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Dark Invasion, 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America, by Howard Blum, HarperCollins, New York, 2014, $27.99

Dark Invasion, and the forthcoming Warner Brothers movie based on it, explores the first modern war on terror, in which U.S. authorities defended the homeland, especially New York City, against clandestine German attacks prior to the United States’ April 1917 entry into World War I. Author Howard Blum, a noted New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, has already authored such acclaimed nonfiction books as The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and World War II (2001) and The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush (2011). He is a storyteller at heart, as his latest offering bears out.

The narrative here centers on Manhattan police inspector Thomas J. Tunney, head of the NYPD Bomb Squad, who organized early investigations into sabotage incidents and, Blum argues, became the de facto founding director of Homeland Security, as the Secret Service, Bureau of Investigation (precursor of the FBI) and military intelligence of the era were ineffective, as was anti-espionage legislation prior to the contentious federal Espionage Act of 1917.

Viewing neutrality as pure hypocrisy—as the war made America rich while the British naval blockade slowly starved the Germans to death—Germany sought to win the war of attrition by denying the Allies U.S. military supplies by any means necessary, including sabotage. The author profiles German intelligence operatives Franz von Rintelen, the self-described “Dark Invader” who found America “too soft”; Erich Muenter (alias Frank Holt), who bombed the Senate offices at the U.S. Capitol and tried to assassinate financier J.P. Morgan Jr.; Robert Fay, inventor of the rudder bomb; and dock kingpin Paul Koenig, who managed to disable transport ships bound for Europe. Blum tracks each agent’s activities and relates his fate.

According to the author, it was this sabotage activity, in combination with the escalating U-boat attacks and the Zimmerman Telegram, that finally induced President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany. Blum’s storytelling ability is often better than the actual narrative, which reads in places like a historical novel, is overreliant on self-serving autobiographies (notably von Rintelen’s) and hyperbolizes the facts. Still, it remains an entertaining read with undeniable parallels to our present-day national security issues.

—William John Shepherd