Spies Pier, NJ
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)
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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.

Within a ring of Keystone Kop-style operators, who experimented with cigar bombs for terrorist attacks, tunnel explosions between Canada and the United States to tie up traffic, and fomenting demonstrations by anti-British East Indian students at UC Berkeley, there were a few dangerous characters, who were involved in disasters such as the Black Tom Island explosion and the munitions depot explosion at Mare Island, San Francisco Bay in March 1917.

Eric Muenter

There were also rogue operators like the clearly deranged Eric Muenter, who went by the pseudonym Frank Holt to find employment teaching German at Harvard and Cornell and other prominent universities. Muenter, who had ties to Ambassador von Bernstorff, attempted to place time bombs on merchant ships, planted a bomb that blew up a closet in the United States Senate building and in 1915 attempted to assassinate Jack Morgan, whose father J. P. Morgan was helping to finance the British in the First World War. He was subdued in the attempt and committed suicide while in custody.

The conflict between Germany and the United States hardened in January 1917 with the disclosure of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. (Until this moment, the United States had been neutral and engaged in selling supplies and munitions to all comers. After roughly the middle of 1915, the Germans had not been able to buy any supplies from the Americans, because of the British Navy’s German Blockade, which prevented goods from entering German ports. This was the reason behind the American munitions depot sabotages, to prevent the British re-supplying from the same American sources.)

German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram in January 1917 to German Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt to offer Mexico a military alliance with Germany in case the United States gave up its neutral status and entered the war as a combatant with the Allies. The alliance proposed an invasion of the United States to restore territories lost by Mexico in the 19th century. (This was another comic-opera aspect of the destabilization campaign against the United States. A section of the plan envisioned mobilizing black citizens of the southern states to rise up and join the Mexican invasion force.) The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence services, whereupon its authenticity was challenged, but in March Zimmerman announced that it was genuine.

In April the United States declared war against Germany and the Central Powers. The international machinations of the Germans, the ruinous sabotage of the munitions depots, and the submarine war against merchant shipping had become intolerable.

The same month, the Espionage Act was signed into law, and the following year, the Sedition Act. Two hundred and fifty thousand Germans and descendants of Germans were required to register at post offices across the United States. Thousands were detained and interrogated. More than six thousand were arrested and interned, along with a thousand merchant sailors, and two thousand German sailors captured in port were held as prisoners of war. The last of them were released in 1920.

The destabilization campaign against the United States lasted from 1889 to 1918, nearly thirty years, and was counter-productive in the end. It had assured that the United States would enter the war against Germany, and it harmed the stability and welfare of millions of German emigrants and German-Americans. American entry into the war ensured an Allied victory against the Central Powers, not so much because the Americans were great warriors, but because the giant industrial establishment and fuel supplies of the American economy could be brought to bear directly on the conflict, as well as thousands of fresh troops eager to make their mark on the world. The isolationist strain of American foreign policy was set aside. It weakened year by year afterward. The necessity of maintaining a standing army and a large modern navy had been made plain. The world stage was now the American stage too, and it would never leave the theater.

This is something that Vladimir Putin and the Russians might keep in their kit bag when they contemplate a thoroughgoing destabilization campaign against the United States.

One of the articles of American exceptionalism, one which has been demonstrated time and again, is the willingness when pushed to commit force to bear on external conflicts. While this tendency has been a mistake at times, it has always been a bad thing for the people who are the target population. It is never a good idea to wake the sleeping giant and make him mad.

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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