Monday, April 21, 2014

"Dark Invasion" by Howard Blum (2014)

If you believe; as I do; that the only thing new is the history you don’t know, then this book will astound you. It’s like reading today’s newspaper; underscoring the fact that precious little has really changed in the last 100 years since these events occurred.  

Terrorism, espionage, germ warfare, piracy; in short; anything which you can find in today’s paper can be found in this book which recounts the events of the 2 years preceding America’s entry into World War One. Germany’s undeclared war on the United States mirrors everything which the Islamic terrorist of the 21st Century would like to accomplish.

If you lose track of some of the aliases and names while reading this book, don’t worry, author Howard Blum pulls everything together in an ending which rivals the best that Hollywood has to offer in the way of fiction. The big difference, of course, is that this story is true.

With the same wide ranging and highly charged style which marked his earlier book “American Lightning”, Mr. Blum introduces the reader to an astounding cast of characters; comprised of diplomats, Professors, stevedores, watchmakers and even J.P. Morgan; the American financer who once bailed out the country with cash during a recession. There are policemen, detectives and politicians; some good, some bad; but all part of the plot to keep American munitions out of the war against Germany by whatever means necessary.

The bombings were simple enough; compared to the planned anthrax and horse plaque attacks which were planned by German diplomats, along with scores of German seaman who found themselves stuck in a foreign neutral port for the duration of the war.

The story also involves a Harvard college professor named Muenter, who killed his wife and left his children, taking on a new identity in New Mexico.  He remarried under the assumed name of Frank Holt and began a new academic career in foreign languages. He was soon at the top of his profession. He also became an important component to the larger story.

At the same time, Detective Tom Tunney; in New York City; is on the trail of the mysterious bomber who has been successfully sabotaging the American war effort.  At the direction of the Police Commissioner he is able to tap phone lines, use force, and whatever else may be necessary to stop the sinking of ships by explosion after the ships have been at sea for several days.

During the summer of 1915 there were scores of ships sunk as a result. The devices ranged from a small “cigar” bomb; which was a small lead container divided in half by a small sheet of copper. Chemicals were added to each side that ate the copper sheet away. When the chemicals combined they produced a white hot flame. Planted among cargo they were devastating.

The German ships which were interred in the harbor on both sides of the river made for ideal recruitment for the network needed to plant the explosive devices on the American ships. And with the help of German diplomats and shipping executives, the operation was well funded and there was serious money to be made for the bored German seamen. One ship, interred at Hoboken, was actually converted into a bomb factory, with every member of the crew taking part in some way. Irish stevedores; with no love for England; were also a reliable source of operatives.

There were also plans to blow up various landmarks around the country. One of the first successes Detective Tunney enjoyed was the arrest of the men who planned to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That effort was foiled by two detectives dressed as scrub-women, who watched the bomber plant the bomb before tackling him.

Detective Tunney successfully infiltrates the Brescia Circle; a group of radical immigrants; and before too long finds himself involved with the German Abteilung IIIB spy network headed by Heinrich Albert, who was also the Commercial Attaché to the German Embassy here in the United States. From this lofty position he was able to recruit and co-ordinate not only the ship bombings, but also the germ warfare program. There is even a plan to restore Mexico’s exiled President Huerta to power in exchange for his help in de-stabilizing the Mexican border. His reward was to be the restoration of Texas and New Mexico to his country.

The germ warfare was designed to sicken the horses which the United States was supplying to all of the nations at war; with the exception of Germany. This is the same thing that caused Japan to form the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which led to the Second World War. Sanctions don’t work well without force to back it up. This is a lesson which should be heeded by our own politicians today. There is no teacher as adept as knowing history.

Paul Koenig was the German shipping magnate who ruled the waterfront in New York and New Jersey. He was loaded with cash but when his nephew didn’t show up for work one day due to an illness, he was docked $2.52 for the day. Infuriated at his Uncle he would become part of the events which unraveled the madness.

It was the same with Heinrich Albert. He was too cheap to spring for a $1.75 taxi ride; opting for the elevated train instead. He fell asleep on the train and left his briefcase; which held documents summarizing all of the sabotage that had been done up to that point; and also gave insights into what was still being planned.

But of all the characters in this story, none is more fascinating than Frank Holt, the former Professor Muenter. After killing his wife with arsenic and leaving the children with his in-laws, he sets out to reinvent himself. With his love for the fatherland and his talent for languages, he is looking for a way to serve the cause. In a 48 hour period during the July 4th weekend in 1915 he not only successfully plants an explosive in the Capitol; he then heads to Long Island and the home of J.P. Morgan.

Once there he intends to speak with him; he wants Mr. Morgan to stop financing the Allied war effort; but he brings along 6 sticks of dynamite and a revolver just in case JP needs persuading.  He is beaten and captured by the servants after shooting Mr. Morgan. Morgan survives, but Frank Holt only lives for a few more days in the town jail, where he is either killed by 2 gunshots to the head, or he jumped from the top bar of the cell door, dashing his skull.

There is so much more to recount about this book, but it really needs to be read to be enjoyed thoroughly. I think it is to safe to say; from the Black Tom Explosion to the Zimmerman Telegram; that Mr. Blum has covered it all.  He has a style which makes you wish he had been your history teacher in high school. He writes with a sense of urgency which is easily felt by the reader. As Detective Tunney races against the clock to avoid one disaster after another, you can almost hear the clock ticking. Or, is that a bomb? 

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