Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed. This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic. On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US. Why bother? Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.
Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century. Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower. So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.
If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple: U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism. You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.
Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes. A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe. Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests. Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.
It was by no means a universal impulse. Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power. Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.
So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure. The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.
When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade. All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.
This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany. It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.
During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect. For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.
In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen. Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite. On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.
The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations. Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.
The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare… all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting. None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.