Imperial German plans for the invasion of the United States
Imperial German plans for the invasion of the United States were ordered by Germany's Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II from 1897 to 1903. Wilhelm II did not intend to conquer the US; he wanted only to reduce the country's influence. His planned invasion was supposed to force the US to bargain from a weak position; to sever its growing economic and political connections in the Pacific, the Caribbean and South America; and to increase Germany's influence in those places.
The first plan was made in the winter of 1897–1898 by Lieutenant Eberhard von Mantey; it mainly targeted American naval bases in Hampton Roads in order to reduce and constrain the US Navy and threaten Washington, D.C.. In March 1899, after significant gains made by the US in the Spanish–American War, the plan was altered to focus on a land invasion of New York City and Boston. In August 1901, Lieutenant Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz spied on the target areas and reported back. A third plan was drawn up in November 1903 by naval staff officer Wilhelm Büchsel, called Operation Plan III (Operationsplan III in German), with minor adjustments made to the amphibious landing locations and immediate tactical goals.
The Imperial German Navy under Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz expanded greatly from 1898 to 1906 but was never large enough to carry out the plans. The German Army under Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, responsible for at least 100,000 troops in the invasion, was certain the proposal would end in defeat. The plans were permanently shelved in 1906 and did not become public until 2002 when they were rediscovered in the German military archive in Freiburg.
Germany was a latecomer in the Empire Race, which was already well under way when the country was unified in 1871. Germany, like almost all Western European states during the late 19th century, wanted the honor and security of having a large colonial empire so it could increase its power and wealth. German foreign policy in that period was intensely nationalistic; it changed from Realpolitik to the more aggressive Weltpolitik in an effort to expand the German Empire.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was jealous of the growing economic influence of the United States over the Pacific and South America. He determined to intervene and replace US with German economic power. He felt that having a major Caribbean naval base in Cuba or Puerto Rico would be the first step in this intervention, and that this would also serve to counter US control of the Panama Canal, then under construction.
Germany's first plan was to attack naval power on the US East Coast and thus gain a free hand to establish a German naval base in the Caribbean, and to negotiate for another in the Pacific. Naval Lieutenant Eberhard von Mantey (later Admiral and a naval historian) was assigned the task of drawing up the plans. Mantey, then 28 years old, began the work in late 1897, working through the winter into 1898. The secret plans were referred to as Mantey's "winter correspondence". Very likely the plan was guided and then approved by Alfred von Tirpitz who was newly appointed Navy Secretary, and who had just returned from a trip through the US. With support from the Kaiser, Tirpitz formed a plan to create a navy worthy of Germany's imperial ambitions, called the Tirpitz Plan. The Kaiser directed a series of naval expansions, collectively called the German Naval Laws, to bring his goal closer to fruition. The Imperial German Navy had already started building powerful new battleships such as the Kaiser Friedrich III class which was to be completed by 1902.
The first German invasion plan of the US called for a great German fleet to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and to engage and defeat the US Navy's Atlantic Fleet in a major battle. German naval artillery attacks would then be directed on the established Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the expanding Newport News Shipbuilding center, and all other naval strength in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Von Mantey called this area the "most sensitive point" of American defenses, the reduction of which would force the US to negotiate. Another attack was to be aimed at the prominent Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at the junction of the states of Maine and New Hampshire. The New York Harbor facilities, von Mantey thought, were too much reinforced by fortifications holding powerful anti-ship guns to be considered a prime target. Once America's most important naval shipyards were reduced, the German naval task forces were to remain in commanding blockade positions while a German negotiating team met with American government officials to wring from them whatever demands were determined appropriate by the Kaiser.
The Kaiser found funding to be difficult for the expensive ships he wished for, and plans were delayed or shelved for the long-range armored cruisers necessary for supporting the fleet in a major engagement. Meanwhile, the Spanish–American War broke out in 1898, with the US in action in the Caribbean and the Pacific. A German flotilla, eight warships in Manila Bay, provoked the US Navy in the Philippines into firing warning shots but no damaging shots. Germany expected the US to be defeated by a guerrilla war in the Philippines and so they backed down from direct hostilities, electing instead to supply the guerrillas. However, by April 1899 the US had gained control of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa and Hawaii in the Pacific, and also Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. A soon-to-be independent Cuba came under American economic influence. German plans for a Caribbean base were obstructed.
In March 1899 when it was clear that the US was about to take control of the hoped-for Caribbean bases of Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Kaiser ordered the invasion plans redrawn by von Mantey. Rather than the reduction of important shipyards, the new plan involved a two-pronged land invasion of New York City and Boston. Some 60 warships and a massive train of 40 to 60 cargo and troopships carrying 75,000 short tons (68,000 t) of coal, 100,000 soldiers and a large amount of army artillery would cross the Atlantic in 25 days. Following a major naval battle to obtain superiority over American surface vessels, German troops were to be landed at Cape Cod and armed with artillery. The ground units were to advance upon Boston and fire into the city. The all-important attack on New York required high speed for success: it would begin with a troop landing on the island of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, while warships worked to reduce the harbor fortifications, especially Fort Hamilton and Fort Tompkins. Next, the warships would advance to shell Manhattan and other areas of New York, hopefully causing American civilians to panic.
In December 1900, the Kaiser decided that Plan II would best be carried out from a base on Cuba rather than sailing from Germany. This surprising development was alarming to his own General Staff as such a base would first need to be taken by force. Admiral Otto von Diederichs reported to the Kaiser that the German Navy was now stronger than the US Navy, so it was up to the army to solve the problem of the land strategy. General Alfred von Schlieffen was doubtful of the whole venture; he reported to the Kaiser that 100,000 troops "would probably be enough" to take Boston, but that many more would be required to take New York, a city of three million. Von Diederichs thought that von Schlieffen was being "very clever" with the Kaiser, offering a seemingly positive answer that was impossible to carry out, as there was not even enough German shipping to carry 100,000 troops and their equipment.
In August 1901, von Tirpitz sent secret orders to Lieutenant Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz (later Vice Admiral), a naval attaché serving at the German embassy in Washington, D.C. Von Rebeur-Paschwitz left Washington to scout out the proposed landing location on Cape Cod, which he found to be unsuitable because it was not within sight of friendly naval artillery support. He recommended shifting the landing to the beach near the lighthouse at Manomet Point. This beach could be supported by German warships standing out from Cape Cod; it also included a nearby hill with a commanding view. The hill was to be taken as quickly as possible because it was seen as useful for army-directed artillery support of the initial stages of the intended troop advance northward toward Boston some 45 miles (72 km) away. Von Rebeur-Paschwitz was already familiar with an up-to-date American defensive report authored by Captain Charles J. Train in mid-1901 as part of Train's duties for the US Navy Board of Inspection and Survey. Train, later made Rear Admiral, had written that Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the northern tip of Cape Cod, was the most vulnerable enemy landing location near Boston, and the short peninsula of Rockport, about 40 miles (64 km) north of Boston, was the second-most vulnerable. Using Train's report as his foundation, Von Rebeur-Paschwitz reported back to Tirpitz his opinion that two attacking forces should be landed at these two points for a pincer approach to Boston, converging from Manomet Point and Rockport. After seeing von Rebeur-Paschwitz's report, von Schlieffen wrote in December 1901 that the inexperience of von Rebeur-Paschwitz in army operations cast serious doubts on his judgement regarding landing troop locations and major attack strategy. The existence of Train's seacoast defense report, said von Schlieffen, was a signal that the US was alarmed about possible enemy invasion in the Boston area. The Americans would likely be better prepared to fight off such an invasion in the near future.
From 1902 to November 1903, naval staff officer Wilhelm Büchsel reworked the plans for Tirpitz, making small changes in tactics. These plans, called Operationsplan III (Operation Plan III), took world politics into consideration, specifying military and political advantages to be obtained by placing a naval base in Culebra, Puerto Rico; a position that could be used to threaten the Panama Canal. During this time, von Mantey wrote in his diary that the "East Coast is the heart of the United States and this is where she is most vulnerable. New York will panic at the prospect of bombardment. By hitting her here we can force America to negotiate."
Büchsel carefully noted that a condition for success in the German invasion of America was the absence of a major conflict in Europe. Another condition was a poor state of American preparedness. Both of these conditions were eroding at the time of Büchsel's authorship of the third plan. The US had been aroused, filled with a new martial spirit after its victory over Spain in 1899. America had immediately begun building battleships, and the balance of sea power was shifting away from the German advantage reported by von Diederichs. The British Royal Navy, the strongest navy in the world, was expanding further, and other countries were planning very heavy dreadnought-type battleships. This put extra pressure on the German Navy which never reached a position of parity with the United Kingdom, nor did it ever expand enough to satisfy the warship and troopship numbers specified by von Mantey and then by Büchsel in the various US invasion plans. The Venezuela Crisis of 1902–1903 showed the world that the US was willing to use its naval strength to force an American viewpoint in world politics; the crisis established President Theodore Roosevelt's Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, setting a precedent for US intervention in South American–European affairs. In April 1904, the balance of power was seriously shifted in Europe with the signing of the Entente Cordiale by Britain and France. This improved diplomatic relationship between the two countries allowed French and British military forces to be shifted elsewhere, usually to the detriment of Wilhelm II's hope for a Kolonialreich—an empire of German influence much like the British Empire and the French colonial empire. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia refused to form a military alliance with Germany so the Kaiser determined that he should focus on strengthening Germany for a possible European conflict rather than an overseas invasion. The US invasion plans were shelved in 1906.
Germany's Die Zeit newspaper first announced the discovery of the invasion plans on 8 May 2002. The plans had been found at the German military archives in Freiburg. Reporter Henning Seitz of Die Zeit wrote that the discovery "proves a continuity between the Kaiserreich and the Third Reich because the Nazis also wanted to risk a final fight for world domination with the United States forty years later." The editorial staff of the American Heritage history magazine wrote a summary of the probable outcome of a notional Imperial German invasion of the US: they felt that the US under Roosevelt would not have accepted defeat or negotiated from a position of weakness. They compared the Kaiser's proposed invasion to the War of 1812 when serious political differences among Americans were set aside following the British burning of Washington in August 1814—an event which finally united the "United" States.
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