Since neoconservative journalists, at least to my knowledge, have not been lately slamming the “German connection,” I rejoiced at a feature article in yesterday’s New York Post (March 20) going after the “series of German outrages” that helped push us into World War One. A commentary by Thomas A. Reppetto, on German saboteurs during World War, focuses on an explosion at an ammunition factory on Black Tom Island on July 30, 1916, which is now Liberty State Park in New Jersey. In this incident and other similar ones that erupted in the area between New York and Baltimore, German agents prevented by violent means the delivery of arms “to the Allied powers.”
Reppetto suggests that the federal government dealt effectively with such explosions, by declaring war on Germany and then taking counter-espionage into its own hands. At first this could not be done because we were mollycoddling Germans residents in the US while indulging such uncooperative figures as the authoritarian mayor of Jersey City Frank Hague. Reppetto does not hide the moral here, which is drawing a direct line between the sneaky, anti-democratic Germans in World War One and the present terrorist danger. “New Jersey officials need to recall the lessons of Black Tom.” “Islamic militants have operated out of Jersey City,” just as once other bad folks did.
Allow me to set the record straight. The greatest outrage in Reppetto’s account came from the Wilson administration, which turned the US into perhaps the chief supplier of arms to the Allied side. Wilson’s decision in 1915 to allow American arms manufacturers to sell to both sides was a belligerent act directed against the Central Powers. Only one side was in a position to acquire American arms, because Germany at the time, as everyone knew, was being blockaded. The English blockade, which was aimed at starving the Germans, arguably in violation of international law, also kept arms from reaching Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary.
Moreover, most arms manufacturers were far from neutral. One of the largest Pierre du Pont, who had his ammunition factory blown up, was a pro-British interventionist, who was giving arms to the side he backed in the war. Even before the arms embargo was officially lifted, the American government was turning a blind eye to the sending of contraband to the Allies. According to Colin Simpson’s 1972 study, the bombing of the Lusitania, which was advertised as a British passenger vessel, took place in May 1915, because the ship was loaded with arms being sent to England. The torpedoing however had the effect of turning American public opinion against the Central Powers and permitted Wilson to replace the truly neutralist Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, with the pro-British interventionist Robert Lansing.
A few other points need to be emphasized here. One suspects the head of sabotage operations and an impeccable speaker of the King’s English, Captain Franz von Rintelen, had lots of non-German support, particularly from Irish nationalists in the US who were upset with the English handling of the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin. Mayor Hague in Jersey City, who was known to be an anti-British Irish American, could not have been deeply depressed by the explosion in what was then part of his municipality. The violence came even while the British were still going after Irish rebels on the Old Sod.
The German ambassador to the US, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, cooperated with the sabotage operations, undoubtedly out of desperation. After the appointment of Lansing, and given the eagerness of the US government to flood the Allied side with arms, and finally, given the unwillingness of Wilson to do more than make toothless requests that the British lift their starvation blockade, the usually gregarious and highly approachable Bernstorff decided it was only a matter of time before the US entered the war. His attempt in 1917 to draw Mexico into the conflict on Germany’s side, if the US declared war on Germany and its allies, resulted from a justified sense of where the US government stood in the European conflict. The problem of course is that desperate measures played into the hands of the pro-British interventionists. On the other hand, the American government, with the rare exception of figures like Bryan, was never really neutral in the Great War.
In 1979 the German Federal Republic agreed to pay the American government for the sabotage operation about 95 million dollars. This may have been a bargain since the operations had resulted in twice that amount in damage; and despite some efforts to spare people, had caused a dozen or so deaths and twice as many injuries. One wonders, however, whether the NYP would rush to scold the Israeli government for blowing up a shipment of arms earmarked for Hezbollah or Hamas from anywhere on this planet. But then let’s not make insulting comparisons, even if they fit!