A Terrorist Attack on the City, 85 Years Before Sept. 11

It can happen here. And according to Chad Millman’s The Detonators, it did—85 years before 9/11. After war broke out in Europe in 1914, the German government sought to prevent the United States, a neutral country, from delivering ammunition to the Allies. On Jan. 26, 1915, the Foreign Office sent a cable to German attachés in North America authorizing acts of terrorism: “In United States sabotage can reach to all kinds of factories for war deliveries. Under no circumstances compromise Embassy.”

Within months, Franz von Papen, a military attaché, and Heinrich Albert, a commercial attaché, supplied fake passports, housing and money to a network of spies and terrorists, many of them American citizens. The Germans set up a bomb factory on the Frederick the Great, a battleship interned in New York Harbor. They set fires on merchant ships and in chemical and weapons factories across the country. A few miles from the White House, Anton Dilger, a former medical student, stockpiled a bacterium that causes anthrax. And on July 30, 1916, Michael Kristoff, Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke bribed security guards to look the other way and blew up a munitions depot on Black Tom Island, a tiny spit of land in the New York Harbor. The explosion, which shook the ground in Maryland, decimated 13 warehouses on Black Tom, devastated Jersey City and destroyed property in Manhattan. Five people—plus vagrants sleeping on barges in the harbor—perished. Damage estimates approached $20 million (about $350 million in today’s money).

The saboteurs pulled off their dastardly deed with ease and initially escaped detection. Although the U.S. government had tapped the phones of German diplomats and recovered incriminating material from Heinrich Albert’s briefcase, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Military Intelligence Division and the Secret Service were, Mr. Millman writes, “no more sophisticated than a small town sheriff’s office.” Investigators speculated that the Black Tom explosion had been caused by a fire, set to drive away mosquitoes, that had blazed out of control.

The story of the Black Tom conspiracy is little known, fascinating and timely. A former Sports Illustrated reporter and currently senior editor of ESPN the Magazine, Chad Millman tells it reasonably well. He’s less successful in reaching beyond the narrative to provide the historical context and explain Black Tom’s significance. Mr. Millman sheds little light on the recruitment of the saboteurs. How did von Papen, Albert and Paul Hilken (their Baltimore-based paymaster) identify the Black Tom detonators? Who approached whom? Did these men derive their view of the origins of World War I from the journalists on the payroll of Johann von Bernstorff, Germany’s ambassador to the United States? Were they paid for their work? Why were they willing to commit treason against the United States?

Nor does The Detonators address questions that Mr. Millman should have asked about the motives of the German government. Why risk bringing the United States into the conflict, especially if German diplomats were convinced, as Mr. Millman is, that President Woodrow Wilson clung “desperately” to his policy of neutrality until the Zimmermann note—a proposal by Germany of an alliance with Mexico—so inflamed public opinion in 1917 that he “had no choice” but to ask Congress for a declaration of war? Did the Germans believe in 1915 that American arms shipments might tip the balance in favor of the Allies? Or that America would enter the war eventually, no matter what the German government said or did? If so, why not try to vanquish England and France before the Yanks were ready to go over there? Or did the Foreign Office give the green light to sabotage because officials were confident that they could hide their involvement? Which they did—for quite a while.

The second half of The Detonators reveals how the Black Tom conspiracy was eventually exposed. A legal thriller, spanning two decades and three continents, the tale has more twists and turns than a colonoscopy. It began in 1922, when the United States and Germany established a Mixed Claims Commission to settle suits for damages arising out of the war. Two years later, after locating documents misfiled by the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the F.B.I.) implicating Germany in sabotage, lawyers for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned the buildings on Black Tom, filed a claim for $20 million.

The Germans stalled, stonewalled and lied. The cable sent in January 1915, they explained, was neither an order nor a command, but simply an observation that sabotage could occur. German officials swore that they had authorized no illegal activity. Without a “smoking gun” linking the German government directly to Black Tom, the Mixed Claims Commission ruled against the Lehigh Valley in 1930.

But then, in a stroke of serendipity—one of many in The Detonators—a message sent from Mexico City by one of the conspirators in 1917 surfaced. Written in a magazine in lemon juice so that it would disappear when dry, the message became readable again only after the heat of an iron was applied to the page. A handwriting expert verified that Fred Herrmann, an American citizen turned German spy, was the author. The Americans asked to reopen the case, only to have an even more eminent authority assert that the message had been written long after 1917. Owen Roberts, a justice on the United States Supreme Court and the umpire for the Mixed Claims Commission, denied the petition. But he left the door open for one more appeal.

In 1934, Dame Fortune smiled on America again. John J. McCloy, a lawyer for the Lehigh Valley and the hero of The Detonators, persuaded the Irish labor leader James Larkin to prepare an affidavit about German initiatives to disrupt the flow of supplies from the United States to the Allies, including the Black Tom plot. With Larkin ready to name names, the Nazis agreed to settle. They later reneged, but in 1939, Roberts found for the plaintiffs: $21 million in damages and $29 million in interest.

Better late than never, justice had been meted out—but the biggest beneficiary, Mr. Millman suggests, was John McCloy: The young lawyer for whom Black Tom had once been a black hole went on to become an Assistant Secretary of War, president of the World Bank and U.S. High Commissioner to Germany; in the latter stages of his career, he was widely known as “Head of the Establishment” in the United States.

A coda: During World War II, American policy makers drew the wrong lesson from Black Tom. Asked to assess threats to national security, advisors to President Roosevelt, including McCloy, recommended internment for Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. As he issued the order, F.D.R. turned to McCloy and said, “We don’t want another Black Tom.” History has a way of repeating itself—sometimes, as The Detonators demonstrates, in acts of sabotage from within, and sometimes in an overreaction to threats real and imagined.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. A Terrorist Attack on the City,  85 Years Before Sept. 11