- - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

By Howard Blum
HarperCollins, $27.99, 475 pages

As a career diplomat, Count Johann von Bernstorff was not surprised in July 1914 when he was summoned from his ambassadorial post in Washington back to Berlin for “consultations.” Two weeks earlier, he had been dining at the Metropolitan Club when word arrived of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir-apparent, and his wife in Sarajevo. However, von Bernstorff was confident that an intricate mesh of alliances between the European powers would prevent war.

Thus, von Bernstorff was stunned when, upon arrival in Berlin, he was directed to Maj. Walter Nicolai, the spymaster heading the “political section” of Abteilung IIIB, the kaiser’s secret service. The name was misleading: The section had nothing to do with politics. Its agenda was spying, as von Bernstorff soon learned from Nicolai.

War was sure to come, Nicolai stated, and he expected a swift Germany victory. However, it was imperative that America not be permitted to send munitions and food to England and France. Such shipments could be stopped only by two means: submarines and sabotage. Given the Royal Navy’s domination of the seas, sabotage was the solution, and he tasked von Bernstorff with “using any means necessary” to carry out the mission.

Such is the backdrop for Howard Blum’s engrossing examination of German intelligence efforts in the “neutral” United States long before Washington decided — very reluctantly — to enter the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. As Mr. Blum writes, von Bernstorff felt tarnished by his spy assignment. To be sure, as a diplomat he was no stranger to deceit (he even had a very discreet mistress). Spying on his many American friends was repugnant, but he was also loyal to his homeland. When he sailed back to the United States, he carried a black briefcase containing $150 million in German treasury notes. (Or so Mr. Blum writes. Perhaps I am overly skeptical, but I question whether that amount could be crammed into a single briefcase. Unfortunately, Mr. Blum’s chapter notes are so cursory, here and elsewhere, that a specific source cannot be identified.)

Not wishing to run spies from his embassy, von Bernstorff established offices in New York. His commercial attache, Heinrich Fredrich Albert, served as paymaster, funneling money through his banking contacts. German-American businessmen happily “washed” money through commercial accounts. The first year, he was said to have distributed $30 million “to ragtag cells of agents to fuel their clandestine operations.”

The actual operatives were recruited by Capt. Karl Boy-Ed, the embassy naval attache. Given that an estimated 8 million people — nearly a tenth of the American population — were of German origin, Boy-Ed had a rich pool from which to recruit. There were also thousands of German seamen stranded in American ports to which their ships had fled to escape the Royal Navy.

Working closely with Boy-Ed was Paul Koenig, security chief for a German shipping company in New York, who hired Irish-American stevedores to plant bombs in the holds of cargo ships bound for Europe. Especially effective was a “cigar bomb,” a lead tube divided by a copper disc. One compartment held picric acid; the other, sulfuric acid. Wax plugs at either end made the cigar airtight. When the chemicals ate through the copper, a fierce fire erupted — and ships went to the bottom of the ocean.

Now we move to the central character of Mr. Blum’s book. The burden of countering the German bombing assault fell to a New York police officer named Thomas J. Tunney, whose knack for undercover work led to him being named head of the department bomb squad, answerable only to the commissioner.

Prior to 1914, Tunney spent considerable time combating Sicilian immigrants who used bombs in extortion campaigns. Once the wartime bombings began, Tunney’s immediate suspicions focused on the Germans, and here Mr. Blum makes splendid use of his knowledge of intelligence spycraft in relating how Tunney employed wiretaps and surveillance to track down key figures in the German organization. His account has a special authenticity that is often lacking in intelligence literature.

The German campaign went far beyond bomb-making. To further hamper munitions shipments, a German agent named Capt. Franz von Rintelen recruited a con man named David Lamar to form something called “Labor’s National Peace Council,” which sought to discourage stevedores from handling shipments of munitions. (The front group, Mr. Blum writes, also “attracted a collection of theologians, university professors, members of Congress, and even a former attorney general,” a forerunner of the “useful idiots” of whom the Soviet KGB made effective use during the Cold War.) However, press exposure of Lamar’s background, and a campaign by American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers brought the stevedores back to their senses.

The Germans were not immune from sloppy tradecraft. Heinrich Albert, the New York paymaster, fell asleep on a trolley one afternoon; he awoke with a jolt at his station and hurried away, leaving behind a briefcase containing more than 100 documents detailing German plots ranging from propaganda to disruption of American production of a key ingredient of TNT. President Woodrow Wilson feared that revelation of the papers would cause a public clamor for U.S. entry into the war. (Acting on his own, Wilson confidante Col. Edward House leaked the documents to the press. The president remained silent.)

In sum, more than 400 pages detail high drama about the world’s second-oldest profession. Five cloaks, five daggers. Read this one.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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