- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006


By Chad Millman

Little, Brown, $24.99, 352 pages


Now that the smoke of the five-year remembrance has cleared, let us remember: New York City sustained a sneak terrorist attack by an unknown enemy when a huge explosion rocked the city, blew out Wall Street’s windows, peppered the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel, shook the ground as far as Maryland, and killed unknown numbers of victims whose bodies vanished in the blast and fires that burned for weeks …

No, this was not September 11 but July 30, 1916 — 90 years ago — and the perpetrators were not Islamic jihadists but German saboteurs. Locked in the standoff of World War I, the Kaiser’s government had directed secret agents to infiltrate the neutral United States, the literal and figurative “arsenal of democracy,” with orders to disrupt the supply of American-made explosives bound for Germany’s enemies.

How it all happened makes an intriguing first-third of “The Detonators,” which at the start reconstructs the conspiracy itself — a plot driven by mad scientific ingenuity and an initiative of infamy. The prime target was Black Tom, a spit of land jutting into New York harbor, where railroad lines from inland factories brought trainloads of ammunition and explosives to piers serving freighters bound for our allies in Europe. It was the biggest depot for war material in America.

On orders from Berlin, a harlequin cast of characters went into action: two diplomats, an American doctor who made anthrax in Chevy Chase(!), the aria-singing madam of a brothel in a Manhattan brownstone, a New Jersey chemist who invented incendiary bombs the size of cigars, plus enough bit players to fill a beer hall.

The saboteurs’ device was simpler than potato soup: a glass tube with two chambers separated by a copper disk; when acid in one chamber dissolved the disk — in seconds or days depending on its thickness — the fluid mixed with the contents of the other chamber and ignited in a jet-like flame. Just the thing to toss into an ammo warehouse or the hold of a freighter laden with artillery shells.

Recruiting conspirators was harder, but German marks converted into greenbacks paid their way and they carried out the plot with awesome effect. Not only was Black Tom destroyed temporarily, but scores of other explosions wrecked freighters at sea and munitions plants around the country in the course of a year.

The book’s other two portions are thinner and thicker gruel respectively. One is a Horatio Alger portrait of John J. McCloy, a legal prodigy who would become the Washington insider of unmatched influence (“The Chairman,” as Kai Bird called him in his eponymous biography, which covers this ground).

The other is the arduous, three-decades-long investigation, which McCloy concluded, to prove German responsibility for Black Tom and win a $50-million settlement, albeit not until 1939 and the brink of World War II. (See also Jules Witcover’s out-of-print “Black Tom.”)

The huge settlement was awarded by the Mixed Claims Commission, a binational body that was led by tragic heroes of jurisprudence and set a noble standard for international arbitration. But its story is so convoluted in this telling that only the lawyers’ mothers could love it.

More important despite its laboring, “The Detonators” relates historical lessons between its lines. For one, the author explains that while the chief of the NYPD bomb squad almost solved the crime at Black Tom before the smoke cleared, 33 years would pass before the case was closed.

The reason: Woodrow Wilson’s White House stonewalled investigators for the sake of its own larger agenda. Revealing a German plot in 1915 would end American neutrality, a most productive posture; let Europe fight Europe’s wars and bury European dead, while America stood above the fray and profited, sacrificing neither blood nor treasure.

“Wilson had not planned on making foreign policy a focal point,” Chad Millman writes, quoting the president’s pre-inaugural credo in 1913. “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”

Thus, preconceived policy dictated Wilson’s response to an ultimate act of provocation, a foreign government’s attack. He believed that going to war was against the nation’s best interests; four years would pass before public opinion, new circumstances and a catalytic event (the discovery of German overtures to Mexico) convinced him otherwise and forced his hand.

A book about history is worth our attention if it ably tells an interesting story, illuminates part of the past and makes that period or events relevant to our own world. This book succeeds on one count out of three, relevance, which may make it worth the list price.

What are the lessons? President Wilson steered a narrow course that kept clear of involvement in the war that would devastate Europe. We were “isolationist,” not to be sucked into the maelstrom. Besides, selling war material to our allies was profitable. So when early investigation pointed to German perpetrators, federal authorities put the lid on it. Losing a few assets in New York cost less — financially as well as in the coin of domestic and world politics — than losing our neutrality.

However humongous the explosion itself, however horrific its human toll (even if many of the dead were nameless waterfront drifters), the event did not prompt a change in national policy. The president had already set his course; early probes into the sabotage at Black Tom went nowhere. The saboteurs were uncovered three decades later largely because private corporate interests pursued the matter in search of damage claims. Follow the money?

In our own sorry time, one lamentable litany heard on the right is that we do what we do abroad because we can, and none can tell us nay. Call it the “Bring ‘Em On” syndrome. But, as reality turns out, are there better reasons to not start a war, or to stay out of one? Don’t we have better fish to fry?

Preaching one faux history lesson, Mr. Rumsfeld compares opponents of our policies in Iraq with Neville Chamberlain and the quislings of 1930s Europe. Might he better recall a later historical episode, Vietnam, a war that cost us much and won us nothing? Or better yet, reflect on this earlier one in which a cool president made a calculated response to an attack on New York?

History being history, will we need to read and heed all these lessons again?

Philip Kopper writes frequently about history and the arts.

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