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Black Tom Explosion (wikipedia.org)
60 points by signa11 on Sept 22, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

Quite interesting that this was one of the factors for American entry into WWI. That and the intercepted communications between Germany and Mexico.

America seemed quite isolationist at the time. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a world where they never entered into either World War if they weren't given a good cassus belli.

As I am not American, can anyone fill me in on what the high school kids are taught about their entry into WWI and WWII?

As I am not American, can anyone fill me in on what the high school kids are taught about their entry into WWI and WWII?

Hmm... I've spent a modest amount of time studying WWI and WWII history on my own over the years since school, so it's a little hard for me to disambiguate what I remember from way back then, from things I've learnt more recently. But as best as I can recall, what we were taught in high school was basically:

(main) reason for entering WWI:

• the sinking of the Lusitania

(main) reason for entering WWII:

• the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

I don't think I learned about the Zimmerman telegram in high-school, or even college. I think I learned about that later. And I had never heard of the Black Tom Explosion until today.

The main reason for WWI is usually given as German's unrestricted submarine warfare. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 (note the year!) prompted US complaints, which caused the Germans to make major changes in their submarine warfare rules. In 1917, Germany changed the rules again to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, and this was the casus belli that Wilson cited.

Germany's move to resume unrestricted submarine warfare was a calculated gambit to try to push Britain, and then France, out of the war before the US could join the European theater. As part of this gambit, they tried to enlist Mexico as an ally to distract the US, hence the Zimmerman telegram--which was such a perfect note to enrage the US public that it was actually widely suspected to be a British intelligence plant.

And we did cover all of this in both 7th and 11th grade US history in my school district.

Our HS also covered things in the way you mention (German submarine warfare and espionage and the Zimmerman telegram), for what it's worth.

The reasons for entry into WWII were presented as more complex, having to do with differences of opinion in the US regarding entry and so forth.

For example, although Pearl Harbor was presented as a precipitating event, it wasn't really presented as the thing that led to US entry. The Lend-Lease Act, for example, was presented as a sort of indirect foray or entry path into the war; Pearl Harbor was presented as a last straw or a formal excuse, one that would have been triggered by Germany or Japan in some way or another if it weren't for Pearl Harbor.

There's a long, elaborate background story to the Zimmerman Telegram. It was written by a junior diplomat, signed off on by the foreign minister (who was preoccupied with growing military influence on the Kaiser to reintroduce unrestricted submarine warfare), blown up by British military intelligence led by a dude named "Blinker" Hall, and then didn't really do much about the entry into the war (Barbara Tuchman not withstanding). See The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I by Thomas Boghardt for the whole story.

I was taught the main reason for WWI was the Zimmermann Note[ 0] but wikipedia has a pretty good article on this [1]. I wonder if I were school age now if I'd research teacher comments and ask more questions in school... education and being a teacher really is changing.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_entry_into_World_War_...

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram

We learned about the Zimmerman telegram in high school at my East Coast public school (11th grade Modern World History and 12th grade AP European History).

I think a lot of the WW1 curriculum was focused on Europe and the events leading up to the war, the diplomatic entanglements, the senseless humanitarian disasters, and the impacts it had on the world with the Lost Generation.

edit: meant hearing about the Black Tom Explosion

Same, I am really shocked this was never taught in either setting for me(US based). and wonder what is the rationale behind this but suspect its due to alot of things. It shows an attack on US soil at the most important US city, which damages the statue of liberty(a symbol of the US). I would love to know why this is not in every textbook in America when relating to WW1.

??? The Zimmermann Telegram?

"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part [Boghardt disagrees with this translation, giving a weaker "consent" rather than "understanding"] that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.



WW2 was straightforward— Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and (afterwards) declared war on the US before the US declared war in response. WW1 it’s harder to point to one thing but the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram were taught.

Japan also invaded the phillipines, which was a US territory at the time. FDR was concerned that the American people wouldn't support entering the war if he focused his speech on all the US territories. He specifically mentions Pearl Harbour, since Hawaii was viewed as more apart of the US, also Hawaii had a majority white population.

I'm only really scratching the surface, but the US just never likes saying we're an imperialist nation who's colonies were being invaded by Japan. It's still the argument used to deny statehood (or independence) for Puerto Rico

The sentiment for neutrality in the US was dramatically higher than Americans typically care to remember. Months prior to Pearl Harbor US destroyers in the Atlantic were engaging (and in one case being sunk by German U-boats.) That was considered by many to be a reason to get rid of Roosevelt rather than fight with Germany.

But why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?

Because of the American oil embargo against them (Started on August 1st, 1941. 80% of Japan's oil was imported from the US, and as of December 1941, they had three months worth of supplies left.)

Why was there an oil embargo?

Because FDR wanted them to stop their war in China. (Which started in 1931, by the way.)

Pearl Harbor did not just magically appear out of the blue, with no prior context. In both the precipitating event (Peace talks over aggression in China), and the triggering event (Surprise attack on Pearl Harbour) Japan grossly misjudged FDR's willingness to employ the nuclear option. (Pun intended. And yes, I know that it was Truman who ordered the bomb to be dropped.)

The oil embargo had much more to do with Japan marching into French Indochina. Like you said, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and the US took no action. In 1937, Japan starts invading the rest of China after the Marco Polo bridge incident, and the US still did nothing even after Japanese bombers hit the USS Panay on the Yangtze river. December 1937, Nanjing Massacre, again no direct action from the US. (But plenty of funding to the ROC and supplies being shipped into China through French Indochina, part of the reason why Japan would later occupy this area) The US didn't start limiting oil and scrap iron shipments to Japan until 1940, after supplying a decade of Japanese military adventures. Why 1940? In 1940, Nazi Germany defeats France and the Vichy French government allows Japan to occupy French Indochina. Suddenly, Japan controls the world's main source of rubber, is within striking distance of the Dutch East Indies and its oil supply which the UK needs to hold out against Germany, and has occupied a western colony.

US had declared war on Japan but not Germany. Germany declared war on US a few days later.

My memory of the details is a little fuzzy, but Great Britain played a role in all that as well. As I recall, they had a mutual defense pact of some sort with the US, to the point that they declared war on Japan before the US did, in response to the Pearl Harbor attacks. The US then declared war on Japan shortly afterwards. The Germans apparently saw all of this as "the writing on the wall" and realized that US entry into the war in Europe was inevitable, and so declared war on the US.

Something like that anyway. It's been a while since I read up on all of this.

Japan declared war and invaded Asian British colonies simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor.


OK, I found the bit I was remembering:

The UK actually declared war on Japan nine hours before the U.S. did, partially due to Japanese attacks on Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and partially due to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's promise to declare war "within the hour" of a Japanese attack on the United States.[1]

I had forgotten the part about the attacks on Malaya, etc.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Pearl_Harbor#Afterma...

Hitler had a mutual defense pact with Japan. But he didn’t have to declare war on the US. It was one of his greatest blunders. Had the US not declare war on Germany, or delayed it for a year or two, Germany might have been able to finish off the Russians and cement their control of Europe.

The US returned to isolationism after the war.

I think the powers of the president are the real driver for such intervention. We always have interests on one side more than the other, and they can't resist meddling. FDR flagrantly took sides in WW2 which probably made getting pulled into that war inevitable.

> which probably made getting pulled into that war inevitable

As Japan saw it, the US oil embargo forced Japan to choose between war or a humiliating capitulation to US demands. [1]

The major takeaway is: never force a near-peer to choose between humiliation and war. Aristocrats are insulated from the true cost of war, and will always prefer it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Events_leading_to_the_attack_o...

I thought this was deliberate though. FDR thought entering the war was the right thing to do but knew it wouldn't be liked by the American people. So he provoked Japan to force the US to enter the war.

Jame's Bradley's The China Mirage is a pretty good book on this. FDR didn't want to get into a war with Japan, and in his oil embargoes/financial asset freezes he left loopholes that would allow Japan to continue buying oil while convincing his political base that he was being tough on Japan. The bill was drafted in a way where Japan could submit requests to the state department and treasury to unfreeze enough assets to continue buying oil. However, FDR's assistant secretary of state, Dean Acheson, took a harder line on Japan and when FDR was meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland in August 1941 and Japanese tankers arrived for their preapproved oil shipments, Acheson refused to unfreeze Japanese funds so they could buy the oil and turned FDR's bill into an actual embargo.

The Japanese position was clearly irrational, crazy even.

But nearly 40 years of right wing assassinations and military intriguing since the crushing of Russia in 1904 had created a monster. The entire country believed they were superior to other Asians, deserved to rule them and any one who refused to help were “humiliating” them.

There were Japanese leaders who realized a war with the US was unwinnable (including Yamamoto), but taking that position publicly was suicide.

Yeah, good point.

There are similarly jingoistic contemporary Asian powers that pretend everything offends them. It's dangerous.

Eh, we took over half of Mexico in the 19th century and made the Philippines and Puerto Rico pseudo-colonies a decade or so before WWI. I would say we didn't want to get into continental European wars, perhaps due to capital/business interests vs. being isolationist.

You make it sound like the US woke up one day, became expansionist and sought to conquer the Philippines or Puerto Rico.

The US defeated Spain in a war of Spain's making, and the US then received those territories as a settlement because Spain lost. The US ended colonial dominance of the Philippines and set them free to become an independent nation beginning in 1934.

And Puerto Rico? They persistently seek to remain attached to the US. No wonder: their GDP per capita is double that of Chile and triple that of Mexico or Argentina for contrast. Amusingly, it's even higher than Spain's GDP per capita.

Similarly the US didn't wake up one day and decide to invade Mexico as an expansionist policy. Mexico started a war with the US and lost, some of their territory was ceded because of their mistake in starting that war. Historically it's a bad idea to start wars with vastly more powerful neighbors, it has commonly ended in losing territory.

Despite being a superpower for seven decades, the US has maintained stable borders with its neighbors. It could have spent the last seven decades taking territory in North America, and it has chosen not to behave that way. For example the US fairly splits the Gulf of Mexico with Mexico, politely following reasonable border lines rather than going by who is more powerful; contrast that with what's going on in the South China Sea.

> The US defeated Spain in a war of Spain's making

The Spanish-American War was driven more by the US political intrigue than Spain's. The USS Maine's explosion in Havana harbor (where it had been sent to help protect US interests in the Cuban War of Independence) drove American paranoia about Spanish interference, which led to the US declaring war to deprive Spain of its remaining territories in the Americas.

> The US ended colonial dominance of the Philippines

The US Pacific detachment happened to be near Manila when war broke out, handily destroyed the Spanish fleet there, and then assisted the ongoing Philippine revolt. And then took the Philippines as a colony, suppressing the revolution they had just been supporting not a few months earlier. They only started granting the Philippines its independence in the 1930s.

While American colonization was arguably more benign than other countries, don't kid yourself that it wasn't colonization, and don't kid yourself that it was done in accordance with the wishes of the local populations.

> Similarly the US didn't wake up one day and decide to invade Mexico as an expansionist policy. Mexico started a war with the US

American settlers started squatting in the region of Texas. When Mexico tried to assert its authority over Texas, the region rebelled and formed an independent country, which Mexico objected to but did accept to some degree as a de facto resolution. However, the Republic of Texas tried to claim as much land as it could--ideally as far as the Pacific Ocean, but usually cited as the Rio Grande border. After the US annexed Texas, it took the Rio Grande as the notional border, and moved its troops into the disputed region to provoke Mexico, taking the territory of Alta California as its prize in the ensuing conflict.

Functionally speaking, it's actually not entirely unlike the Russian annexation of the Crimea in modern terms, if the Ukraine were to go to war against Russia's violation of its territory.

> The US defeated Spain in a war of Spain's making

I’m sorry? I thought the spark was the explosion of the USS Maine, which was swiftly blamed on the Spanish despite evidence for this being slim and a public itching to help out Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. The United States really did seem to have expansionist policies at the time.

> Mexico started a war with the US

Because American settlers started living in Mexican land?

Spanish atrocities in Cuba had been a huge issue in the US for at least a decade. The Maine lit the spark, but there was already plenty of fuel for the fire.

One other factor I was taught (as an American) that I don't see mentioned here was the Russian Revolution. The nominally-democratic provisional government allowed the pro-entry camp to frame the war as democracies vs. authoritarian empires, they could pitch US entry as defending democracy.

I was taught about all three (Black Tom, Lusitania and Zimmerman)...and there was a rather large contingent of people that wanted to go to war much sooner, just as there was in WW II, but due to the isolationist culture it was only overcome due to these pretty direct attacks.

Same, I think GP should know that curriculum is varied across the US. In my case it was IL circa '90.

For WWI, the Zimmerman notes were seen as the reason for entry into war in my High School.

This is what was emphasized at my school as well, with the Lusitania getting honorable mention.

This is about 3-4 years ago.

EDIT: One other thing of note is that what is taught will vary state by state, as they each set their own curriculum's. I went to high school in Texas.

12 years ago for me. California

In Canada we are taught that due to their isolationism, the US had a very small role in WW1, with for example, a late entry and fewer combat casualties than Canada despite a much larger population. We are taught about the Zimmerman telegram and the Lusitania being the main triggers.

We are taught that the US remained isolationist after that, being very reluctant to enter WW2 and in the end only joining about 2 years after it "started".

For Commonwealth countries, the war began with Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. For the Czech Republic, it started in 1938. In parts of Asia, the war began even before that, with Japanese aggression. For some countries in the middle east, WW1 never really ended. But we can all agree that the Americans were pretty late to the party and it's weird when you hear them say that "WW2 began toward the end of 1941 with Pearl harbor", at which point much of Europe was already being crushed by the Nazis.

The US viewed the initial years of WW1 as an European war and there was little appetite to become involved in spite of the cultural connections between the US and France and the UK (and Italy and Russia to a lesser extent.) For the reasons cited elsewhere in this thread, the US did declare war in April of 1917 but, starting with a very small full time army, it wasn't until early 1918 that the buildup of US forces was significant. Over 2 million men and women had arrived in France by the summer of 1918. While there were several divisions that fought with the British and Australians most of the US campaigns were in various parts of the French sectors which tend to be, in my opinion, overlooked or minimized by UK historians. Significant actions included the 2nd Battle of the Marne, the Asine Marne campaign to reduce that salient, the reduction of the St.Mihiel salient, and the Muse Argonne offensive in which over 27,000 Americans lost their lives. For having only part of a year in significant combat the US lost a little over 53,000 battle deaths and another >60,000 to disease including a significant number to the Influenza Pandemic.

Some historians argue that the entry of the US into the war and the campaigns the US was involved, often in joint action with the French, in addition to the UK / Commonwealth campaigns of 1918, in served to push the Germans to the point of collapse in 1918 when the general expectation of the allied leadership was that it would take until 1919 to force the Germans out of the territories they occupied.

Growing up in Canada, I was taught that the US entered WW2 well after Canada, and it was inferred that Canada stood up against Hitler before the US.

Then I read about the Canadian Conscription Crisis (WW2)[1] and learned that MacKenzie King was very opposed to going to war and preferred appeasement. His rationale was understandable - it was basically that any war would result in massive upheaval across the world, including Canada, particularly straining English-French relationships (as it did in WW1).

Canada ended up sending a volunteer division early on, comprised almost of entirely of English speakers. The French army ended up being called "Zombies" - trained, but never deployed. The one English division was run ragged - huge amounts of PTSD since they couldn't be relieved (there were no other soldiers to replace them).

Of course, conscription was eventually pursued (after a referendum) and Canada played a very large role in the European theatre. But the first few years were quite the cluster.


Between Dunkirk and Barbarossa Britain stood alone against Germany. Churchill’s “Blood, sweat, toil and tears” speech is a speech from a guy who is losing badly and has no illusions about it. The smart money on both sides of the Atlantic said it was hopeless and only an idiot wouldn’t sue for peace. Despite his many shortcomings, Churchill’s leadership was astonishing.

I would also regard ww1 as a European war in the early stages so no need for the us to enter the war

So would you say that it remained a European war until Canada joined, or until the US joined?

I would include Canada, Australia and New Zealand as part of European was as part of commonwealth and empire

Add to the list the sinking of Lusitania, I think.

So, did you just find that image of the Statue of Liberty on Reddit as well? https://www.reddit.com/r/interestingasfuck/comments/ixjn27/a... one of the top comment chains mentioned this explosion.

More of the story can be found at [0] but no pictures of actual damage. strangely I cannot find pictures of the actual damage but this [1] NY Times article has a close up of the original torch before it was replaced

[0] https://thesocietyforgentlemenexplorers.com/2019/10/when-ger...

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/13/nyregion/stat...

Fun fact: The US declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, for a change, was justified by the sinking of the US ship Marguerite by a submarine whose officer "spoke Austrian"[0]. As the saying goes in my part of Europe, "winners are not judged".

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_declaration_of_w...

There is an infinite amount to learn. Didn’t know we had our own Beruit-like blast (in terms of magnitude, not intent).

The explosion was an act of sabotage? I would have thought it were an event resulting from an act and not itself an act.

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