Book Reviews


The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and the Epic Hunt for Justice

by Chad Millman

Review by Richard Sheppard


This account of the Black Tom explosion In Jersey City, New Jersey, which occurred on July 30, 1916, is satisfying on so many levels. As a lifelong Jersey City resident, the local history angle is compelling of itself. But the story goes beyond Jersey City, reaching across the Hudson River to the offices of some of Germany's New York-based diplomats, interned seamen, and spies. It reaches to Washington, D.C. where President Woodrow Wilson faced increasing provocations in the form of many, many "unexplained" explosions throughout neutral America's armaments and port facilities prior to America entering World War I. It reaches to Great Britain, where code-breakers were just uncovering the inklings of nefarious German plots and schemes; collecting evidence that would decades later point the finger at the true destroyers of Black Tom. And it reaches to Germany during the Great War, and after the war, to the very cusp of World War II, when the blame was squarely affixed for the horrific explosion which tore apart an entire pier in Jersey City, damaged large swaths of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Manhattan, and reverberated to points far beyond.

As WWI bogged down into the trench warfare of Northeast France and the Eastern (Russian) Front, the German government faced two incompatible challenges in dealing with America: on the one hand, Germany wanted to keep America out of the war, to maintain America's neutrality. On the other hand, the United States was supplying vast quantities of arms with which Britain and France held their lines. No government can ignore such a quandary, and Germany didn't. While maintaining a proper diplomatic relationship with the United States, Germany undertook an expected course: sabotage.

In leading up to the destruction of Black Tom, a long pier jutting from the Jersey City ports hosting railcars and ships packed with munitions and high explosives, author Chad Millman puts the event in context. There were many, many, many less destructive but not less suspicious explosions at chemical and explosive plants up and down the East Coast. Black Tom became, by virtue of its location in the heart of the New York Harbor, and the sheer volume of its deadly cargoes, the most infamous of this sabotage.

The Germans used small glass tubes which ignited into extremely hot fires to set their deadly explosions. Since there were many German seamen and assorted German citizens who by virtue of America's neutrality were "stuck" in the United States, the German plotters, some of whom were members of the German government, had plenty of manpower to work with. Thus several German patriots who wanted desperately to contribute to their homeland's war effort, formed a band, and with the help of some paid off security guards, set Black Tom explosively aflame.

Millman's description of the destruction of that July, 1916 day cannot fail to bring to mind even greater destruction nearly ninety years later: the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. In fact, based on the author's researched accounts, the Black Tom explosion had a similar impact both physically in it's wide-range of effects, and psychologically: most people likely immediately suspected sabotage. 

Black Tom did not immediately provoke America to war. Further events, including the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, accumulated American resolve and ultimately tipped the balance to America going to war. But Black Tom would not be forgotten.

Following the war, both America and Germany wanted to put the hostilities behind them, and try to forge at least cordial relations. There were commissions set up to adjudicate war claims for damages caused, as the Germans recognized they would have to accept some financial responsibility for starting the war. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would take until 1936 and the cusp of World War II before the German government, still eager to maintain at least non-hostile relations with the American government, acquiesced to accepting blame and paying damages for causing the devastating Black Tom explosion. 

This effort to resolve the Black Tom case, where three American lawyers worked tirelessly against the efforts of shifting German intentions, is a tour-de-force of complicated legal maneuvering explained in clear terms the lay reader can follow. The Black Tom case was presented and "resolved" several times before the adjudicating commission as compromised testimony and fleeting physical documents were unearthed and re-introduced. While there were monetary gains to be had as these lawyers maneuvered to corner the Germans into admitting and paying, their sheer effort at uncovering the truth is an admirable presentation of the majesty of the law. Carefully explaining arcane evidence such as the nascent forensics of handwriting and paper analysis, and the divided loyalties of those who testified truthfully or otherwise, the author shapes very very destructive event into a convincing historic account. Thanks to Mr. Millman, a Jersey City reviewer, or anyone so curious, can visit the location of that momentous explosion - now part of Liberty State Park in Jersey City - and marvel at wondrous and far-reaching currents of history.