Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles You ready to history? PHIL: Ready. You're ready? Okay. Alright. I'm Coleman Lowndes. PHIL: I'm Phil Edwards. And this is History Club, where Phil and I tell each other a story from history that ideally the other one doesn't know anything about. So today is my turn. And it's a story of sabotage, deception, and spies, culminating in a major attack on US soil in 1916. PHIL: Alright. Right here on Black Tom Island. So Black Tom was a munitions depot during World War I. And one summer night in 1916, German spies blew it to pieces. And they almost got away with it. Okay so a really important thing to know about this whole story is that the US government badly wanted to remain neutral when World War I broke out in Europe. And for the first few years of the war, they were. They saw the war as a sort of “Old World” problem thousands of miles away, and US President Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the people out of it. PHIL: Yeah, staying out of World War I was kind of one of the cornerstones of his reelection campaign. Yes. But that didn't mean they couldn't profit from it. The sale and shipment of munitions to Europe became a major industry in the United States, and brought the country out of an economic downturn. I mean they were pumping this sh*t out. So I could send you a map but you know Europe. You know what Europe looks like. PHIL: Yeah. So now imagine Europe. PHIL: Lots of lines, shapes. This industry mainly benefited the Entente Allies, led by Great Britain, France, and Russia. And the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, could technically also buy American bombs, but they were excluded because of a really effective blockade the British navy imposed at the beginning of the war. Getting munitions into Germany was basically impossible, so Germans turned to the next best thing: sabotage. I'm gonna do the short version of this, but the go-to source for the bigger story is this book. Starting in 1914 and up until the US entered the war in 1917, Imperial Germany operated a sophisticated network of spies and saboteurs inside the US, secretly wreaking havoc on the munitions industry. Ships and factories were catching fire, and suspicion landed on Germans and German-Americans. And there were a lot of Germans here, including sailors, who, because of the British blockade, were sort of stranded in neutral US ports. And that is where they were being recruited to blow up factories. PHIL: And was the appeal just one of nationalism? These people were from Germany and they should help the German effort? Yeah, they saw it as attacks on the English. Because the English and the Russians were buying these bombs, so it's like “these are being sent straight to people who are going to use them on Germans. You can't fight the war because you're stuck here. Do you want to do this instead?” One of my favorite parts of this whole thing is this guy von Bernstorff. I'm going to send you a picture of him. Germany's ambassador to Washington was secretly overseeing this entire spy network while trying to maintain good relations with the US. At first, the plan was to buy up all the munitions before the Allies could, but the sheer scope of US production was overwhelming. German agent Franz von Rintelen remarked that: So he started setting fire to Europe-bound ships loaded with weapons using a very special device. And I wanted to go into how it works, but it's too long. But basically, it could be timed to go off after several days. So by the time is far out to sea, a massive flame would ignite in the hold, and it burned so hot that it would melt the casing of the bomb so there was no trace of it. Which is an ideal weapon if you want the fire to look like an accident. So Americans were suspicious of German sabotage, but they couldn't prove it. And that's because at this time, there was no infrastructure of domestic intelligence agencies in the US. No Department of Homeland Security, no FBI, no CIA. Pre-WWI America saw itself as isolated and safe, protected from foreign attacks by thousands of miles of ocean. Which explains why they left Black Tom their biggest prize virtually unguarded. 75% of the US' booming munitions industry centered around New York and New Jersey, and most of them were shipped from Black Tom. The night of July 30th, the warehouses and train cars there were packed to the brim with over two million pounds of munitions, making it possibly the largest arsenal in the world outside of the war zone. And at 2:08 in the morning, it blew up. Glass windows shattered all across Jersey City, Lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The massive Brooklyn Bridge shuddered. And people as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland felt the blast, which would have registered as a moderate earthquake on the Richter scale. The Statue of Liberty was struck too. And its damaged torch has been closed to visitors ever since the attack. So you used to be able to actually go to the very top of the torch, but it's been closed since 1916. PHIL: Wow. I never knew that. Yeah. PHIL: So the torch was damaged that way? Yeah, it was damaged by shrapnel from bombs. All told, there were only 5 confirmed deaths, and around $20 million in property damage. Which is about half a billion today. PHIL: Wow. Yeah. Black Tom itself was obliterated, and the US had no idea how it happened. PHIL: And so when did the United States recognize that it was German spies who had been responsible for Black Tom? It took years. At first, there wasn't much suspicion of sabotage at all . Black Tom was seen as an act of gross negligence, and two guys were initially arrested for manslaughter. The next prevailing theory was mosquitos. For a long time, the accepted sequence of events was that the fire started after the handful of guards working that night lit “smudge pots,” which are these things that use smoke to keep away mosquitos. PHIL: Okay. I was wondering, I was imagining mosquitos wearing little robber masks sneaking in or something. PHIL: “For Bavaria!” It's either mosquitos or it's negligence and manslaughter. But all the investigating parties initially agreed that it definitely wasn't sabotage. The year after Black Tom, the US cut diplomatic ties with Germany and entered World War I. It wasn't until 1939 that the US declared Germany responsible for blowing up Black Tom, along with other acts of sabotage. They just weren't equipped to handle an investigation like this, nothing like it had ever happened before. And I want to read you one more quote. From the Washington Evening Star in 1919. The German sabotage campaign set the stage for the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917 and the eventual establishment of domestic intelligence agencies. PHIL: So what attracted you to this story? Black Tom is the signature attack of this campaign, but the spy ring I think is what gets me the most. Just this amazing spy network that these German diplomats had set up and were operating for years inside the US. And just think about an America that isn't what it is today where we record everything, and keep tabs on everyone, you know? It was just like.... this could have only happened pre-global America.