The explosion at New Jersey’s Black Tom munitions plant shattered windows on Wall Street, blew shrapnel into the Statue of Liberty, fatally threw a baby from his crib, and could be heard as far away as Maryland. The 1916 bombing by German agents was ”one of the worst acts of terrorism in American history,” proclaims a placard on a Hudson River bank.
The Detonators, Chad Millman’s exhaustively researched history of this forgotten episode, is split into two awkwardly joined parts. The first sketches the network of Stateside German operatives, shady characters, and two-faced pillars of the community who tried to sabotage U.S. trade with Britain and France in the years before America entered World War I. They infected livestock with anthrax and blew up arms factories nationwide. In the book’s second half, a constantly changing squad of lawyers attempts to recoup Black Tom damages — upwards of $20 million — from Germany, a legal battle that limped on until the eve of WWII.
The material is fascinating but unwieldy, lacking an obvious narrative thread or compelling protagonist. Millman tries to humanize his account with personal tales, but he spreads his efforts thinly across too many far-flung spies and lawyers. Clumsy private revelations — like attorney John McCloy’s fertility problems — only distract from the vastly more intriguing, if occasionally dry, political story.