; perhaps 4 million native-born Americans had parents who had been born in Germany. The great majority of these people saw themselves as loyal American citizens. Indeed, several German-speaking detectives served on the NYPD Bomb Squad, and were subsequently stationed in dockside taverns where German sailors gossiped and plotted over their lager. In early 1916, the authorities swooped into New York and New Jersey, rounding up Rintelen’s confederates who had been “outraging our neutrality,” in the words of a contemporaneous book on the incidents. This action largely halted the campaign of ship bombings.5

The dragnet, however, missed other conspirators. Rintelen’s former contacts shifted their targets from ships carrying war materiel to the factories producing it. Although American detectives never caught more than a handful of the suspects—and thus it is difficult at this remove to sketch the true picture of the conspiracy—it seems clear now that small teams of German agents succeeded in infiltrating various plants and sites filling contracts for the Allies.6

The conflagration at Black Tom pier was their most spectacular success, but there were others. In January 1917, a mysterious fire at a shell-packing plant in Kingsland, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan, rocked the city and sent thousands fleeing from unfused shells flung high in the air by the blasts. Three months later, another unexplained fire destroyed the Hercules Powder Company plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, killing over a hundred workers, most of them women and children. A book published in 1937 estimated that, between early 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies.

These attacks did little damage to the huge American economy or the Allied war effort. One later estimate put the damage at $150 million in then-current money (or somewhat less than $1.5 billion dollars today).7 Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of the skullduggery—and especially the renewed U-boat sinkings of American ships—poisoned public opinion against Germany. The final straw came with Britain’s interception of the Zimmerman Telegram—in which Berlin promised Mexico its lost territory in Texas and the Southwest if it would attack America—and the Wilson administration’s publication of the damning cable.8

Photo; Inspector Thomas J. Tunney of the New York bomb Squad.

Inspector Thomas J. Tunney of
the New York bomb Squad.

America declared war on Germany in April 1917, creating a new legal and political climate for German agents and their pursuers. As the war loomed that spring, Germany’s main undercover agents—fearing execution if captured as spies in an enemy country—had quietly decamped for Mexico. Following the declaration, the Attorney General authorized his department’s small Bureau of Investigation to investigate espionage on its own initiative. A few weeks later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which remains the basis of modern espionage statutes.9 The Bureau’s roughly 400 agents joined the campaign against German agents.10 Among the Justice Department officials working closely with the Bureau in its monitoring of suspicious aliens was an up-and-coming attorney named J. Edgar Hoover, who would one day head the organization and give it the name it holds today: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The fight against German espionage and sabotage took two significant paths thereafter. The long campaign of subversion unfortunately heightened suspicions of all Germans and bred a popular fear of aliens, agitators, and subversives. A wave of wartime vigilantism swept the country, with thousands of Americans denouncing their immigrant neighbors and anyone else suspected of disloyalty. Popular worries about German plotters were misplaced—the vast majority of German-Americans were patriots, and many fought for their country in 1918—but the distrust of entire ethnic groups during times of national emergency was a trait that would endure.

The official response to German sabotage followed a more professional path. With British help, American counterintelligence agencies finally organized themselves and even took the offensive against German networks in the final months of the war. The Army expanded its tiny Military Intelligence Division (MID), hiring detectives from the NYPD Bomb Squad and eventually assigning several sections to domestic security duties, under the theory that “the misbehavior, disloyalty, or indifference of native Americans is as important a material of military intelligence as any other.”11 When American authorities penetrated a German operation run from Mexico, one of these MID units—Herbert Yardley’s Negative Branch—broke a German agent cipher and provided evidence that helped to convict an important operative.12 Indeed, the decryption of the coded messages of suspected German agents originally formed the bulk of the work of the US Army’s code-breaking section, and gave it a reason to begin monitoring radio transmissions as well. Signals intelligence, as well as counterintelligence, was born as a discipline in the United States as a result of World War I.

 

Postwar Developments

The effects of the German sabotage campaign reverberated after the war. In 1924, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation got a new broom—Director J. Edgar Hoover—who was determined to make it an instrument that would energetically and professionally track foreign threats. As a second European war loomed in the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly ordered Hoover to monitor communist and fascist sympathizers. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 precipitated new measures to guard American neutrality. The White House authorized the FBI to watch potential saboteurs and Congress passed the draconian Smith Act, requiring (among other things) the periodic re-registration of all aliens and giving federal law enforcement agencies powerful weapons to use against radicals of all stripes. Indeed, memories of the German sabotage campaign helped sway the Roosevelt administration’s decision to intern Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. “We don’t want any more Black Toms,” President Roosevelt told Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, who implemented the internment order.13

All this high-level attention also persuaded the Army and Navy intelligence agencies in 1939 to join the FBI on a committee to coordinate actions and policies. It bears noting that the main focus of this coordination—America’s first civilian-military intelligence-sharing arrangement—was to prevent sabotage like that conducted by Germany in World War I. The formation of the outfit that became the Office of Strategic Services was closely related to these developments; it had much to do with the desire of British intelligence agencies for a central point of contact in Washington for information-sharing regarding German threats to British war materiel moving from the United States.

 

Conclusion

The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no adequate national Intelligence organization. The several Federal bureaus should be welded into one, and that one should be eternally and comprehensively vigilant.14

—Arthur Woods, Police Commissioner of New York, 1919

Few today remember the Black Tom explosion or the Kingsland fire, but incidents like these made a deep and lasting impression on the minds of two generations of American leaders. German sabotage actually killed only a comparative handful of Americans. Nevertheless, it piled outrage upon outrage to convince many people of two elemental but enduring lessons: first, that enemy aliens in our midst can be a source of great mischief in wartime and therefore must be watched closely; and, second, that strong federal laws and federal agencies are indispensable to the effective investigation—and deterrence—of foreign conspiracies on American soil.

No one today can predict the long-term impact on the Intelligence Community of the events of 11 September 2001. If the past is any guide, however, those effects are likely to be profound. Certain lessons from that tragedy are sure to shape the minds of the American people, their elected officials, and those who oversee the Intelligence Community. The effects of Germany’s sabotage campaign took at least three decades to work themselves out; the attack on 11 September may exert powerful pressures for change in the American intelligence establishment for at least that long.

 

Footnotes

1. Quoted in Jules Witcover, Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America, 1914-1917 (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1989), pp. 70-71.

2. Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958 [sixth edition]), pp. 567-575.

3. Henry Landau, The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937), p. 8. The German Embassy had apparently been ordered to conduct sabotage against British economic interests in 1914, but its initial, amateurish efforts had been directed against railways in Canada. Berlin’s 26 January 1915 authorization survived–courtesy of British signals intelligence–and is crucial as a piece of evidence because it is the sabotage campaign’s earliest extant operational order.

4. After America entered the war, the British bundled Rintelen off to New York to stand trial. One of the charges that stuck was that of conspiracy to create an illegal restraint of trade by inducing dockworkers to strike against firms loading ships with munitions. He thus became surely the most important–and probably the only–spy to be jailed for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Released in 1920, Rintelen eventually moved to England, told his story in a lurid memoir titled The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer (London: Lovat, Dickson, 1933), and died in London in 1949.

5. Thomas J. Tunney and Paul Merrick Hollister, Throttled: The Detection of the German and Anarchist Bomb Plotters in the United States (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1919), p. vii.

6. This phase of the sabotage campaign may forever remain obscure. Few if any official documents on this subject survived in Germany; many were apparently destroyed by the German General Staff in 1919. Most of the German agents were never caught, and those who were said little to help the authorities.

7. The $150 million estimate and the numbers of ships and factories come from Landau, pp. 38, 300. In 1953, the new Federal Republic of Germany agreed to pay $95 million (including interest) over 26 years to claimants alleging damages from the Black Tom and Kingsland fires. The last payments were made on schedule in 1979–see Witcover, p. 310. It is also interesting to note that munitions at Black Tom were bound for Russia, and might have lessened the shortfall that hastened the collapse of the Czar’s army in the fall and winter of 1916-1917.

8. Barbara W. Tuchman tells this story in The Zimmerman Telegram (New York: Dell, 1958). Of particular interest is the groundwork laid–both in the minds of German leaders and American investigators–by Rintelen in his dealings with exiled Mexican contenders in New York. Washington was already sensitive about German plotting with Mexico when the British passed Zimmerman’s cable to American diplomats. See Tuchman, pp. 64-81.

9. On 1 July 1916, before there was an espionage statute, Congress had allowed the Bureau to investigate German subversive activities upon request from the Department of State.

10. The Bureau gained at least one counterintelligence coup in April 1918, when it quietly tunneled into a vault of the Swiss consulate in New York to peek at the files of former German Commercial Attaché Heinrich Albert. Don Whitehead, The FBI Story: A Report to the People (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 32.

11. John Patrick Finnegan, Military Intelligence (Washington: US Army Center of Military History, 1998), pp. 24-30.

12. The agent, Lothar Witzke, has long been suspected of a hand in the Black Tom sabotage; see Witcover, pp. 245-246. Herbert Yardley tells the story in his own words in The American Black Chamber (New York: Ballantine, 1981 [1931]), pp. 106-107.

13. See Witcover, p. 311. Witcover notes that he interviewed McCloy in his law offices high in World Trade Center, commanding a fine view of the Statue of Liberty and the site of Black Tom pier. McCloy’s interest in the German campaign ran deep. He had investigated the sabotage for the Mixed Claims Commission that heard the cases against Berlin in the 1930s, and had been brought to Washington by Secretary of War Stimson in late 1940 to work as a consultant on German sabotage; see Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), pp. 123-25, 182.

14. Quoted in Tunney and Hollister, p. ix

 

 

Michael Warner, serves on the CIA History Staff.

World War I Intrigue: German Spies in New York!

On July 30, 1916, German saboteurs targeted the ammunition depot on New Jersey's Black Tom Island, shipping point for three-quarters of U.S. ammunition bound for Allied Europe. The resulting explosion was heard as far away as Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)
On July 30, 1916, German saboteurs targeted the ammunition depot on New Jersey’s Black Tom Island, shipping point for three-quarters of U.S. ammunition bound for Allied Europe. The resulting explosion was heard as far away as Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

‘The blast shattered windows in lower Manhattan and along the Jersey waterfront and awakened people as far away as Maryland and Philadelphia’

From the air the soot-covered Lehigh Valley Railroad terminus at Jersey City, N.J., looked like a black cat with an arched back, calling to mind its nickname “Black Tom.” The depot rested atop Black Tom Island, which jutted into New York Harbor. In 1916 some three-quarters of the ammunition manufactured in the United States and destined for the Allied armies on the Western Front shipped from there. Still, few Americans gave it much thought, despite its prime location near the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan.

To German agents active in the New York City area, however, Black Tom became an obsession. After all, the depot served as the transit point for arms going from America to the very armies killing German soldiers. To the German government it made a mockery of President Woodrow Wilson’s stated policy of American neutrality. The round-the-clock operations at Black Tom proved beyond doubt to the Germans that the Americans were hardly neutral. They were instead providing Germany’s enemies with the means to continue the war.

In the dark, early morning hours of July 30, 1916, even as German soldiers vied against those of Britain and France in the murderous Battles of Verdun and the Somme, a massive explosion ripped through Black Tom. More than 1 million pounds of ammunition and TNT on the docks detonated, causing a series of shocks equivalent to a 5.5-magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. The blast shattered windows in lower Manhattan and along the Jersey waterfront and awakened people as far away as Maryland and Philadelphia. It killed at least five people, including a 10-week-old infant thrown from his crib more than a mile from the blast. Security guards rushed to evacuate Ellis Island, fearing that cinders from the explosions might set the immigrant dormitories on fire. Officials later checked the structural integrity of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge and closed the Statue of Liberty’s shrapnel-scarred torch arm to tourists. Property damage was later estimated to exceed $20 million (more than $400 million in 2013 dollars).

Given the risk of further explosions, the authorities’ first concern was to minimize further loss—not to investigate the cause of what was then the costliest manmade disaster in American history. Destruction near the blast epicenter was so complete that investigators had trouble collecting forensic evidence. Six piers, 13 warehouses and dozens of railcars had simply vanished; in their place gaped a 300-by-150-foot crater filled with contaminated water and debris.

Within days the investigation centered on two night watchmen who had set smudge pot fires to deter the port’s invasive and annoying mosquitoes. But police soon ruled out the smudge pots as a cause, concluding they were too far from the munitions to have triggered the blast. It became apparent, moreover, that the catastrophe was no accident. It had begun at the far end of the terminal, the perfect spot to both escape detection and set off a chain reaction. More and more the Black Tom explosion was looking like a deliberate act of terror.

One man, New York City Police Department inspector Thomas J. Tunney, had an idea who might have been behind the brazen and dastardly sabotage at Black Tom. Tunney was an Irish-American veteran of the NYPD who had a deep knowledge of bombs from his time tracking anarchist groups around the turn of the century. In 1916 he was head of the NYPD bomb squad, which by then had turned its focus on foreign agents. Along with two other lawmen, A. Bruce Bielaski and William Offley, Tunney had formed a task force to investigate allegations of a German spy ring running out of New York City. Notably, Tunney named his task force the Bomb and Neutrality Squad.

A 1917 poster warns against loose lips. (Library of Congress)
A 1917 poster warns against loose lips. (Library of Congress)

Although officials hadn’t turned up much evidence of an organized effort, indications suggested German agents were active across the United States and Canada. In 1914 U.S. federal agents had uncovered a German plot to dynamite Ontario’s Welland Canal, with the twin goals of disrupting commerce and convincing the Canadian government to stop its support of Great Britain. In February 1915 a German agent set off a dynamite-packed suitcase on a railroad bridge between Canada and the United States at Vanceboro, Maine, but caused only minor damage. Authorities foiled other plans for sabotage in Seattle, San Francisco and Hoboken, as well as a plot to buy American passports from dockworkers and use them to bring German agents into the country; the latter prompted federal officials to introduce photographs on passports.

The German ambassador, the likeable and pro-American Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, denied the existence of any plot, claiming these actions were those of individuals not connected to the German embassy. The Wilson administration, eager to preserve American neutrality, took him at his word, even though Tunney and other law-enforcement officials were uncovering evidence to the contrary.

The Vanceboro plot yielded the first big break. The man who placed the dynamite on the bridge was a dimwitted German agent named Werner Horn. He set the charge on the Canadian side of the span, then ran back to the American side to evade arrest as a spy in a belligerent nation. American officials had little trouble finding Horn, as he had changed into his German army uniform in order to claim to the neutral Americans he was a soldier not a spy. The investigation soon revealed that Horn’s paymaster was Franz von Papen, a former military attendant to Kaiser Wilhelm II and military attaché in Washington, D.C., who had returned to the United States in 1914.

Papen had diplomatic protection and political savvy. Investigating him would not be easy, but Tunney and his lieutenants, with help from federal officials, persevered. They soon met with a federal prosecutor involved in the Welland Canal investigation who told them that while he had been unable to prove the connection, he had evidence Papen had been involved in that plot, as the one to hire Irish-Americans to sabotage American shipping.

The mounting evidence was too much even for the Wilson administration and its desire to maintain American neutrality. At year’s end 1915 the government ordered Papen to leave the United States. He did so, and a confiscated briefcase full of his papers (stolen, he claimed, by British agents) showed the Americans had been right to suspect him. Included were documents revealing a nationwide plot, from New York to San Francisco, to blow up bridges and tunnels. Papen had also planned to recruit agents and conduct a sabotage campaign, including the use of Americans and Canadians of Indian descent to target ships leaving from Pacific Coast ports. The documents also led investigators to a New Jersey–based group that had been manufacturing “rudder bombs” for saboteurs to attach to the sterns of outgoing ships. The rotation of the propellers mixed certain chemicals and thus ignited the bombs, which disabled or sank the ships. As many as 30 vessels might have been damaged or destroyed by the plot before it was uncovered. Coming in the wake of public anger over the May 1915 sinking of the British liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20, these charges ratcheted up Americans’ fear of German activity within their own borders.

The British, meanwhile, had uncovered another arm of the German network. From intercepts obtained by the famed Room 40 decryption operation, they knew Papen had been complaining about one of his subordinates, chemist and naval intelligence officer Franz von Rintelen. They also knew Rintelen planned a return to Germany using a fake Swiss passport bearing the name Emil V. Gasche. When his ship docked in Falmouth en route to neutral Holland, the British arrested Rintelen and broke his initial insistence he was a Swiss businessman. According to his interrogator, they simply had a policeman burst into the interrogation room and shout, “Achtung!” whereupon Rintelen leapt to his feet and clicked his heels. The German spent 21 months in a British jail before being sent to an Atlanta prison for sabotage.

American agents had also been following two other Germans: former naval attaché Karl Boy-Ed, the son of a Turkish sailor and a well-known German novelist, and Wolf von Igel, Papen’s chief assistant and successor. Boy-Ed was a flashy and suave epicure well known to many in the New York elite. He was a frequent guest at the city’s Army and Navy Club, where he dazzled audiences with his knowledge of naval warfare. Sophisticated and well dressed, he mixed easily in New York social circles and was hoping to meet and marry an American heiress.

Boy-Ed had also been running a spy ring out of a welcome house and part-time brothel for German sailors on Broadway near Battery Park. American investigators had already tied him to both the passport-fraud scheme and a plan to buy property on the Atlantic seaboard where the Germans could install artillery batteries in preparation for a potential German amphibious landing. Boy-Ed, compromised by the evidence in Papen’s papers, also left the United States.

Papen and Boy-Ed left Igel in charge of the financial network that paid for these operations. He ran it out of Papen’s former office on the 25th floor of a building at 60 Wall Street, a far more respectable address than the Bowling Green house Boy-Ed used to meet with the spies he recruited. There Igel, who had been deeply involved with the rudder bomb plot, continued to run a ring of German agents. As investigators closed in, he arranged to move his papers to the German embassy in Washington and thus secure them under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity.

On April 19, 1916, Igel began packing more than 70 pounds of documents into cases for the trip to Washington. American investigators were on to him, however, and burst into his office with guns drawn. Igel leapt for the safe, trying to close it and claim diplomatic privilege, but the federal agents stopped him. As Igel shouted that the Americans were committing an act of war, the feds seized the documents. The papers proved German complicity in the Welland Canal plot, as well as in a scheme to buy arms in the United States from Irish-Americans and then send the weapons to India to fuel an anti-British uprising.

Igel’s arrest made front-page news in New York, as did the German embassy’s demand the Americans return the papers without examining or copying them. The Wilson administration did not comply with that demand, but Wilson remained anxious to play down the incident in hopes of preserving American neutrality. Although tensions mounted, Secretary of State Robert Lansing did not challenge Bernstorff’s claim the arms were in fact headed to German forces in East Africa. Bernstorff also dissociated himself and the German embassy from any illegal activities.

Wilson may have been mollified, but his archnemesis (and former NYPD commissioner) Theodore Roosevelt was not. Roosevelt had recently given a speech in Brooklyn accusing the Germans of “a campaign of bomb and torch” against American industry. The pugnacious former president laid the blame for all acts of sabotage at the feet of the German government, noting that Boy-Ed went home to a hero’s welcome and a personal decoration from Kaiser Wilhelm II. Roosevelt also noted the close relationship among Boy-Ed, Rintelen and the anti-American Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta. In the heated political environment of 1916, which produced one of the closest presidential elections in American history, the issue of German sabotage contributed to the wider debate about the wisdom of American neutrality.

As his campaign slogan “He Kept Us out of War” indicated, Wilson hoped to maintain that neutrality. Even after the Black Tom explosion Wilson tried to avoid making the 1916 election a referendum on the war. Fortunately for him, so did his opponent, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes, while anxious to attack Wilson’s record on domestic affairs, had to be careful to dissociate himself from the pro-intervention agenda of Roosevelt and his supporters. Wilson’s slogan was thus less a boast than a warning about what might happen if Hughes, with Roosevelt supposedly whispering in his ears, won.

The following February, with Wilson re-elected by the slimmest of margins, New York Sun reporter John Price Jones detailed the German plots in a book that featured an introduction by Roger Wood, former assistant U.S. attorney for New York, and a preface by Roosevelt. The former president praised the book for exposing what he called a two-and-a-half-year secret war waged by Germany against the American people. Jones himself alleged the German government had bribed American newspapers to write positive stories about Germany and, in at least one instance, bought a newspaper through a shadow company to use as a propaganda vehicle.

Meanwhile, the Black Tom investigation continued. An elderly landlady in Hoboken reported to police that one of her boarders, a nephew named Michael Kristoff, had behaved strangely on the morning of the explosion, pacing and muttering to himself, “What [did] I do?” In late August police arrested him and soon broke his alibi. Kristoff then wove a wild tale about nationwide networks of German agents paid for and operated out of New York City. Without firm evidence, however, authorities had no choice but to release their suspect.

Convinced Kristoff had something to do with the Black Tom blast, Lehigh Valley Railroad officials hired a detective to shadow him. Alexander Kassman, himself a recently arrived immigrant, attached himself to Kristoff for several months, posing as an Austrian anarchist in order to dig more deeply into the co-conspirators he had mentioned. Kristoff reportedly told Kassman that rich friends had provided the funding for the Black Tom operation. One of the alleged backers, David Grossman, lived in Bayonne. Kassman arranged to meet Grossman and gleaned more details of the plot from him. Grossman denied knowing the money had been for sabotage. But, Grossman told Kassman, he later learned Kristoff had served as a lookout while another man placed dynamite on a small boat beneath the piers and a third put explosive charges between railroad cars loaded with ammunition. In spring 1917 Kristoff vanished.

Grossman refused to testify, but his interrogation helped police identify two other men—Lothar Witzke, a naval officer with an intelligence background, and Kurt Jahnke, a naturalized American citizen with connections to the German consulate in San Francisco. Both men used pseudonyms, moved around frequently and were suspected of involvement in the bomb plots on the West Coast. After Black Tom they went to the Southwest and spent time in Mexico, where both had contacts in the Huerta government.

As the investigation continued to turn up leads but no arrests, Wilson’s neutrality policy collapsed. On Feb. 3, 1917, Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in response to its resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. A few weeks later the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram, the German proposal that Mexico make war on the United States, hit American newspapers. The telegram put the issue of German sabotage in a new, more sinister light. It, coupled with continued fears of German sabotage and espionage, helps to explain, though does not excuse, the wave of anti-German sentiment that soon swept the country. Americans felt they faced a real and present danger from Germany—not overseas, but at home.

Wilson was soon out of options, and his cabinet was finally in unanimity about the need to enter the war. Roosevelt reportedly told a friend that if Wilson did not declare war, he would go to the White House and “skin him alive.” Wilson did, of course, bring the United States into a war that was no longer about the maritime rights of neutrals but the need of the government to fulfill its central role of protecting American lives and property. America’s age of isolation was over.

While several of the key players in Germany’s wartime sabotage efforts in North America went on to further notoriety, none, perhaps, had a more sinister role in history than Franz von Papen. He became chancellor of Germany in 1932 and was among the men chiefly responsible for persuading President Paul von Hindenburg to name Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933; Papen then served briefly as Hitler’s vice chancellor.

Papen’s powerful position also allowed him to complicate continuing investigations into the Black Tom disaster, but in 1939 a German-American Mixed Claims Commission found the German government of 1916 responsible for the blast. In 1953 the commission awarded damages of $50 million, which were finally paid off in 1979. Today the Black Tom lies within Liberty State Park in Jersey City, although the only evidence of the historic explosion is a poorly worded information panel and the remnants of piers on the south end of the park. Ironically, Papen’s headquarters at 60 Wall Street is today the site of a 1989 skyscraper that houses the U.S. headquarters of Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

By Michael S. Neiberg 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: February 27, 2013 

Michael S. Neiberg is the author of several books on the 20th century world wars, most recently Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (2011) and The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944 (2012). For further reading Neiberg recommends Sabotage at Black Tom, by Jules Witcover; The Detonators, by Chad Millman; and New York at War, by Steven Jaffe.

Homeland Insecurity: Hunting the First Terrorist Cell in America


In a time of war, foreign agents are at work on American soil. They blow up buildings and munitions factories. They sink ships at sea with explosives hidden in the cargo. In a campaign of sabotage and terror, they kill hundreds of U.S. citizens. Spies and fifth columnists — some American-born, some recent immigrants still loyal to their native land — hold clandestine meetings in New York and other major cities, plotting violence against the United States. Overmatched police officers, unused to fighting an enemy they can’t see, struggle to identify the terrorist cell’s ringleaders before more havoc and unleashed and more innocents are killed.

Sounds like a pretty good espionage thriller, doesn’t it? Or the plot of every Die Hard movie ever made? In fact, it’s nothing less than authentic — albeit long-forgotten — American history, brought to vivid life in Howard Blum’s latest book, Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America. A hundred years after the chilling events it describes — events that will strike an eerily familiar chord with anyone who pays even cursory attention to the vagaries of America’s War on Terror — Dark Invasion reminds us, as Blum put it in a recent conversation with LIFE.com, that “the past is never past.”

“When I first read about these events in the CIA’s in-house journal,” Blum says, discussing how he came upon the story of German saboteurs in America in the first place, “I thought, now this is really something. New York cops hunting a terrorist cell in the midst of World War I? Here was the birth of American homeland security, in a sense. But in order to tell the story, I knew I needed to find a character who could drive the story along, and I had to get inside that character’s head. I couldn’t make up anything he said or felt or thought – but I’d still have to portray all of that in a way that keeps the reader involved.”

When he learned that a central figure in the tale, New York City police captain Thomas J. Tunney, had once written a memoir, and that the German naval officer and spy who masterminded so many of the often-deadly acts of sabotage — Franz von Rintelen, the self-styled “Dark Invader” — had penned a two-volume memoir, Blum knew he had what he needed to structure a cohesive, suspenseful and, above all, accurate story.

The number of German operatives active ion America during the early years of the First World War is hard to determine with absolute accuracy; historians estimate that the core terrorist network included around 28 people. Blum points out, however, that the people who worked in concert with the key members of the cell — German loyalists who sabotaged factories, Irish stevedores who planted incendiary devices on ships carrying munitions to English troops fighting in France, and others — likely numbered in the hundreds.

A Congressional hearing in the 1920s, meanwhile, estimated that between 300 and 500 Americans were killed during the cell’s lethal sabotage spree.

The dangers posed today by a terror cell even a fraction the size of von Rintelen’s are, of course, exponentially more complex, and more destructive, than those of a hundred years ago. One example: In 1915, 375,000 people rode the New York City subway each day — “a number,” Blum says, “that amazed me when I first read it. I had no idea it was that large.”

In 2014, more than 4 million people ride the subway. Every day.

– Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

During World War I, Germany Unleashed ‘Terrorist Cell In America’

NPR Books
Listen to the story here.
A fireboat sits amid ruins and debris on the piers at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, N.J., on July 30, 1916. Evidence pointed to German sabotage. In Dark Invasion, Howard Blum explores Germany's spy network and sabotage efforts in the U.S. at the beginning of World War I.

A fireboat sits amid ruins and debris on the piers at Black Tom Island in Jersey City, N.J., on July 30, 1916. Evidence pointed to German sabotage. In Dark Invasion, Howard Blum explores Germany’s spy network and sabotage efforts in the U.S. at the beginning of World War I. AP

In the early years of World War I, as many as 1,000 American horses per day were shipped off to Europe to assist in the Allied war effort, even though the United States was officially neutral. Those horses became the target of germ warfare, infected with anthrax cultures on American soil; at the same time, mysterious explosions were rocking U.S. munitions factories, and fires were breaking out on ships headed to Europe.

Journalist Howard Blum says this was all part of an aggressive campaign of spying and sabotage the German government unleashed on the United States soon after war broke out in Europe. Blum’s book, Dark Invasion, is about the campaign and the effort of American law enforcement to crack what Blum calls “the first terrorist cell in America.” It’s filled with fascinating characters, from the duplicitous German ambassador who held the title of Count, to Capt. Franz von Rintelen, who plotted destruction while living at the Yacht Club in New York, to the NYPD bomb squad detective who in effect formed an anti-terrorist squad to try to find the saboteurs.

“There really wasn’t anyone at first who could put it all together,” Blum tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “Ships are blowing up at sea, or catching fire, factories are blowing up. Are these accidents? Are these industrial sabotage? No one really suspected a spy network.”


Interview Highlights

On the German population in the U.S. in 1914

The German population was a very distinct, and vocal, and articulate group. They published newspapers in New York City. One newspaper was selling 75,000 copies each day just in the German language. You could go to cities like Hoboken, N.J., and the city would be almost entirely German. Many cities, like New York, like Milwaukee, had their Little Germanys. Approximately over 8 million people — which is about a tenth of the population at that time — was German.

On the German sailors stationed in and around New York

There were bars all along the [New York] waterfront that were just filled with Germans, and these were people who had nothing, really, but time on their hands. They were bored, they were concerned because many of their relatives were involved in fighting in Europe, and here they were, cut off from it. They missed the homeland, they missed the war, and it was creating a situation where here was, in effect, a “fifth column” in America. At one point the German ambassador threatened that … they would rise up against the United States if the United States entered the war.

On early attempts to prevent the U.S. from entering the war

The logic of the German spy masters — and this was a very narrow logic, and I don’t think they understood the American mind — [was that] if they could keep America occupied, if America had to worry about what was happening at home — to its own munitions factories, to its own even subways and bridges — if America had to fear what was happening along the homefront, then they wouldn’t have … the volition to want to go off and fight in a war across an ocean.

On the development of a professional German spy network in the U.S.

As soon as war is declared they begin a “campaign of sabotage.” There are chemical plants — a DuPont plant in New Jersey — there are boats that are sabotaged, and they cause a good deal of damage, but not enough. Some of the plots are thwarted; they fail.

It is not a very professional spy network at first, until a man is brought in to head it, and he’s recruited in Germany. When Franz von Rintelen comes in, [he's a] socialite, a man who is living at the New York Yacht club right in New York City, right next door to the Harvard Club … and he sets up the Manhattan Front, and he’s a professional spy, and that’s when it becomes a professional spy network.

Howard Blum is a former investigative reporter for The New York Times who's now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Howard Blum is a former investigative reporter for The New York Times who’s now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Christopher Mason/Harper

On President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to the “campaign of sabotage”

Wilson has a very good ability to rationalize what is happening or live with a great deal of detachment. For well over two years these events are happening, and he’s still not convinced that they involve the hierarchy of the German diplomatic corps. …

[Finally, Wilson's chief aide] sends him a memo where he says, “Mr. President, you have to worry that bridges are going to be blown up, skyscrapers are going to be attacked, and the New York City subways are going to be filled with ‘germs’ ” — as he describes it — then Woodrow Wilson starts to follow things.

The final straw is when the Germans are … [plotting] to arm the Mexican government and use them to attack the United States and to pull the United States into a Mexican-U.S. war. … Wilson realizes enough is enough, and he gives a speech and it’s remarkably candid.

On what Wilson said on “The German Plot” on Flag Day, 1917

He says: I never expected that people we had taken into our country, our friends and our neighbors, would act this way.

And he’s shocked, deeply, and not naively, but he’s being totally honest, totally candid about his shock, and he says: But I was wrong, and this is one of the reasons why we have to go to war and we can’t allow this to happen.