Commentary Magazine


Saboteurs by Michael Dobbs

Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America
by Michael Dobbs
Knopf. 300 pp. $25.00

Michael J. Dobbs, a veteran reporter for the Washington Post, has a knack for historical detective work about the Nazi era. In 1997, he uncovered the fact, evidently unknown to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright herself, that she had Jewish grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. Now, in Saboteurs, Dobbs chronicles the failed German attempt to carry out a wave of terrorism against American industrial targets during World War II.

The botched raid made banner headlines in 1942, and entered U.S. newspapers again after September 11, 2001, when the Bush administration looked to it for legal precedents for the establishment of military tribunals in which to try terrorist suspects. Drawing extensively on FBI files, German documents, and scores of interviews, Dobbs is the first to tell the full story of a riveting episode that casts some interesting shadows on our current moment.

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In 1916, while still a neutral country in World War I, the United States fell victim to a major German sabotage attack. Secret agents made their way to New York harbor and blew up a huge ammunition dump on Black Tom Island. Only four decades later, despite this experience, official Washington remained insouciant about a German threat to the U.S. mainland after the start of World War II and indeed even after Pearl Harbor. Though German U-boats were lurking off the East Coast, government agencies put a low premium on domestic security; turf fights left bureaucracies battling each other rather than thinking about how to deter intruders. In particular, President Roosevelt’s suggestion that the Coast Guard equip one-man beach patrols with portable radio sets was politely filed away and ignored.

Hitler, however, had wanted to strike the United States even before he declared war against it in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In April 1942, now officially at war, he endorsed a plan, Operation Pastorius, for infiltrating German-American saboteurs back into the U.S. via submarines. Under the tutelage of Walter Kappe, the former head of the German-American Bund, eleven agents began training in explosives at an Abwehr intelligence school outside the Prussian town of Brandenburg.

Dobbs expertly deploys the wealth of detail he has unearthed to bring this crew to life. The recruits were a motley bunch, and utterly ill-suited for the task at hand. They included George Dasch, a former waiter and manager of a brothel in the United States; twenty-two-year-old Herbie Haupt, who had grown up in Chicago and was lovesick for his old girlfriend; John Burger, a former storm-trooper who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp by his enemies in the Gestapo; and Edward Kerling, a womanizer and fanatical Nazi. When the group traveled to occupied Paris in the first stage of its journey, Dasch forgot his fake identification papers on the train, while another drunken member announced at the bar of the Hotel des Deux Mondes that he was “a secret agent.”

By the time the Germans split up into two teams and embarked on their transatlantic journey—one headed to Amagansett, Long Island, the other for a point near Jacksonville, Florida—their number had been reduced to eight. The Long Island group landed first, hauling crates of sophisticated explosives onto the beach only to encounter a young Coast Guardsman on patrol who quickly alerted his superiors, who in turn informed the Navy. Still, even as the U-boat that had transported the saboteurs lay stranded for hours on a sandbar a few hundred yards offshore, waiting for the tide to shift, the Navy made no attempt to capture it, dismissing the Coast Guard’s report as of “dubious foundation.”

The Coast Guard, for its part, failed to seal off the beach and delayed alerting the FBI about the German agents. Nor did the FBI, once in on the case, prove more adept at tracking them down. After taking the train into Manhattan, the would-be saboteurs swanned about the city, using their ample cash reserves to buy new clothes, to gamble, and to enjoy New York nightlife.

The second crew that landed in Florida was no more assiduous in carrying out its original plan. The lovelorn Herbie Haupt, for one, returned to Chicago, where he moved in with his parents and attempted to marry his old sweetheart.

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On the whole, the longer the invaders remained at large, the less zeal most of them displayed for carrying out their mission. Indeed, Dasch and Burger, both embittered by their treatment in Germany, soon embarked on a new and diametrically opposed assignment, seeking to turn themselves in and serve the United States. Dasch in particular had a grandiose plan in which the two of them would become radio personalities and play “starring roles in the anti-Hitler propaganda campaign, using as their weapons the knowledge they had gained of the inner workings of the Nazi system.”

In a comedy of errors, Dasch proceeded to call the New York office of the FBI to explain that he was a German citizen who had arrived in the U.S. the previous morning, that he had a statement to make about the nation’s security, and that he wanted to meet with J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI desk agent duly noted the call in his log but decided it was not worthy of action. Not until several days later, when Dasch traveled to Washington, checked in at the Mayflower hotel, and called Hoover’s office directly, did the FBI “crack” the case.

With his usual flair for publicity, Hoover held a dramatic press conference emphasizing the FBI’s ingenuity and skill in bringing the German agents to book. Attorney General Francis Biddle, a liberal ornament in FDR’s cabinet, was eager to prove his toughness by personally prosecuting the case. In a convoluted decision, the Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s right to insist on a military tribunal; six of the saboteurs ended up being sentenced to the electric chair, and Dasch and Burger received lengthy prison terms.

The Quirin case, as it is known (after one of the defendants), today serves as one of the legal legs holding up the Bush administration’s plan to try al-Qaeda fighters. Dobbs tours the issues raised by Quirin, yet never makes clear whether he supports or dissents from the original messy decision. But this shortcoming is more than outweighed by the spellbinding nature of the tale itself. Perhaps its most alarming aspect is the continuity it reveals between the fecklessness of the intelligence services during World War II and their haplessness today.

In the summer of 1942, even though we were already at war with a brutal enemy, American homeland defenses were almost as weak as they would prove to be on September 11. And just as the FBI apprehended the German plotters only after they walked in the front door, so the FBI would fail to take action against al-Qaeda operatives reported by the CIA to have entered the U.S. In exhuming the case of the Nazi saboteurs, Dobbs has provided a timely warning about the persistent limitations of government agencies charged with detecting and thwarting terrorist acts.

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About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.




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