Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America
A common complaint about many works of fiction is how their unusual plot twists often defy common sense and logic. Those unexpected occurrences on the pages of a thrilling novel require readers to engage in what has been called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” There is no similar action required for reading a work of history because facts are facts. DARK INVASION couples details of a little-known moment in American history with the best features of a fictional spy novel or investigative procedural to create a narrative that is informative, entertaining and thoughtful. In a post-9/11 world where debates over combating terrorism are ever present, Howard Blum reminds the nation that we have confronted this before, and there are lessons to be learned from that struggle.
As World War I engulfed Europe, President Woodrow Wilson sought to steer the United States on a path of neutrality. It was a difficult task for the country because the antagonists viewed America as a source of valuable resources necessary to wage the war. But American neutrality benefited England and France far more than Germany. England controlled the sea lanes and was able to obtain necessary supplies from across the Atlantic. German ability to obtain goods from America was limited. The German government embarked upon a policy to destroy the ability of England and France to obtain American supplies. German spies and terrorists were dispatched to American soil to wreak havoc on factories and shipping.
"Blum has written a remarkable account of the battle between terrorists and law enforcement as they battled over the fate of their respective nations. This is easily read history, well written and riveting."
German ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff was the point man for a vast intelligence organization known as Abteilung IIIB. The organization recruited and trained agents, male and female, across Europe. Now the operation would be expanded to America. It was critical that America be kept out of the war and that the Allies be prevented from receiving shipments of American munitions, arms and food. Von Bernstorff was directed to recruit and develop a network of intelligence agents in America. He was authorized to use any means necessary to accomplish this sabotage objective.
In 1915, the United States lacked any federal law enforcement organization. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was more than a decade from creation. The duty to investigate and combat the German clandestine activity fell upon local law enforcement agencies. Since most of the illegal activities focused on the port area of New York and New Jersey, the New York City Police Department became the law enforcement organization destined to battle the German spy network. Fortunately, at least the NYPD had some experience in combating terrorist-like activity in its city. The New York City Bomb and Neutrality Squad under the leadership of Captain Tom Tunney had been a small undercover group in the police department assigned to infiltrate terrorist organizations. In cooperation with federal agencies, they battled the German spy network.
This was a multi-front battle. There was a devastating list of plots to destroy American commerce with the allies. Cigar bombs with delayed fuses were placed in ships bound for Europe. A rudder bomb was designed, also with a delayed fuse to destroy shipping. Germany plotted with Mexican nationals to open a front against the United States. Horses, a valuable commodity in the war, were poisoned by German agents. Eventually the totality of these actions would lead Wilson to abandon neutrality and bring America into the war.
Blum has written a remarkable account of the battle between terrorists and law enforcement as they battled over the fate of their respective nations. This is easily read history, well written and riveting. It also reminds readers of the similarities between our present war against terrorism and the war fought a century ago. Then as now, the battle was fought against government buildings and American commerce. Then as presently, anthrax and bio-terrorism were a weapon used against America. Then as now, hardworking investigators often solved cases through a combination of sweat and luck.
DARK INVASION captures a moment in time when America was emerging as a world power and learning to live with her expanded role on the world stage. Blum reminds us that such power comes at a price and that 100 years after the first terrorist attacks on our soil, the issues raised by those attacks are still confronting our nation.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on February 21, 2014