At 1:08 in the morning of July 30th 1916, the ground shook in New Jersey. It shook so hard that it woke people up from northern Maryland to Rhode Island. A wall of the City Hall building in Jersey City cracked. The Brooklyn Bridge swayed. The stained glass of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan shattered. On the Richter seismic scale, the temblor would have measured between 5.0 and 5.5, but it was not an earthquake.

Black Tom explosion
“The explosion on Black Tom Island, in New York Harbor at Jersey City, was unsolved for years” – New York Daily News

The munitions and gunpowder storage depot of the National Dock and Storage Company on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor had blown up. Fragments of shrapnel lodged in the Statue of Liberty, and one mile away in Jersey City, struck buildings in the city center. The shock wave broke windows all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. Immigrants waiting on Ellis Island were evacuated immediately to New York City. Seven people were killed, including one ten-month old infant, and hundreds were injured. The damage was estimated at twenty million dollars, nearly half a billion in modern currency.

First considered an accident, it quickly became apparent that it was sabotage, and that the evidence pointed to the German Imperial government. No perpetrator was ever charged but a German agent named Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant who had been in the American military, was implicated years later. Subsequently Kristoff claimed that two guards at the depot had also been German agents.

von Bernstorff
German Ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff

This was not all. The German Ambassador to the United States, Johann H. von Bernstorff, had planned the operation, as well as an aborted scheme to sabotage the Welland Canal connecting Ontario to New York State through Lakes Ontario and Erie. A network of agents headquartered from the Canadian border north of Seattle to Mexico City had also been involved. The same group of agents worked on numerous adventures on the West Coast, directed by Franz von Bopp, the German Consul General in San Francisco.

There was yet more to it. All the episodes were part of a German Imperial scheme dating back to 1889, the infamous Abteilung [Department] IIIb. Originally a counter-intelligence unit, it developed into a long-form destabilization campaign directed mainly at the United States, but including France and England. By the time it disbanded in 1918, it had become principally a secret police force and an international propaganda unit that was largely ineffective.

Germany, not having been unified until 1871, came late to what is sometimes called the “empire race,” the drive by the industrial nations to control undeveloped regions and their natural resources and to make them captive markets for finished consumer goods.

Under the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany shifted its focus on national strategy from Realpolitik, the art of the possible in Europe, to Weltpolitik, the aggressive competition for control of the globe. Wary of the large modern navies of Great Britain and France and their colonial outposts, Germany concentrated on the United States, which not only had a relatively small navy but also practiced economic colonialism rather than direct political control of overseas colonies. Amid some skirmishing with the Americans in East Asia, the South Pacific and the Caribbean, the Imperial Government hatched three plans to invade the United States between 1897 and 1906.

It is difficult to envision what the German leadership hoped to accomplish. Parts of the plans had a comic opera element to them, as if they had been dreamed up by Gilbert and Sullivan without the music.

One of the plans proposed an invasion of New York, yet the Germans lacked the transport capacity for the requisite number of troops. Two of the plans had objectives in the Caribbean, mainly Cuba and Puerto Rico, giving the American invasions a hint of black comedy about them: blow up the farmer’s house to steal his neighbor’s chickens. After construction of the Panama Canal commenced, the Germans hoped to force the United States into negotiations over control of the Caribbean and to settle conflicts over trade in South America, where German commercial and shipping interests were strong. By 1906, however, the American navy was stronger than the German, and in any case, President Roosevelt had already backed the Germans down with naval power in 1902 over an international dispute in Venezuela.

Between 1906 and the breakout of the First World War, Germany abandoned any hope of establishing an island staging base and controlling the Caribbean region by sea-power. It concentrated on an alliance with Mexico and a propaganda campaign in Latin America to stir up the anti-American sentiment that already existed there.

At the same time it conducted an anti-British propaganda campaign in the United States. For the extensive German immigrant and German heritage population in America, disaster was looming. Already identified with the progressive labor movement that inspired suspicions of international socialism, their anti-British sentiment led some to believe that they did not support the United States either. At the same time the British were spreading propaganda in the United States against isolationism and its pro-German implications.

Meanwhile, the Imperial German government had been taking advantage of the Mexican Revolution and the anti-American stance of the Mexican revolutionaries to whip up sentiment against the United States and use the political firestorm to cover the development of a gang of spies and saboteurs directed by the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt.

to be continued….


uniquerman, aka Jim Ackerman, was born in the high plateau country of Eastern Oregon to pioneer folk. He grew up in Lake County, which still has more square miles than people. He went to New College in Sarasota Florida, and has spent a lifetime studying and writing. He has done everything from leather craft to construction.  He has several books pending publication.

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