Before 9/11 there was July 30, 1916.
On that day, German saboteurs lit up the skies around New York Harbor with a massive explosion at the Black Tom munitions depot in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty near what is now Liberty State Park. The fiery detonation, which could be felt as far away as Maryland, blew out the windows of lower Manhattan buildings as far north as the main New York Public Library branch on 42nd Street. It was the most spectacular (though far from the only) act of sabotage carried out by Germany's well-placed network of spies and bombmakers, determined to halt the shipment of ammunition from the still-“neutral” United States to its World War I Allies in Europe. Millman (Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America, 1998), a career sportswriter, deftly narrates the story of the brazen German agents who planned the sabotage, then turns to the exhausting legal battle that ensued to get Germany to admit its guilt and pay for the damage. The effort wouldn't end until Hitler was in power and the Second World War had begun. Initially, the Black Tom explosion was branded an accident, and none of the German saboteurs was ever arrested for the crime. It wasn't until 1924 that the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which owned Black Tom, brought suit against Germany before the Mixed Claims Commission, a legal entity created to hear claims against Germany following the war. The exhausting legal case would consume the lives of both American and German lawyers, locked in a struggle to uncover or suppress the truth about Germany's role. In a clear, cogent narrative, Millman does a good job of navigating the complex issues and behind-the-scenes politics that fueled this marathon legal battle. He also proves adept at fleshing out the human stories of the main characters involved. Those include John McCloy, who risked his legal career to take on the case; John Larkin, a fiery Irish labor leader whose 11th-hour revelations proved crucial; and Fred Herrmann, an American citizen turned German spy who was tracked to Chile and talked into confessing his role.
An intriguing, bracing tale, and not just for history buffs.