Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Forgotten Attack On NYC

German spies attacked New York on July 30th, 1916. By blowing up a munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, Germany slowed the shipment of supplies to Britain and France from the ostensibly neutral United States. The explosion also caused enormous physical damage to the surrounding area, blowing out windows of buildings as far north as the public library on 42nd street.

Despite being one of the largest attacks on New York in the city's history – and a major terrorist attack on US soil planned and carried out by agents of a foreign government – the event soon passed into obscurity. Chad Millman's book, The Detonators, tells the story of Black Tom Island. He recently joined Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club to discuss the attack on the city.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: Your book details a brazen terrorist attack carried out by a group of foreign nationals who are angry at American foreign policy. The details of the event bear a creepy resemblance to 9/11. Was it this resemblance, Mr. Millman, that inspired you to write the book?

CHAD MILLMAN: Absolutely, 100 percent. I've written some other books, but I'm a sports writer by trade. For my last book, I spent six months in Las Vegas tracking down people who bet on sports for a living, and I just didn't want to talk to anyone who was alive anymore. I wanted to deal with people who weren't around, and I could just dig into the research.

One of the things I've always liked to read is narrative non-fiction history. I was researching online on an "On This Day In History" web site. I started on January 1, 1900, and went through 1901, 1902, 1903, spending the better part of a day doing that until I got to July 30, 1916. There was a two-line description saying, "German terrorists blow up New York Harbor, much of downtown Manhattan destroyed." This was in March of 2002. I was living in Manhattan at the time, and I thought, "How have I not heard of this?"

I Googled and did some research, and there was nothing substantial written about it. I was stunned.

MARTHA SOFFER: Was this intentionally suppressed to save our macho American image that we've never been attacked?

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, I don't think it was intentionally suppressed. At the time it was brushed aside. President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning on the banner that he had kept us out of war; he believed in peace morally and politically at all costs. There were several events leading up to this where there was a great amount of evidence that there were German spies operating in the United States, and that there were acts of sabotage in other munitions depots in the United States. Wilson's policy had been, "I don't want to know about this, I don't want to talk about this, I don't want this to be something we give credence to, because I don't want to go to Germany yet." Wilson's first response – he was off the coast of Virginia on the Mayflower practicing his speech for the Democratic National Convention at the time – was to say, "I'm not going to concern myself with the events at a private railroad." His Bureau of Investigation chief said in the New York Times that it was an accident. They clearly were trying to keep attention away from any act of espionage, because they wanted to keep the peace.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Why do you think it's been completely forgotten about since then?

CHAD MILLMAN: I've been asked that question a lot, and I don't have a great answer. In terms of its place prior to World War I, it wasn't the thing that led us to war; that was the Zimmerman Telegram. If this is categorized as part of the World War I genre of history, then the final thing that catapulted us to war was that telegram, and this doesn't merit that level of attention. That's the only thing I can come up with; I haven't read anything better or heard of any better reasoning.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: In your research did you find out about any other attacks on New York City?

CHAD MILLMAN: There's always political anarchy, smaller attacks. Just a few years ago there was a bomb planted across from the post office on 50th street. In the early 1920s there was a lot of political anarchy and the Communist movement was underfoot.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: A book we talked about a few years ago described a plot by the confederacy to burn down several landmarks in New York City in the 1860s. But it was thwarted.

CHAD MILLMAN: It was such a battlefield back then. There was also that story about the German submarine off of Long Island in the 1940s, but nothing ever came of it.

It's awfully scary to think about all the things that has gone on and never happened. In the book I write about a group called the Black Hand in downtown Manhattan – basically Mafia – they had been harassing and planting bombs in lower Manhattan. This led to an anarchist movement that was planting bombs. A lot of times they got caught because they blew themselves up. A lot of times you rely on the stupidity of criminals to uncover the deadliest plots.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Like when the Weathermen blew themselves up in the townhouse on East 11th Street.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: How much of the economy of New York City was based on the war before the United States joined the fighting, and how did that change once the US did go to war?

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, I don't know New York specifically. Throughout the country the exports to Britain and France increased hundreds of millions, billions, maybe. Phenomenally huge.

STEVE ARONSON: If the United States were neutral at the time [immediately before the Black Tom attack] what basis did we have to intern these German ships, and not allow them to leave?

CHAD MILLMAN: Our argument was that letting them leave was tantamount to supporting an act of war. If they came here, refueled, restocked, and strengthened themselves, then we were aiding Germany in the act of war.

STEVE ARONSON: What about the British ships?

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, British ships, too. The thing was there was a British blockade in the Atlantic. It was the German ships, when they got caught on the wrong side of the blockade, who couldn't get back to Europe.

STEVE ARONSON: I would consider that an act of war.

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, Germany did. That's why they were so angry; they felt the American policies were hypocritical. There were all these interned German sailors in Baltimore and New York, and up the East Coast. With Black Tom, the largest munitions depot, in view of Manhattan, the Germans would see these ships loaded with munitions steaming off to war. They were angry, because American companies were selling munitions, and Wilson wasn't stopping them. The Germans couldn't buy these munitions, so their best bet was to blow them up.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You write about the immediate physical damage in Jersey and Manhattan. Was there a larger economic impact?

CHAD MILLMAN: There was. It's funny, the mayor in 1914, when New York Harbor was becoming the busiest, wealthiest port in the country, said aloud "I fear for what would happen if someone tried to destroy this harbor." Immediately they declared you couldn't have munitions depots like this near large, populated areas. So yes, there was economic impact. I didn't see specific numbers; I just saw anecdotal evidence from people at the time saying how this was impacting the harbor. There were a lot of people looking for work at the time, so there were a lot of people out of work.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Did you find that there was anything similar to the feeling after 9/11 that people were worried that New York wouldn't seem safe anymore?

CHAD MILLMAN: No, I didn't get that at all. It was a different time. Before 9/11, it was such a placid, lush, flush environment in the US. It was so peaceful; there was no sense that this was coming. In 1916 there was a war going on in Europe, and there was a definite schism in the United States about whether we should go to war. This was after the Lusitania, and it was palpable that war could become inevitable. I don't think that people were as afraid as we are now.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Did you get the sense that the attack meant something different to people in New York than it did to people elsewhere?

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, there wasn't this thing about rallying around New York as a victim like there was after 9/11. News traveled slower back then; there wasn't the instant reaction in places like Chicago and San Francisco that there was to 9/11.


STEVE ARONSON: There must have been a group of people saying, "This was Germany." What impact did that have on American psyche at the time?

CHAD MILLMAN: Almost immediately there was a feeling that Germany had done this and that nothing would be done about it. There had been acts of sabotage leading up to Black Tom, and those had been written about in the papers often. It just became accepted that Germany was doing this, but that we weren't doing anything about it because we didn't want to go to war.

We also have to remember that while people died at Black Tom that wasn't the main goal of the saboteurs. They wanted to blow up the munitions depots so that the bullets didn't go to the front and kill Germans. They didn’t want to kill people like terrorists today. That's why there wasn't as palpable a fear.

MARTHA SOFFER: The German Americans were a very large, significant population.

CHAD MILLMAN: It was huge. Between 1880 and 1920 there was as many German Americans coming to the US as any other immigrant group. Before World War I, there was no immigrant group that was as admired or trusted as German Americans. There was a sociological study at the time that said that of all immigrant groups coming to the United States, it was German Americans who had the morals and principals that Americans most identified with.

Then World War I began, and all of a sudden there was this split. German Americans of first and second generation who had seemed so assimilated to the United States were suddenly staunchly in support of the motherland. And that's when a lot of the divisions happened. It became so bad that at one point they changed the name of sauerkraut to liberty cabbage. There were German communities all over the East Coast where the names of streets were changed. There was a street in Jersey City, Germania, whose name was changed to Liberty Avenue. They stopped teaching German at schools; German nurses weren't allowed to serve in the Red Cross because there was a fear they would grind up glass and put it into bandages. So there was a real fear of the German culture.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Just like French fries and freedom fries.

CHAD MILLMAN: There were so many times when my eyes would just bug out of my head, because I would be like "are you kidding me?" The similarities were stunning.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: New York City used to have an enormous German population and influence. Today this doesn't seem to be as significant as the Jewish, Italian, or Irish influences. Does that have something to do with the anti-German sentiment around this time?

CHAD MILLMAN: No, it didn't. The Germans settled here in two waves: the mid-1800s and the early 1900s. Unlike a lot of the Irish who were coming, the Germans came here with money. A lot of times they were leaving Germany for political reasons, and not because they were poor. So they came here with a lot of skills, built businesses, and by the early 1900s when the Irish and the Jews were immigrating here in larger numbers and settling on the Lower East Side and places like that, a lot of the Germans were moving to the Upper East Side, to Brooklyn, and to New Jersey –to what was considered the suburbs.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Aside from the name changing and the things you mentioned, was there any actual persecution of German Americans living here at the time?

CHAD MILLMAN: There were stories of German priests being lynched when they were giving German last rites to people, and a lot of stories of violence against Germans when there were outward symbols of German heritage practiced by them.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Were there any government-sponsored actions that targeted German Americans?

CHAD MILLMAN: There weren't any outward acts of violence that the government was supporting. A lot of that was after the war. The American Civil Liberties Union started after the war to combat the persecution of people who were thought to be communists. That was a much more fearful time about the government curtailing civil rights than pre-World War I.


JERRY SILVER: When Pearl Harbor hit and a decision was made to intern the Japanese … was there some discussion at that time about doing anything to the Germans?

CHAD MILLMAN: You know it's funny, there wasn't. I've been asked that a lot. I didn't research this to any great extent, but there wasn't as great a fear of Germany because they hadn't attacked us. There was a fear of the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor, and there were other reports that there were Japanese submarines sending signals to citizens in California.


MARTHA SOFFER: The German population was so large, you couldn't intern them; the Japanese population was small. Plus the Germans could pass.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: Directly after 9/11, the FBI began to examine the Black Tom bombings, to reopen its files and look at what it had. Did it find anything instructive or useful in that comparison?

CHAD MILLMAN: They just reacquainted themselves to the case. They didn't find anything that was so useful to find out why this happened on September 11, or when another one could happen.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Have you tried to come up with lessons learned from that event yourself?

CHAD MILLMAN: Well, the lessons learned were more applicable to World War II. The second half of the book is all about the investigation, and the efforts of three American lawyers to prove that Germany had done this. The lead lawyer was a man named John McCloy, who went on to have a distinguished career in politics. He was one of the architects of our Cold War strategy, and he was the first civilian high commissioner to Germany. His nickname was the chairman, because he was the chairman of the Chase Bank, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and the World Bank, and was an advisor to every president between FDR and Reagan.

McCloy became FDR's assistant secretary of war in the run up to World War II, mainly because of his work with Black Tom, and his work in investigating Germany. After Pearl Harbor, the discussion of the internment of the Japanese came up. FDR was well aware of the sabotage of Black Tom Island, and espionage, and enemies within the United States during World War I. They were both afraid of further attacks, and after they figured out a way where they could constitutionally do this, FDR was quoted as saying, "We don't want another Black Tom."




Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
Gotham Gazette: Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Gotham Gazette: The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast