That the German Empire had speculated on the possibility of invading the United States before the twentieth century was well known even before the Second World War, since as early as 1940 a German professor named Alfred Vagts published an article reviewing reports about plans to attack some cities on the east coast that he had found researching in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin). In the second half of the century, historians such as Walther Hubatsch, John A. S. Grenville and George Berkeley Young also echoed this theme in their books but without taking it too seriously.
Things changed in 1970, when Holger H. Herwig, a doctorate student at the State University of New York who was examining documentation in the Fribourg military archives for his thesis on Kaiser William discovered not one but three invasion plans and moreover fully developed, not simple routine theoretical proposals as they were believed to have been until then. Hervig and his tutor, David F. Trask, published an article about it in the journal Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen, obtaining an unexpected media attention and publishing a book, Politics of Frustration: The United States in German Naval Planning, 1889-1941, which became a bibliographic citation of reference since its appearance in 1976.
The fact is that the existence of these plans reveals the growing tension that was already gripping the western world decades before the outbreak of the First World War. For the oldest documentation on the subject is not from the immediate pre-war period but from the nineteenth century, dated 1897, and neither is the most recent, since its date is 1903. More than eleven years before that July 28, 1914, when Europe threw itself headlong into the abyss.
This highlights the aggressiveness of German politics since it went from unification in 1871 to the rise to the throne of William II. The latter, as impatient as he was unsubtle, was no longer satisfied with the colonial empire he had achieved, but aspired to play a leading role on the world scene, and Birmarck, incapable of containing him, ended up resigning and being replaced by more manageable ministers. It was not ideal for the left hand needed at the international level and everything started to rush.
Germany’s intercontinental expansion encountered a serious obstacle. The US was immersed in a similar dynamic and, based on both the Monroe Doctrine (with the new incorporation of the Roosevelt Corollary) and the more recent Manifest Destiny, they were unwilling to allow interference in the areas they considered for their own natural growth, which were Latin America and the Pacific… precisely where the Germans had set their eyes. So there was a conflict of interests, as Berlin was cherishing the idea of establishing a naval base in the Caribbean that would counter the advantage the Americans were going to obtain when they finished the Panama Canal, as well as pursuing the Spanish territories of Asia and Oceania to add to those it already possessed in the so-called New German Guinea (in addition to the southeast of that island, the archipelagos Solomon and Marshall).
Therefore, the Teutonic chancellery unofficially typified Washington as a possible enemy and acted accordingly. In 1897, the Kaiser ordered a plan to invade the country with the aim not of staying or appropriating it but of weakening it and forcing it to negotiate a disadvantageous reduction of its presence in the Pacific and the rest of America for the benefit of Germany. In reality, all states elaborate projects of this type with respect to potential adversaries and, fortunately, the vast majority end up languishing in an archive. In this case, too, and although in the long run the two powers would end up confronting each other, the plans were never close to being put into practice.
I speak in the plural because, as I said before, there was not one but three plans. The first one was aimed at diminishing US naval power in the Atlantic, so that their navy could not prevent the longed-for establishment of a German base in the Caribbean plus the negotiation of another in the Pacific. The need to locate bases so far away from the metropolis is explained by the fact that coal-fired stations were installed there, allowing ships to refuel after long voyages. The plan was drawn up by Lieutenant Eberhard von Mantey, who at the time was only twenty-eight years old but who would later become vice admiral and, curiously, director of the Navy Archives.
It is believed that for his mission, which was called in key Winter Correspondence , he had the advice and supervision of Alfred von Tirpitz, newly appointed Minister of the Navy, for two reasons. First, Tirpitz knew the enemy well because he had just returned from a trip to the United States. Second, he was the executive arm of shipbuilding policy in a project that was to last until 1902, and he pushed the Kaiser to provide Germany with a modern fleet that would sustain its coveted status as a world power.
In fact, the plan developed by Von Mantey on the brink of 1897-1898 was based on a quick and forceful attack on the enemy Atlantic Fleet by a German squadron, which should knock out its opponent and then bomb the Norfolk and Newport News shipyards (both in Virginia) and Portsmouth (on the Maine/New Hampshire border). The Americans would retain enough power to defend New York but the idea was not to force more confrontations with them but to sit down to negotiate from a strong position.
None of this was put into practice because the number of long-range cruises deemed necessary could not be assembled due to delays in the work in the German yards due to financial difficulties. In addition, in 1898 the Spanish-American War broke out and the Kaiser considered it reasonable to wait to see if Spain was capable of doing the work for him; this was not the case and paradoxically he discovered that the United States occupied the Spanish overseas colonies, from Cuba and Puerto Rico to Guam and the Philippines, further limiting the possibilities of Teutonic expansion in those areas (although he managed to acquire the Marianas).
This situation led to the elaboration of a second plan in the spring of 1899 which replaced the destruction of the shipyards with a land invasion of Boston and New York. The planned confrontation with the US Navy was maintained but then they would land in Cape Cod to march quickly on the mentioned cities in order not to give them time to organize their defense, while the Kaiserliche Marine gunned from land the bastions of Fort Hamilton and Fort Tompkins and entered the New York port.
Moreover, Von Tirpitz commissioned the embassy naval attaché at Washington DC, Lieutenant Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, to recognise the Cape Cod environment to test the feasibility of landing. The corresponding report was negative due to the difficulties offered by the site for a naval artillery coverage, suggesting instead the beach of Manomet Point.
Von Rebeur-Paschwitz also handled surveys conducted by the U.S. Navy that warned that Provincetow and Cape Ann were vulnerable to an hypothetical invasion because they expedited the road to Boston, located just a few dozen kilometers.
But he also warned that the country was on alert, given the international context and the recent war, especially after it was revealed that the Spanish Navy had also handled a plan to attack the east coast. So the attaché recommended that the landings be carried out at two points rather than one, to divide the attention of the defenders. Then, the two columns could converge and march towards the urban targets.
However, despite the fact that this would require about one hundred thousand men and sixty ships that would have to cross the ocean in just twenty-five days, to take advantage of the surprise factor, these dizzying figures were considered insufficient by the Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, given that New York had three million inhabitants; the problem was that Admiral Otto von Diederich claimed not to have ships to transport a greater amount of troops. Added to the objections was William II’s disconcerting proposal that the operation should then be started not from Germany but from Cuba. I say disconcerting because the Germans had no base on the island, which meant they had to conquer the island first.
This led to a third plan in the winter of 1903. This time the one in charge of designing it was the veteran vice admiral Wilhelm von Büchsel, who attending the idea of the Kaiser included a naval base in Culebra (Puerto Rico) but considered it a fundamental condition that there were not any other conflicts in Europe that demanded to divert forces. However, he also pointed out that the United States could no longer be considered a minor power and that their war fleet had greatly shortened the differences with the Kaiserliche Marine, which in turn remained behind the Royal Navy.
On the other hand, the United States showed that it had no qualms about relying on its navy. It did so in the war against Spain and it was also doing so at that time by participating in the international blockade of the ports and coasts of Venezuela, which, along with the British, Germans, Spaniards, Belgians, Dutch, Italians and Mexicans, was carried out to demand the payment of debts contracted with various companies, in a perfect example of what was known as gunboat diplomacy. All these conditions, added to the fact that Great Britain and France signed the Entente Cordiale in 1904, considered a threat by Germany, led the latter to put an end to U.S. invasion plans and to refocus its strategic attention.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on September 30th, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los planes diseñados por el Imperio Alemán entre 1897 y 1903 para invadir Estados Unidos
The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914 (Paul Kennedy, ed)/“Luxury Fleet”. The Imperial German Navy 1888–1918 (Holger H. Herwig)/Imperial Germany, 1890-1918 (Ian Porter e Ian D. Armour)/The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany during the Machine Age, 1870-1918 (Eric Dorn Brose)/A Footnote: Kaiser’s Plan to Invade U.S. (Richard Severo en The New York Times)/The Great German Nation: Origins and Destiny (Craig M. White)/Wikipedia