It was 11:40pm on July 2nd, 1915 and the U.S. Senate chambers were practically empty. The senators had left to return to their States (Congress was out of session), and most of the building’s staff had not only gone home for the night, but were likely going to stay home for the 4th of July holiday.
Security was light – true to form for the era – and few (if anyone) took note of the thin gentleman who entered the Capitol and the U.S. Senate chamber’s reception room. Even fewer probably noticed the man hurriedly exit the building.
The explosion that followed rocked more than the U.S. Senate chambers. Despite America’s official neutrality in the war that was consuming Europe, the nation had just experienced a terrorist attack in the heart of their seat of government.
It was an informal beginning to Germany’s undeclared war of sabotage against the United States.
The smoke was still clearing from the U.S. Senate chambers on July 3rd when a thin man approached the door of famed banker J.P. Morgan Jr. in Long Island, New York. Forcing his way into Morgan’s home, the stranger shot Morgan – twice – before being subdued by the banker’s butler, who bashed the would-be assailant on the head with a piece of coal. Such a bizarre assault was found to be stranger still – the assailant was the same man who had planted the bomb in Washington.
Eric Muenter had been a German professor at Harvard University when he disappeared following the mysterious poisoning death of his wife in 1906. For nearly the next decade, Muenter had been on the lam from authorities, hiding in Nevada where he managed to create a new assumed identity – Frank Holt. “Holt” had resumed teaching, this time at Cornell University, where he watched America supply and finance the Allied war effort while maintaining the aura of neutrality.
Muenter believed his twin attacks would highlight the duplicity (in his mind) of America’s foreign policy. If America’s financiers and policy makers could see that they couldn’t be safe, perhaps support for England and France would fade.
The attack produced the exact opposite response. As a captured Muenter killed himself in jail, the last act of his reign of terror was revealed. Between bombing the Capitol and shooting J.P. Morgan Jr., Muenter had placed another bomb aboard the SS Minnehaha, a munitions supply ship leaving for Britain. While the explosion did little physical damage, not unlike his Senate chamber’s bomb, it ignited a national backlash against Germany and a panic that German saboteurs were everywhere.
And they were.
That German Intelligence was operating on American soil was apparent from the beginning of the war in Europe.
As early as August of 1914, German agents were targeting U.S. industry. A DuPont powder plant in Pompton Lakes was blown up on August 30, 1914. In November, German agents were discovered operating a wireless station hidden in the woods of Maine, and that December three Germans were arrested in New Orleans for plotting to blow up Allied ships. And in January of 1915, a fire devastated the Roebling company in Trenton, New Jersey. The company made strong metal cable which was used in heavy shipping to Allied nations. The fire was one of over 200 fires set in New Jersey alone by German saboteurs.
Eric Munenter had acted alone, but he was far from alone in terms of the number of German-coordinated/sponsored acts of sabotage within the United States.
By the spring of 1915, Germany’s efforts to hinder American war-related production were at a crossroads. The campaign to date had relied largely on a sympathetic local German-American population (there were nearly 8 million Americans of German descent; or almost 10% of the country), a large number of which resided in New York/New Jersey. Such amateurish saboteurs allowed Germany to maintain plausible deniability, but also ensured a minimal amount of success. As many German civilian plots failed as succeeded, and those that did succeed achieved little.
Germany was also unsure how far to push a campaign of sabotage against American interests. In the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania, which nearly pushed a reluctant Washington into the camp of the Entente, German politicians were cautious about provoking the United States. German Military Intelligence was not.
Capt. Franz von Rintelen, a German Naval Intelligence officer, was dispatched to the U.S. in order to organize local saboteurs. Rintelen had come from a successful life in private enterprise, working as an American representative of Deutsche Bank. He spoke fluent English, understood finance, and excelled at espionage. Co-opting Irish dockworkers based on their anti-British sentiments, Rintelen managed to sneak many “pencil bombs” (small time-delayed incendiary devices) on Allied ships, causing decent amounts of damage. Partnering with minor American labor leaders, Rintelen also financed a good deal of initial anti-war propaganda, helping ferment strikes in munition factories.
A key part of Rintelen’s success was his ability to hide his operations in plain sight. A socialite by nature, Rintelen acted like a German James Bond. Rintelen started several dummy corporations to funnel his finances, allowing him to gain acceptance into the New York Yacht Club – from which he planned many of his operations and met his accomplices. Few could believe the young and debonair German who wooed New York’s finest could possibly be a spy.
Rintelen’s spy ring didn’t go unnoticed – by the British.
Britain’s Room 40 – the Bletchley Park of World War I – had cracked Germany’s diplomatic codes, and was reading Rintelen’s communications almost as fast as his German superiors. Rintelen’s attempts to coordinate U-boat landings of additional German agents in America, and his fruitless efforts to enlist the deposed Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta in a war against the United States, were widely known within British Intelligence.
American Military Intelligence likely knew what Rintelen was doing as well. Rintelen was followed on numerous occasions by Secret Service agents, and it’s likely his communications were intercepted. But while the British were aware of Rintelen’s plots, and largely powerless to stop him, American officials seemed unwilling to stop Germany’s top agent.
The lack of action may have stemmed from the top. President Woodrow Wilson, having managed to avoid a direct confrontation with Germany in the spring/summer of 1915, was unwilling to believe that Germany’s diplomatic corps was coordinating attacks on American soil. Even in the wake of the Senate bombing, and J.P. Morgan Jr’s attempted assassination, Wilson drew no conclusion about Germany’s intentions towards the U.S.
At best, if Wilson was unclear about drawing conclusions from Germany’s actions, it could have been in part because Germany itself was unsure how seriously to press the attack. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg had won the political war with the military to end unrestricted submarine warfare in order to prevent the United States from entering the war, and Rintelen’s actions could threaten such an outcome. Even those more supportive of the campaign of sabotage, like Germany’s Washington Military Attaché Franz von Papen, disliked some of Rintelen’s strategies – especially his insistence on drawing Mexico into a general war against the United States.
Nevertheless, neither side changed course. Germany would continue to sabotage American industry and the Wilson Administration would continue to insist they weren’t.
Both policies would collide a year later – in July of 1916 at the small island of Black Tom in New York Harbor.
One of the largest munition depots in the United States, Black Tom was situated next to Liberty Island in New York Harbor. Over 2 million pounds of ammunition, and 100,000 pounds of TNT, sat on the tiny island ready for transportation to Allied buyers. A series of small fires on the night of July 30th, 1916 caused workers to try and flee the warehouses. The resulting explosions were the equivalent of a 5.0 earthquake – windows 25 miles away were destroyed; residents of Maryland felt the earth shake. 7 people, including an infant from across the Harbor, were dead and $100,000 of damage had been done to the Statue of Liberty.
Wilson, and American Intelligence, was finally roused to act. German spy rings across the country were rounded up, and with the pressure mounting on the German diplomatic corps to turn over suspected saboteurs, Rintelen was smuggled out of the country where he was eventually arrested in England and extradited back to the U.S. Rintelen’s role in Black Tom was never confirmed, but he was still sentenced under the then-newly passed Espionage Act and imprisoned until 1920.
Black Tom, and further German Intelligence operations like agent Kurt Jahnke’s proposed “race war” army of German trained and armed African-Americans, had yet to pass in early July of 1915. Germany’s diplomatic coup de grâce to hopes of keeping the U.S. out of the war, the Zimmerman telegraph, was still barely a concept whose seeds were being planted by several different German agents. The actions of Eric Muenter, and others, despite stoking anti-German resentments, were dismissed by the authorities as what we would now call “lone wolf” attacks.
Regardless of what those in Washington wanted to believe, the collision course between the United States and Germany had again picked up speed.