Fallout From Lusitania Disaster, German Spy Rings;
Sabotage of American Munitions Plants
Special to The Great War Project
(31 August – 1 September) In the United States in the summer of 1915 a century ago, the debate over the war sharpens.
The fallout after the May 7th sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine with the loss of 128 American lives creates a crisis in the American view of the war.
“There was still but one overriding concern,” writes historian Arthur Link…
“whether the future would bring war or peace with Germany over the issue of submarine warfare.”
Germany and the United States trade notes this summer, with American President Woodrow Wilson attempting to force the end of Germany’s U-boat offensive. But the outcome of this exchange is unclear.
“President Wilson,” observes Link, “after taking the high ground of complete opposition to submarine attacks against merchant shipping, had then beaten a slow retreat toward acceptance of a ‘legal’ underseas campaign and a narrowing of the issue with Germany to the safety of Americans on belligerent passenger ships.”
The Lusitania was a British passenger liner.
Wilson makes it clear, writes Link, that “he would not insist upon an immediate German apology and reparation for the loss of American lives on the Lusitania.”
In a note to the Imperial German government, Wilson issues “a stern warning against a renewal of unlimited underseas attacks on passenger ships.” But he also invites the German government “to join him in a campaign for the freedom of the seas as long as the present war should last.”
The response in Berlin is mixed. Some German military leaders reject this offer out of hand.
But one key member of the German cabinet, the Imperial Secretary of the Treasury, writes a long memorandum to the German Chancellor that “argues openly and persuasively for a positive reply to Washington.”
“Germany, he bluntly warned….simply could not survive if the United States joined her enemies…
...”for American belligerency would mean the unlimited and unending economic reinforcement of the Allies.”
“War with America,” Link writes, ”had to be avoided in any event during the next few weeks [in August] so long as the fate of Germany’s campaigns in Russia and the Balkans were in doubt.”
The Minister argues that it might be necessary for Germany “to make an open surrender on the submarine issue.”
“It was,” observes Link, “the most courageous appraisal of the present realities and future possibilities of the German-American situation made by any German statesman during the war.”
The issue is the discovery of a German espionage ring in the U.S., revealed by a New York newspaper.
The newspaper publishes a story that German agents in the U.S. “bought a large munitions plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to prevent its output from going to the Allies and had attempted to corner the products of certain chemical works.”
These disclosures – which come to be known as the Albert Affair after the official in the German Embassy who runs the spy ring — are published in August 1915, and provoke “an enormous anti-German outpouring.”
“The German government,” writes Link, “now stood convicted of a vast undercover campaign to suborn American opinion and influence American foreign policy.”
“One of its most vital consequences was the severe shaking of official American confidence in German good faith at precisely the time when mutual trust was most desperately needed for the maintenance of peace.”
At the same time, another espionage scandal emerges. This time, the German intelligence staff is alarmed “by the increasing export of American munitions” flowing to the Allies.
In the spring of 1915 the Germans send a special agent, Franz von Rintelen, to the United States.
Among his activities, he seeks to destroy a strategic canal in the Great Lakes, and he constructs a bomb plant designed to destroy “munitions piers and ships in New York Harbor and ships at sea.”
He also creates a bogus labor union that mounts a strike to block the loading of munitions ships.
And he spends $12 million to foment counter-revolution in Mexico, hoping this will divert munitions deliveries to Mexico and away from Europe.
Relations between the US and Germany a century ago reach a new low.