This past Independence Day weekend, as they have done since the turn of the millennium, Americans heard warnings about terror plots on their own soil. A century ago, the nation dealt with similar threats—and, as in 2001, they were stunned to find one plot came to fruition, in both America’s political capital and its financial and media center.
In 2015, these foreign plots involve terror unleased in the name of Islam by fringe groups unaffiliated with a specific country; in 1915, they took inspiration from—or were specifically directed by—a tangible government: Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. But the reactions they produced—dread on the part of ordinary Americans, all-stops-out manhunts initiated by law enforcement and military officials—remained, to a large degree, similar.
Shortly before midnight on July 2, 1915, an enormous explosion rocked the U.S. Capitol. In short order, it was traced to a bomb left in the Senate Reception Room. While no fatalities occurred (in those sleepier, pre-air-conditioning days, the nation’s lawmakers were not in session), the Reception Room was destroyed.
While Washington law enforcement sifted through the debris searching for clues the following morning, banker J. P. Morgan, Jr. was shot twice at the door of his Long Island estate. The assailant, armed with two pistols and few sticks of dynamite, was immediately subdued by Morgan’s servants, then arrested.
Something curious—even more than what had just transpired in the two cities already—then took place. The gunman, having identified himself to police as an instructor at Cornell University named Frank Holt (see accompanying photo), claimed that he wanted to force Morgan to use his influence to prevent American munition manufacturers from arming the Allies against German in the conflict then raging in Europe.
On the night after the Senate explosion, a number of readers of the Washington Evening Star newspaper were startled by this headline: “Letter Received by the Star Thought to Have Bearing on the Explosion.” In particular, Chief Detective Robert Boardman in the capital focused on this line in the Star letter, signed by “R. Pearce”: “Europe needs enough non-contraband material to give us prosperity.... We would, of course, not sell to the Germans either, if they could buy here.”
It sounded strikingly similar to the statement made by Holt to the police: “If Germany should be able to buy munitions here, we would positively refuse to sell them to her... Do we not get enough prosperity out of non-contraband shipments[?]” Intrigued, Boardman cabled detectives in New York to press Holt about this, as well as a corollary question as to his whereabouts the night of the Capitol explosion.
At first, Holt denied any connection to the Senate Reception Room explosion, claiming he had been in a New York City hotel that night. But subsequently, under what New York Police Department bomb-squad head Captain Thomas Tunney admitted were “third-degree methods,” he confessed: He had reached DC on the afternoon of the 2nd, assembled the bomb in a hotel, had set it on a timer, walked in the Capitol without any guard asking where he was going, left the bomb in the reception room, waited outside the building till he heard the explosion, and was out of the city on a New York-bound train shortly after midnight.
Having made one confession, Holt was ready to divulge somewhat more. He was linked, he said, to Abteilung IIIB, a German secret intelligence network already active in the U.S. Holt warned about missing sticks of dynamite, and took special pleasure in predicting an operation that would occur the nest day.
Holt did not live to see this action, having committed suicide in his cell on July 7. But his death did little to ease Americans’ concerns, especially since the SS Minnehaha did catch fire in the Atlantic that day.
At the same time they tried to prevent the disaster he predicted, the authorities tried to make sense of who Holt actually was. Besides “R. Pearce,” Holt had also used the aliases “Charles Hendricks” and “Mr. Patton.” Yet another identity, however, appears to have been his real one: Erich Muenter, a Harvard professor of German language studies who fled Boston in 1906 after the poisoning death of his wife.
Mexico became Muenter’s hideaway for several years, until he crossed the border back into Texas. Now, under a new identity, with a new wife, he worked his way back into the groves of academe. Amazingly, he found employment again in the more insular world of the Ivy League, with nobody the wiser that this German professor at Cornell was the same man who had fled Cambridge less than a decade ago.
Muenter's activities came at a time of anguished transition for German-Americans. According to historian Maddalena Marinari, before the outbreak of WWI, they had been held up as
the “model minority” that had assimilated seamlessly into American society. But the outbreak of the conflict in Europe left them dangerously vulnerable to charges of disloyalty—and the security policies of their ancestral homeland didn’t help.
Howard Blum, in Dark Invasion (2015), has called this latter German network of sabotage and spying "the first terrorist cell in America." That term “terrorist” is loaded with all kinds of after-the-fact problems (e.g., terrorist cells usually claim credit when a bomb goes off, whereas the German network invariably slinked away into the shadows).
But these German activities were meant to disrupt American policies. The German General Staff’s plans hinged on knocking the British and French out of the war, which meant degrading the links between those two powers and America—which, for all the professions of neutrality by President Woodrow Wilson, remained inextricably tied, by colonial heritage and trade, to England.
Two months before the Senate Room explosion, Germany’s sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania had ratcheted up tensions between the United States and Germany. As I explained in a prior post, though the circumstances around the sinking were murkier than American war hawks would admit, relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate, as Germany continued its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
These tensions were intensified by the spy network. In the two years preceding America’s declaration of war, the following incidents—which, we now know, were initiated by the spies—unnerved the public:
* American horses shipped off to Europe to assist in the Allied war effort were infected with anthrax cultures on American soil;
* Irish dockworkers were sometimes persuaded to plant small cigar bombs that caused fires on ships;
* Spies leveled the country’s largest munitions factory, the “Black Tom” plant in New Jersey, on July 30, leading to the deaths of more than 50 people.
In an article for the Brookings Institute four years ago, Peter Skerry compared the situation of Islam in the United States today to a century ago, where a different religion was eyed suspiciously—Roman Catholicism, another “assertive, triumphalist, immigrant faith.” But he immediately—and correctly, I think—finds a better comparison, to German-Americans of that time.
German-born sailors in the U.S., for instance, notes Blum in an interview with NPR, represented a potential large potential source of internal unrest:
“There were bars all along the [New York] waterfront that were just filled with Germans, and these were people who had nothing, really, but time on their hands. They were bored, they were concerned because many of their relatives were involved in fighting in Europe, and here they were, cut off from it. They missed the homeland, they missed the war, and it was creating a situation where here was, in effect, a ‘fifth column’ in America. At one point the German ambassador threatened that ... they would rise up against the United States if the United States entered the war.”
All of this represented rather free-floating discontent until Capt. Franz von Rintelen was recruited in Germany to head “the Manhattan Front.” Operating out of the New York Yacht club, this aristocratic naval officer within weeks managed to employ the services of sailors and officers from roughly 80 German ships in New York harbor. Even after British intelligence detained him and prevented his return to the U.S., the network he established continued without him. (Holt/Muenter, for instance, appears to have been a precursor of the “lone wolf” assassin/terrorist with whom Americans would become far more familiar in the Sixties, notably Lee Harvey Oswald.)
That network drew from a large demographic cohort. While the 9/11 plotters created chaos in their wake, American Islamophobes have largely exaggerated their continuing capacity for mischief: The best estimate is that Moslems comprise only about 1% of the U.S. population today. In contrast, those of German descent comprised approximately 1 out of every 10 Americans a century ago.
Most German-Americans of a century ago and Moslem-Americans today have adapted well to their new country. But many remain profoundly ambivalent about military conflict aimed at their ancestral homelands, and their denunciation of the drift toward war in both eras further served to isolate them.
As calls mounted to intervene in order to stop Germany and its allies from committing what were seen as “atrocities,” German-Americans went against the grain, advocating for neutrality. That position became increasingly untenable as Germany’s ham-handed methods of dealing with America—including offering Mexico assistance in recovering lands lost in the Mexican-American War (the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram”)—alienated U.S. policy-makers, the media and the public.
Their positions were also often voiced freely, including in one New York City daily newspaper that sold 75,000 copies each day just in the German language.
Contrary to what many Americans today believe, suspicion about those regarded as inimical to American life did not start with the War on Terror, nor even with the Cold War. The actions of Holt and other Germans in the U.S. made the great mass of German emigrants loyal to their new country fall under suspicion, to an often ridiculous extent. Sauerkraut was rechristened “freedom cabbage”; hamburger, “Salisbury steak”; and frankfurter, “hot dog.” With the outbreak of war, approximately 6,000 German and Austrian nationals were arrested as potential threats to national security, and there was a push to outlaw the teaching of German.