The German Plan To Invade America

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THE ANNOUNCEMENT EARLIER THIS year that military archivists had found nineteenth-century plans for a German invasion of America attracted curiously little attention in this country. There are several possible explanations: The idea of Germany’s being a warmonger is hardly news; any date starting with 18 might as well be in biblical times for the average American; and, most likely of all, the announcement coincided with the NBA Finals.

The goal of the planned invasion would not have been to conquer and hold the United States under the German flag. Instead Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to “put America in its place” and exact concessions in return for withdrawing. Of particular concern were Germany’s hopes to expand its empire into the Pacific. With America preparing to annex Hawaii and build a canal through Panama, the Germans feared being crowded out of that region.

The kaiser gave the job of drafting a strategy to Eberhard von Mantey, a 28-year-old naval lieutenant. His first plan, devised in 1897, envisioned a naval assault on American shipyards at Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and Newport News, Virginia, similar in concept to the Pearl Harbor raid of World War II. Before Germany could take any action, however, the Spanish-American War broke out. In that brief affair the United States greatly increased its Pacific presence and gained effective control of Cuba, where Germany had hoped to build a naval base. In response, Mantey came up with a revised plan that concentrated on northern population centers. German troops would land on Cape Cod and march to Boston as a flotilla shelled New York City, causing panic and making the city easy prey for a landing force.

Nothing came of Mantey’s second plan either. The German chief of staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, balked at committing the 100,000 troops it would have required, and the idea was finally dropped in 1906. A little more than a decade later, during World War I, Germany (being otherwise engaged itself) encouraged Mexico to invade the United States across the Rio Grande. When the United States learned of this proposal by means of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram, it drew closer to entering the European conflict.

The outcome of that war shows why the Kaiser would have been foolhardy to go through with any invasion. Even if America’s martial spirit had not been aroused by the war with Spain, and even if the pugnacious Teddy Roosevelt had not later become President, America would never have responded supinely to an enemy invasion. For a precedent, one need only look back to the last time America was invaded, nearly a century before the German threat.

The nation was sharply divided over the War of 1812, with most of New England considering it pointless and suicidal; the island of Nantucket even declared itself neutral. But when British troops devastated Maryland and Washington, D.C., in 1814, the nation was united at last. As is happening again today, the attackers learned to their peril that the United States of America is not to be trifled with.