The Tale Of The Black Tom Explosion

By | July 25, 2019

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Image of North America from space. Source: (

When we think of espionage, most Americans think of the Cold War—dead drops in Berlin, nifty gadgets, the stuff of everyone's favorite guilty pleasure movies—but few think of the early 20th century. In reality, the lead-up to World War I was America's first taste of large-scale international clandestine activity on the home front.

It all culminated in July 1916, when one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history ripped through New York Harbor. In an instant, tens of millions of dollars' worth of weapons destined for Entente militaries were destroyed, countless Americans were dead or injured, and the explosion consumed headlines across the country. It's a fascinating tale of international intrigue and espionage, but few people remember the story of the Black Tom explosion. 

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The United States Capitol Building, Washington D.C. Source: (

American Neutrality

When the war began in August 1914, a nationalistic frenzy gripped the peoples of Europe. Declarations of war and mobilization were greeted with cheers and parades from London to Istanbul, and both sides thought the conflict would be briefly decided in their favor. Of course, that was not the case, and the staggering casualties of early battles quickly shattered any hopes of a quick and bloodless victory.

Even before America's entry into the First World War in 1917, the European powers were well aware that it could eventually tip the balance of the conflict. America was a rising industrial power with a large population, but it was desperate to avoid the war. President Woodrow Wilson went to great lengths to maintain neutrality and even made several attempts to mediate an end to the conflict.

Diplomats, spies, and public relations campaigns from the Entente and Central Powers were working to change this policy of neutrality, and paranoia among the American people only grew as the war in Europe dragged on. The public was decidedly against involvement, but early sympathies were split between the belligerents. Over time this sentiment shifted strongly against the Germans, and this only accelerated the urgency of their covert actions in the United States.