Posted July 24, 2021
By Byron King
Ground Zero of the National Security State
An anniversary looms, one that still affects us today. The event isn’t well known anymore, but it began with one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. For that alone, it’s worth recalling.
Unlike some occurrences, this one can be memorialized to nearly the very second. It began at 2:08 a.m., early in the morning of a warm, muggy day, July 30, 1916, in New York Harbor.
Without warning “the sky suddenly exploded with an unnatural brilliance,” per an account in the files of the FBI.
Over the next half hour, 2 million pounds of high explosive erupted from rail cars and barges sitting at the “Black Tom” site, a small island built out by landfill and adjacent to Hoboken, New Jersey, directly across the water from Lower Manhattan.
One pile of munitions cooked off after another, rail car after rail car, warehouse after warehouse, in an explosive chain that ran for over 30 minutes.
The blasts broke windows up and down the New York region, as far as 25 miles away. Church steeples swayed, and bells rang in Philadelphia while the ground shook as far away as Maryland. Large chunks of debris were thrown well over a mile, with some pieces of shrapnel even damaging the Statue of Liberty.
Considering the size of the blast, it’s astonishing that there were but four fatalities and about 100 injured. Although what came next lives on in history, an aftermath that changed the world.
In addition to immediate damage, this Black Tom explosion triggered events that brought the U.S. into active combat in World War I. And the political fallout led to the creation of today’s modern national security state.
Indeed, look at the modern military-industrial complex, and the vast, modern vacuum cleaner of American intelligence gathering. It’s fair to say that large elements of these entities trace back to this one episode.
Let’s dig into this…
We’ll begin by giving away the ending; although really, as you’ll see in a moment, the ending is more of a beginning.
The FBI history of what became known as the Black Tom explosion reads thus: “The culprits? German agents who were determined to prevent American munitions shippers from supplying its English enemy during the First World War.”
That’s a quick, short summary and not entirely accurate. But it’s as good a way to begin the tale as any.
First, recall your history. The so-called “Great War” commenced in August 1914. Germany and Austria-Hungary fought against Russia, Serbia, Italy, France, Great Britain and a long list of smaller nations. And by mid-1916, Europe had been at war for two years.
Yet when you do the logistical math, there was really no way that continental Europe had the material resources with which to wage such a war. That is, Europe lacked the capacity to grow enough food to feed its armies. Nor was there enough iron to feed the steel mills, or copper to feed the smelters, oil to feed the refineries and much more.
In other words, absent massive imports of all manner of goods ranging from primary food, minerals and materials to finished, value-add products, the war would long before have sputtered out and ceased.
Critical to importing goods was money, of course. And open sea routes for trade. Which brings us back to Hoboken in midsummer 1916, and 2 million pounds of high explosives sitting in warehouses and rail cars of the old Lehigh Valley Railroad.
These munitions were products of a long list of U.S. industries that kept busy and made immense profits out of supplying materiel to paying customers, at the time the U.K. and France, although in this instance a large amount of the Black Tom materiel was also destined for Russia.
Earlier in the war, U.S. firms sold to both sides of the conflict, meaning they shipped food and war-related materials to Germany and Austria, as well as the allies. But a British blockade of the continent brought that angle to an end. No longer could the U.S. play both sides of the table.
In Washington, the Woodrow Wilson administration maintained a pretense of “neutrality” about the war. But the Treasury Department forbade U.S. banks and businesses from extending loans or credit to German buyers, while approving similar credits to France and the U.K.
As the war progressed, it was an open secret that U.S. industry was supplying the U.K, France and Russia, while Germany filed one after another protests.
Indeed, in frustration Germany cautioned Americans not to sail on ships carrying war materials and warned that such vessels could be sunk. Then in May 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship went down quite fast, with 128 Americans losing their lives, among many other victims.
RMS Lusitania sinking, May 7, 1915. German Bundesarchiv.
Of interest, Lusitania survivors recalled two massive explosions. We know now, from explorations of the wreckage, that the first explosion was the German torpedo. And the second explosion was a cargo of guncotton that cooked off and blew out a large portion of the ship’s hull.
The Germans had made their point about shipping war materiel, but the American side wasn’t listening.
By the mid-1910s, Germany could count on good sentiments within a sizeable number of friendly parties within the U.S. This was based on extensive German immigration to North America, particularly the upper Midwest and Plains states, as well as a large degree of Germanic cultural influence in the U.S.
For example, German language was commonly spoken in places like Milwaukee and St. Louis, as well as smaller towns and farmsteads across the plains and prairies. While much of the U.S. university system was constructed along the lines of a German model (Harvard and Yale come to mind). And many influential Americans — university faculty, clergy, businesspeople and more — had traveled extensively in Germany and central Europe in prewar years.
In 1915 and early 1916, U.S. industrial firms that supplied war materials to the U.S. and France began to suffer from a variety of accidents, or at least events that at first seemed like accidents. In many instances, it’s difficult to assign malign causes to things that could have been in the nature of industrial problems in busy facilities that employed many low-skilled workers.
Black Tom damage after massive explosions. National Archives.
But accidents aside, Black Tom was clearly different. After the blasts, night guards reported seeing small fires in the wee hours of July 30. At first, the thinking was that these were smudge pots, lit up and meant to keep mosquitos at bay. But then investigators noticed a pattern.
While reconstructing the explosions, the New York Police bomb squad determined that the initial blast occurred on one particular barge. It was anchored at a pier and carried 50 tons of TNT and hundreds of detonating fuses. No one in their right mind would have lit anything like a fire next to a cargo like that. This was no accident.
And in fact, as events unfolded it was the New York bomb squad that painted the original picture of what occurred. More broadly, though, the investigation was hampered by the fact that neither New Jersey nor New York had any sort of state police capability to investigate a massive explosion. And even the U.S. government had next to no intelligence-gathering organization, at least as we think of it today.
The U.S. Army had a small group of people whose mission was to gather information on foreign equipment and tactics, but there was nothing like a modern intelligence capability to do forensic analysis on a massive explosion.
Similarly, the Navy had its Office of Naval Intelligence, and like the Army it was focused on documenting the equipment of other navies: how many ships, how fast could they move, how thick was the armor, what was the caliber and range of guns, etc.
The U.S. Department of Justice had a small office called the “Bureau of Investigation,” formed in 1908 mostly to track crimes of moral turpitude like prostitution and interstate trafficking in women. There was no capability at all to analyze a huge explosion.
It’s also fair to say that the initial governmental approach to the Black Tom explosion was dismissive to the point of cavalier. No less than President Wilson referred to the blast as "a regrettable incident at a private railroad terminal."
With that presidential guidance as cue, much of the initial federal review of what happened was via the office of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Then over time, as Black Tom appeared more likely to be an act of sabotage, the Secret Service began investigating as well.
The blast was major news, of course. Newspapers across the nation printed breathless tales about what happened, with descriptions of fire, shock waves, damage, death and all the rest. In true journalistic fashion, there was little interest in allowing the facts to interfere with a great story.
Among other people who helped shape opinion was the police commissioner of New York, Arthur Woods. He argued that "The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no adequate national intelligence organization.”
The federal “Bureau of Investigation” began a period of expansion and hiring to meet this new kind of task, and eventually transformed into the formally named FBI in the 1930s.
Congress played its role as well. There, many realized that the lack of federal investigative capability was a problem, while others saw a need for legal reform to deal with this new issue of industrial-scale sabotage during wartime.
The sequence of events was head-spinning in many respects.
The Black Tom explosion was a campaign issue in the election of 1916, where Wilson argued to a nation not eager to fight that “he kept us out of war.” One angle of this slogan was how Wilson dealt with the national insult of German sabotage of munitions bound for Europe.
Then in April 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany. Again, Black Tom was one of the arguments for why the U.S. should enter on the side of the allies and against Germany and Austria.
In June 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, along with the Trading With the Enemy Act, later followed by the Sabotage Act.
People write books about these laws, but they formed — and still uphold — vast national powers of government to surveil people, both Americans and non-Americans. These laws did not just allow President Wilson to chase spies, but also became a justification for all manner of police state-style interference in American civic life.
Wilson’s second term gave America a strong taste of government control, with the so-called “Palmer raids” (by Attorney General Palmer) against people suspected of working against the interests of the Wilson administration.
Wilson’s U.S. Post Office refused to deliver certain newspapers and magazines. Movie makers were censored. Other Americans felt the sting of restrictions on so-called “sedition,” with tens of thousands of people imprisoned for political activities, up to and including labor leader Eugene Debs — who actually ran for president in 1920 from prison, three years into a long sentence!
Many years later, Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy — a man named Franklin Roosevelt — took the lessons of Black Tom and in 1942 applied them to Japanese-Americans. Then President, Roosevelt ordered hundreds of thousands of people to be interned during the Second World War. With Black Tom in mind, he feared more sabotage by disloyal fifth columnists.
Then again, even earlier in his political efforts, Roosevelt had used the Trading With the Enemy Act to justify seizing the nation’s gold in 1933. Another long story.
Today, many national security laws trace their legal DNA back to the legislation that came from Black Tom. Indeed, that gigantic explosion is the Ur-moment of the present American national security state.
All that, coming out of a freight train depot in Hoboken… Ground zero of the modern era. Who knew?
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Byron W. King