When World War I broke out in Europe, the United States was neutral. It was considered a fight in Europe, and we were better off staying out of it. Although President Wilson favored the British, the US officially took no side. However, Wilson’s preference encouraged American companies to sell to the Allies. However, not everyone was thrilled with this. German Ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, protested vigorously that US companies were selling arms and materiel to Britain, France and Russia. There was a British blockade of Germany, which made it extremely difficult for Germany and Austria to import at the same rate. However, his protests fell on deaf ears as there was too much money to be made on the war. Something had to be done.
In February 1915, Berlin ordered its fleet of subs to start sinking all ships, whether they flew a neutral flag or not. About the same time they sent an attache to Washington with express orders to sabotage “every kind of factory for supplying munitions of war.” The big problem? The man they sent, Franz von Papen had no idea what he was doing in the arena of espionage. Von Papen got his embassy post through his wife’s family. In a strange twist of fate, he also used these same connections to become chancellor the Weimar Republic. He was replaced by a guy named Adolf Hitler in 1932, but that is much later. In 1915, he had no idea what he was doing, but he did get some help in the person of Captain Franz von Rintelen, a innovative man who spoke fluent English and understood the social niceties of Manhattan society.
Under von Rintelen’s direction, “accidents” at sea increased as Irish born dockworkers planted bombs on Allied ships in American ports. The American response was sluggish and left much to be desired. At this time, there was no national intelligence service or code breaking agency. Weirdly, there was no statute in place making peacetime espionage or sabotage, so there was nothing to use to prosecute these people as a group. When caught, they had to be prosecuted by the states for individual crimes, which was messy and inefficient. In May 1915, the policy of going after all neutral ships led to the sinking of the Lusitania, which turned public opinion and the feeling of President Wilson against the Germans. Wilson then took the Secret Service off counterfeiters and set them to watching German diplomats. This bore fruit due to a ridiculous mistake by Heinrich Albert.
Albert was the paymaster for the spy ring and as such had a significant amount of details about who was on the payroll doing what. Albert left his New York office on July 15,1915 and headed towards the Sixth Avenue subway. It was especially hot that July, and the heat made Albert sleepy and lulled by the rhythm of the train, he nodded off in his seat. Leaning on his knee next to him was a briefcase stuffed full of important papers about the von Rintelen’s efforts. The subway lurched into 50th street station waking Albert. Startled that he almost missed his stop, Albert lept up and rushed off the train. He forgot his briefcase. Realizing his mistake, he ran back onto the car but the briefcase was gone. It had been scooped up by the friendly neighborhood Secret Service agent, Frank Burke, who had been tailing him. Albert attempted to chase the agent, but the Secret Service then was as bad ass as they are now and Burke eluded him. Albert was screwed.
The papers he carried fingered von Papen and von Rintelen. Both were recalled to Berlin. However, von Rintelen was picked up when his ship was stopped in the English Channel by the British. Von Papen fared better as he was under diplomatic immunity and could not be arrested by the British. However, immunity did not extend to his luggage, which was seized and searched. In it, more papers were found leading to German saboteurs in the US. Unfortunately, the subsequent sweep did not catch them all and those remaining were able to orchestrate the Black Tom explosion, which had the same force of a 5.5 magnitude earthquake and could be felt as far away as Maryland (For more on the Black Tom explosion, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/black-tom-explosion/ ), and the Hercules Powder Plant Company fire, which killed over a hundred workers, most of the women and children.
Although estimates from 1937 speculate that between 1915 and 1917, 43 US factories had unexplained fires or explosions and four dozen ships were known to have bombs. However, this did not put a dent in the production of materiel going to the Allies. What it did do was turn public and government opinion against the Germans. Therefore when the Zimmerman Telegram, a communique from the Germans attempting to gain Mexican support against the US, was intercepted, the ground for declaring war was already prepared.