'The Detonators': A Nearly Forgotten New York Attack

On July 30, 1916, saboteurs attacked the city of New York, destroying much of lower Manhattan. ESPN magazine senior editor Chad Millman talks about the terrorist attack, and his new book The Detonators.

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CONAN: And today a look back at a day in history, a day when saboteurs attacked the City of New York. Not 9/11, this incident happened 90 years ago, July 30, 1916. The perpetrators didn't use a plane or fly into a building; they blew up an ammunitions depot on a tiny slip of land called Black Tom Island in New York Harbor.

The blast essentially destroyed the island. The explosion is said to have been so powerful it was felt as far away as Maryland. It blew out windows from Jersey City to Midtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. Much of lower Manhattan was destroyed, yet very few know anything about it today.

Chad Millman is senior editor at ESPN the Magazine and author of The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. CHAD MILLMAN (Senior Editor, ESPN the Magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So what happened on that warm July day 90 years ago?

Mr. MILLMAN: Well, the German saboteurs, as you had said, they sort of congregated on Black Tom Island with small timing devices that were set to explode. And they planted them all over the rail yard where all these ships were loaded with different munitions: dynamite, bullets, et cetera, that were going to the front. They were going to the British and the French in Europe for World War I.

They were not going to the Germans. The Germans could not afford the munitions. The American companies were selling the munitions to the British and the French. So the only way the Germans knew of to stem the tide of munitions going overseas was to blow up Black Tom Island, which was then the largest munitions depot in the country.

CONAN: And the United States was at that point neutral in what was called at the time The Great War, and, as you said, offered to sell to anybody, including the Germans. There was also a British naval blockade that prevented German ships from bringing those supplies in.

Mr. MILLMAN: Exactly. That was actually the main problem. The Germans saw Black Tom as a symbol both of commerce and of American hypocrisy, because Woodrow Wilson had declared that the U.S. was neutral, yet he was allowing American companies to sell their munitions to the British and the French, and that's what was killing the Germans and it was beating them back on the front lines.

Even though it was only meters at a time, it was still sort of depleting their resources. So it was a target and it made them angry, and there were so many interned German sailors here in the United States that it was a natural spy network for Germany to tap into when they wanted to wreak havoc.

CONAN: We're talking with Chad Millman, author of The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Two questions. The Germans took an awful risk. If this was discovered, certainly the United States might have been compelled to join the allies and fight against Germany right then and there.

Mr. MILLMAN: Well, absolutely. But the Germans had been taking a lot of risks almost as soon as the war began. They had a phony passport operation that had been discovered by the New York City Police and that Woodrow Wilson knew about. They had - their commercial attaché, his briefcase had been lost in the subway and the contents were reported back to the government; and that showed checks being used to buy munitions, to blow up munitions depots all over the country. So they knew they were taking a risk, but they also knew that Wilson was bending over backwards to make sure that he did not have to go to war.

He was going to campaign in 1916, and he did campaign, as the man who kept us out of war. And it was, you know, his moral and political obligation, he felt, to keep the U.S. out of war, at least until after he was reelected, in which case he, you know, the U.S. went to war, you know, within eight months of him being reelected.

So it was a political calculation on the part of the Germans, because they had the feeling that Wilson was going to make sure that the U.S. didn't go into war until it absolutely, positively had to.

CONAN: Well, also that was after the Zimmerman Note, the purported German alliance with Mexico that - well, anyway, a long story. Getting back to Black Tom Island, the investigation, though, didn't uncover the fact that this was indeed an act of sabotage. They thought it was an accident.

Mr. MILLMAN: Yeah. I mean, that was also part of the - you know, there's intimations there that there was a cover-up, because the first thing that The New York Times wrote the day after the explosion was this would be cause for celebration in both Berlin and Vienna that all these munitions were destroyed and their soldiers would no longer be killed by them.

But if not for the explanation from the chief of the Bureau of Investigation who said that this was not an act of sabotage, this was an accident. You have to remember that at the time, all the newspapers were insinuating that Germans were - there were German saboteurs throughout the United States, you know, wreaking destruction all over the country.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. MILLMAN: And so they were stemming - there was a tide changing towards a lot of animosity toward the Germans at the time. So that was the first instinct of a lot of people, and certainly the newspapers, and that's why the government immediately tried to downplay that scenario.

CONAN: Yes, there was - remember the victory cabbage as opposed to sauerkraut.

Mr. MILLMAN: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: Anyways. There was a long, long investigation, as you call this epic hunt for justice, after the war. The Germans didn't admit that, in fact, this was an attack.

Mr. MILLMAN: Well, you know, it's funny. There was a commission that was set up to handle all the damages done both in Germany and the United States, and each government was required to pay back for that damage. This was the - of 12,000 cases, this was the only case that Germany would not settle.

The Weimar government was basically concerned that if they were to settle this case, it would look like they were - it was tantamount to them starting the war with the United States. And for morale and political reasons in their own country, they couldn't afford to do that. They needed to come out looking as victorious as possible and they couldn't afford to look like they had started the war with the United States.

And on the flip side, the U.S. wasn't all that interested in trying to blame Germany for this. The U.S. government, while they had set up this commission and were funding the lawyers who fought this case and investigated this case, they wanted Germany as an economic partner. They didn't want to take all of Germany's money when they were trying to rebuild their government or rebuild their infrastructure.

CONAN: Your book describes the long, complicated process by which - at the very last minute, in fact - some justice was achieved and a settlement was agreed upon finally. But I wanted you to talk about sort of an ominous aftershock to that explosion on Black Tom Island 90 years ago.

Mr. MILLMAN: Well, there a lot of ominous aftershocks. I mean, one of the main instances of Black Tom sort of spinning forward was, FDR was the assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I and he was well aware of German sabotage within the United States.

And one of the main attorneys on the case, John McCloy - he was the one who ultimately solved the case and was able to prove Germany's guilt - he became the assistant secretary of war during World War II for Roosevelt, mainly because of his expertise in German policies.

And after Pearl Harbor, FDR was sitting in the Oval Office and they were discussing internment. McCloy was there. And FDR ultimately decided to intern the Japanese, and he looked to McCloy and he winked and said we don't want another Black Tom. So the fear of what Black Tom had cost was palpable even 30 years later in the Oval Office following Pearl Harbor.

CONAN: The example, whether it was accurate or not, there was a large group of German-Americans in that case fearful that Japanese-Americans might do the same thing.

Mr. MILLMAN: Yes, exactly. The fears have never gone away.

CONAN: Chad Millman, thanks very much. Good luck with the book.

Mr. MILLMAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Chad Millman, senior editor at ESPN the Magazine and author of The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice. He joined us now from our bureau in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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