During World War I, Germany Unleashed 'Terrorist Cell In America' In Dark Invasion, Howard Blum explores the campaign of sabotage that Germany inflicted on an unsuspecting U.S. As ships and factories blew up, "no one really suspected a spy network," he says.
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During World War I, Germany Unleashed 'Terrorist Cell In America'

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During World War I, Germany Unleashed 'Terrorist Cell In America'

During World War I, Germany Unleashed 'Terrorist Cell In America'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. 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, while at the same time mysterious explosions were rocking U.S. munitions factories, and fires were breaking out on ships headed to Europe.

Our guest, journalist Howard Blum, says it 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 about the campaign and the effort of American law enforcement to crack the ring is filled with fascinating characters, from the duplicitous German ambassador who held the title of count to Captain 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 and find the saboteurs.

Howard Blum is a former investigative reporter for the New York Times who's now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of several books. His latest is "Dark Invasion 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America."

Well, Howard Blum, welcome to FRESH AIR. First of all, give us a sense of the German population in the United States when war broke out in 1914, how many there were, how tied they were to, you know, German language, customs and nationality.

HOWARD BLUM: The German population was a very distinct and vocal and articulate group. They published newspapers that 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, New Jersey, and the city would be almost entirely German. Very many cities like New York, like Milwaukee, had their Little Germanys.

There were approximately over eight million people, which is about a tenth of the population at that time, was German.

DAVIES: And very much tied to kind of a connection with the fatherland, so to speak.

BLUM: Very much so. Many of them were first generation immigrants and very much tied to Germany and Germany's aspirations, yes.

DAVIES: Now, the other thing that's fascinating here that I hadn't realized was that there were dozens and dozens of German ships interned at U.S. ports when the war broke out. Why?

BLUM: When war was declared in Europe, President Wilson said that German ships could come into the United States, but once they were here, they couldn't leave. They couldn't leave because the British blockade was in effect. And if these boats or ships left the Port of New York or Port of Hoboken, New Jersey, they would be attacked by the British fleet and most likely sunk. So they were given safe haven here, and so they - the ships took safe haven here, but more importantly their sailors took safe haven here.

These were sailors who were loyal to the fatherland, felt out of the war and went looking for a chance to participate in the war in Europe.

DAVIES: Right. Just so I understand this, though, the ships were interned for the safety of the sailors?

BLUM: Ostensibly for the safety of the sailors, but the U.S. government, while still neutral, many people in power wanted to help the Allied effort, and they thought it would be good policy, it would help the Allied cause if the German ships were interred here.

DAVIES: All right, so Allied ships that happened to be in U.S. ports were free to leave, but German ships were tied up and interned.

BLUM: Yes, they were.

DAVIES: And tell us about, there must have been thousands of sailors. What kind of a population were they?

BLUM: You could go through - you could go through the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey, right across from New York City, or streets along the waterfront in New York, and you could hear the singing of German songs, the "Deutschland Uber Alles," "Ach, Du Lieber Augustin." All these were sung each night.

There were bars all along the 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 this would be a fifth column and they would rise up against the United States if the United States entered the war. And the American ambassador, a New York lawyer name of Gerard, James Gerard, who was in Germany, said, well, we have 500,000 lampposts in New York City, and they'll be hanging from them if they rise up.

DAVIES: Now, when the war broke out, the U.S. was neutral. Why would Germany want to target the United States for a campaign of sabotage immediately?

BLUM: The logic of the German spymasters, and this was a very narrow logic, and I don't think they understood the American mind, 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 home front, then they wouldn't have the will, the American people wouldn't have the volition to want to go off and fight in a war across an ocean that they hoped would not concern them. They had to worry about the problems here at home.

DAVIES: Now, you write that Germany had a very well-developed spy network, the...

BLUM: (Unintelligible)? Yes.

DAVIES: And this network had spies throughout Europe but not so much in the United States, right?

BLUM: Yes, they set up this network. The head spymaster was a very ingenious man, Walter Nicolai, and he had penetrated Russia. He had penetrated England. He had stolen secret documents from the czar. And then just as war was about to break out in Europe, he suddenly had this realization - I forgot all about the United States.

The United States was just becoming industrialized, and he had in the United States one elderly spy, a man in his 60s working in a chemical factory in New Jersey, and he was supposed to give the information, the operational intelligence for the whole United States. And he realized he had to bring spies who were already trained into the United States as soon as possible before war was declared.

DAVIES: Now, the United States and Germany had diplomatic relations in this period. Tell us about the German ambassador, Count Johann Von Bernstorff. Tell us a little about him and his role in getting this thing started.

BLUM: Count Von Bernstorff was an aristocrat. He was born in England, where his was father was an ambassador. He was in the United States six years before the war was declared. He was a very popular, very social figure. And just after war is first declared in Europe, he's summoned, summoned to come back home.

And he goes back home, and he makes the trip rather reluctantly. He thinks this war is not going to last, and why should I be involved. And he gets there, and he's not to see any of the other diplomats. He meets with Walter Nicolai, the spymaster, and the spymaster tells him I want you to go to America, use the people that are there and start a spy network.

He gives him $150 million in bonds to bring back to the United States to fund this spy network. This is 150 million in 1915 dollars. Von Bernstorff travels to America under an assumed name, gets back there and then has this dual role of being spymaster and ambassador.

One day he's meeting with diplomats, one day he's meeting with the men who are in the spy network. And he slowly teaches himself how to be a spy.

DAVIES: When war breaks out in the summer of 1914, how quickly did explosions start occurring in factories and ships in the United States?

BLUM: As soon as war is declared, they begin a campaign of sabotage, and there are chemical plants, the DuPont plant in New Jersey. There are boats that are sabotaged. And they happen to 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, Franz Von Rintelen.

And when Franz Von Rintelen comes in, another socialite, a man who's living at the New York Yacht Club in New York City, right next door to the Harvard Club, he becomes involved, and he sets up the Manhattan Front. And he's a professional spy, and that's when it becomes a professional spy network.

DAVIES: Now, let's talk about one of the particular kinds of sabotage that occurred. Fires started erupting on ships at sea, and we're talking about ships that were carrying munitions from American manufacturers across to the Allies. We now know kind of what was causing most of these fires. Do you want to describe this little device?

BLUM: It was a rather ingenious device. It was called a cigar bomb because it was about the size of a cigar, and it was shaped as a cigar, and it was on both - on either end of the cigar there was - on one end there was acid, the other side there was an explosive material, and in the middle there was a thin copper plate.

And the acid would wear through the copper plate in a matter of about seven days, by the time the ship was at sea, and then the explosion would occur. They would put these little cigar bombs, and they would hire stevedores. Many of the stevedores were Irish, and they had no sympathy for the English ships or the English cause. And so they would be recruited to plant these cigar bombs amongst sugar, which was particularly inflammable, and other subjects, other objects.

And once the ship was at sea, the ship would go up in flames, and all the evidence of the bomb would be destroyed too.

DAVIES: And would the ships sink or simply suffer damage...

BLUM: Very often the ships would sink. The ships would sink. The sailors would have to be rescued. Some men were lost at sea. It was hurting the Allies' cause a great deal. And this was, you know, the opening of the operation.

DAVIES: When these troubling developments occurred, what kind of an investigative force was there in the United States to figure out what was going on and do something about it?

BLUM: You ask a very good question because there really wasn't anyone at first who could put it all together. 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.

The people they had to look into it were pretty ineffective. There was a military intelligence, and there was a naval intelligence, and naval intelligence was just concerned really with ships. There was the Bureau of Investigation, which was the precursor to the FBI. They weren't even allowed to carry weapons. The most effective unit was the Secret Service, and they got most of their information from the British.

However, the Secret Service never shared what they knew with New York City, where many of these events were occurring. The New York City Municipal Police never had any knowledge really this was a foreign network until the British directly approached New York City Police, and then New York figured we've got to do this on our own, we've got to handle things on our own, and they set up a task force to look into it, and that was the most effective - really the first defense of the homeland from a terrorist threat came from these New York cops.

DAVIES: Right, there was this fascinating character, Tom Tunney. He was a head of a New York City bomb squad. And why did New York even have a bomb squad then?

BLUM: The bomb squad in those early days were really to deal with anarchist attacks. There was a bomb planted or about to be planted in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Tom Tunney had come up with this ingenious idea of putting a man into the group, an undercover operative, and he was able to thwart the attack on March 5, 1915, on St. Patrick's Cathedral. The bomb was literally placed, two bombs were placed in the cathedral, and they were snuffed out thanks to Tunney's work.

DAVIES: This bomb squad headed by this Detective Tom Tunney in New York sets about to try and deal with this campaign of sabotage and espionage that's facing the country at the time. And they suspected that these were done with, you know, German nationals and German sympathizers. Give us a sense of some of the investigative techniques he used and how successful they were.

BLUM: Well, Tunney has to start from scratch. No one's ever really done this before, investigated a foreign power. And he doesn't really know where to begin. So his first step is to pick his team. He wants to get German-speaking men, but he doesn't want to get men who were born in Germany. So he has to go through the department and find men who were born here. He wants to be sure of their loyalty.

Then he gets different types. He gets one who's very charming, sort of a Romeo type who he figures can work well in the German bars. Another one is a big, burly guy, he describes him as being built like the Woolworth building in New York. Another guy is a sharpshooter. Another guy is funny. And they begin tailing the different German operatives or suspected German operatives.

And even their tails don't work. Their surveillance activities don't work at first because the Germans are just too smart. They've done this before. And then he has to bring men into the German community, and he would pass them off as German agents and see what he could find out.

And it's a very conscientious, tedious operation because he's learning on the job. There's been no one else who's ever done this before. And he has the full support of the hierarchy of the New York City Police Department. The hierarchy of the New York City Police Department is very elite, WASPish. They all went to Harvard and Groton.

So there's sort of that antagonism, that class antagonism too, until the two groups learn to trust one another.

DAVIES: Howard Blum's book is called "Dark Invasion." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Howard Blum. His new book is "Dark Invasion 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America."

You know, luck is a factor in every criminal investigation, and there's one wonderful story here, of an American operative following - I think he was one of the main financial agents of the German sabotage campaign, a guy who gets on a subway. Tell us that one.

BLUM: Yes, the money man in the German operation was Heinrich Albert, their commercial attache. And Heinrich Albert leaves his office one summer's day, and he has in his safe, he has $30 million in cash in his safe. He then is going back uptown to his apartment, and a cab would cost about $2.50, and he decides not to take a cab, he'll take the subway instead.

So he takes the subway, and it's a hot summer's day, and he probably just had a big lunch, and the train is rolling back and forth and rocking, and he falls asleep. Now the agent following him sees him fall asleep, and he sees that he has a briefcase, and he decides at the spur of the moment, even though this wasn't his mission, he'll take the briefcase.

And he takes the briefcase, and he disappears, and Albert wakes up and spots him, and they chase him on a trolley car, but the agent gets away. And they open up the briefcase, and inside are well over 200 documents, many of them in English, and they're detailing all the various front companies that Germany has bought and plans to buy.

And Albert becomes famously known as the minister without portfolio.


DAVIES: And he didn't have a lawyer who could argue that this - that he had to get all that back, and none of that was admissible. Did any issues of civil liberties arise as, you know, as this New York City police unit did its work?

BLUM: Well, Tunney is stymied for many months, and he realizes the only way he can get information is if he can put a - bug the phones of the German suspects. And he thinks about this for maybe 30 seconds, and he decides well, it might be illegal, but I'll do it anyway. This is war. In his mind he's already fighting a war.

DAVIES: Would it have been illegal if he'd cared?

BLUM: It was illegal. It was made illegal because of stock market manipulations. When the phone central switching system first came out in New York, there were people involved in the stock market who came up with the idea that they would bribe operators to get the information, what the big financiers were doing. And this worked for a number of months until the plot was uncovered, and then the New York state legislature passed a law making it illegal.

DAVIES: Now as these plots are pursued, and in some cases, you know, broken, you've got a man in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, who really wants to keep the United States out of the conflict. And if people learn that Germans are in the United States planting bombs, starting fires, this is not going to be helpful to the stance of neutrality. How does Wilson deal with this?

BLUM: Wilson has a very good ability to rationalize what is happening or to 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. When Wilson finally comes to - his chief aide, Colonel House, 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 that 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 having a plot to arm the Mexican government and to use them to attack the United States and to pull the United States into a Mexican-U.S. war, that Wilson realizes enough is enough.

And he gives a speech, a Flag Day speech, and it's remarkably candid. He talks...

DAVIES: And this is Flag Day 1916?

BLUM: 1917.


BLUM: He is remarkably candid. 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. And he says 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. And finally then he orders the German ambassador to be recalled.

DAVIES: Howard Blum's book is called "Dark Invasion 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with investigative reporter Howard Blum whose new book tells the story of a campaign of spying and sabotage the German government waged against the United States in the early years of World War I, when the U.S. was officially neutral. Blum's book is called "Dark Invasion."

Among the more spectacular events happened within a few - two of them - within a few days of one another, an explosion in the U.S. Capitol, a bomb was planted near the Senate chambers, I guess. And then an assassination attempt at the house of JPMorgan. First of all, why was JPMorgan a target?

BLUM: JPMorgan and his companies were loaning close to $900 million directly to the Allied cause so the Allied cause could buy weapons, food, whatever, to keep the war going. They were also underwriting the factories that were making the weapons that the Allies were buying. So his involvement was very much a part of the Allied war effort, even though the United States was neutral.

DAVIES: Right. And the character who got into his house and actually shot him is a - well, he's a fascinating guy, Tom Holt - only that's not his real name. Do you want to tell us about him?

BLUM: Yes. In 1908, way before the war, Holt - as you refer to him - name was Eric Munter,, and he was a German professor instructor at Harvard University. And he was married to a woman by the name of Leona. Leona is giving birth. After the birth she takes ill and then dies within days. Professor Munter takes the little baby to his in-laws in Chicago. While he's in Chicago, the Cambridge medical examiner looks at Leona's body and realizes she's been poisoned, arsenic poisoning. By the time they get the word Chicago, Munter is on the lam. He goes down to Mexico and reinvents himself as Frank Holt.

Six years later, this Frank Holt is now teaching in Cornell University. He's married again. The wife's name - again - is Leona. And as war breaks out in Europe, he is recruited by the German government to be, in effect, their Lee Harvey Oswald. He will, given the assignment of shooting JPMorgan. He breaks into JPMorgan's home on July 4th weekend. The day before he's been up in Washington where he's planted a bomb in the U.S. Capitol building. He then breaks into JPMorgan's home where he's lead in under the guise of working at New York's social register and tracks Morgan down and shoots them three times before he is apprehended by Morgan's butler, who crashes a coal bin over his head.

DAVIES: Yeah. This is stuff you couldn't make up.

BLUM: And it gets even more incredible. After he's arrested and Tom Tunney comes and interrogates him, and I quote a great deal from the transcripts of Tunney's interrogation of Munter/Holt in the book, and you can almost feel the smirking quality. He reminds one so much of Lee Harvey Oswald not admitting anything and just revealing his sort of superior attitude to the investigators. He's put into jail and in jail he mysteriously dies. At first they say he's shot, then they say he committed suicide by jumping from his jail cell. It's never truly resolved. Tunney always felt he was shot and it was covered up and the mystery is allowed to go on.

DAVIES: You have some wonderful pictures in the book. And one of the most memorable is a shot of the New York Tribune's front page after this event occurs at JPMorgan's mansion. The big headline screams: "JPMorgan Shot By Pro-German Fanatic Who Set Senate Bomb." And then we see a picture of Munter himself with this bandage around his head due to the injury he suffered at the hands of JPMorgan's butler. This was a huge story, and this was July of 1915?

BLUM: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. So how did we not go to war with Germany then?


BLUM: The Munter story was filled with mysteries, just like the Kennedy assassination, mysteries that have never been resolved. One mystery involves Munter's funding. How did a Cornell professor come to New York with literally 50 cents in his pocket, be able to rent a safe house in Long Island, be able to purchase 174 sticks of dynamite, purchase two revolvers? How did he get the information about where to plant the bombs? How would be able to plant a bomb in the U.S. Capitol building? At the bomb - involving the bombing in the U.S. Capitol building, for example; afterwards he gives a description of how the bomb was made to Tunney. This description is printed in The New York Times.

The New York Times then run an article the next day quoting many chemists, saying a bomb like this would never have gone off, and it wouldn't have. It's just not the way the bomb was constructed. So he clearly did not make the bomb. He clearly had no knowledge of making bombs. He clearly was given a bomb by someone else.

Why did the story not have - as we say in the newspaper business - legs? Why wasn't it followed up? Well, for three days The Times and other papers were running stories about Munter. Who is he? Where did he get his funding? And then suddenly the stories just ended and Tunney always felt that the orders came from up high, that the United States did not want to go to war, they were told to drop the investigation of Munter.

DAVIES: You know, so many of these plots developed in New York, the ones that you describe. And, you know, there was this large German community and I wonder, did you come across any cases where, you know, Americans of German descent became aware of this stuff and were appalled and went to the police about it?

BLUM: I did not find any case like that. And the reaction to the German complicity - German-American complicity - was seen in World War II as the rationale for - by many people in Congress for the Japanese internment on the West Coast. They felt that what happened in New York and other communities, like Baltimore, during World War I could happen on the West Coast of America, and that's why they pushed for the interment of Japanese-American citizens. It should also be pointed out that Tunney's team was made up of - 90 percent were German-Americans, people who were born here of German descent. And they, of course, were loyal Americans.

DAVIES: Right. And they were, I think you said, eight million people born in Germany, living in the United States, and a relative handful were involved in this stuff, right?

BLUM: Yes. That's correct.

DAVIES: Well, Howard Blum, thanks so much. It's been interesting

BLUM: Thank you. Enjoyed talking to you.

DAVIES: Howard Blum's book is called "Dark Invasion." Warner Bros. has bought the rights to the story, and has cast Bradley Cooper to play the part of New York City police Capt. Tom Tunney.

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