Book Review: “The Detonators”

There was a time in America’s history when a major complex in New York City was targeted and destroyed by an enemy that most people either didn’t know existed or didn’t understand its motivations. It was a time when that enemy was working to weaponize anthrax to use against the United States. It was a time when small amounts of seemingly harmless liquids could be transported without suspicion, then combined to wreak devastation. It was a time when the American intelligence community, such as it was, was composed of independent agencies apparently more interested in protecting their individual turfs than working together to share information that might help identify and defeat the real enemy. It was a time when that enemy was living and working in the very country it targeted, using forged IDs and laundered money.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course it does, but probably not for the reasons you think. The time in American history described above began in 1916, just prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I. The “unrecognized enemy” was Germany, in the form of a network of spies who were interned in the States while their country waged war in Europe. And the sabotaged facility was the munitions factory on Black Tom Island, located in New York Harbor.

In The Detonators, Chad Millman has written an unusually compelling account of this little-known act of sabotage on American soil, and the two-decades long effort by a few passionate men to properly lay the blame for the act at the feet of Germany.

This is a piece of American history that, frankly, I knew nothing about. World War I has never seemed to have the same historical allure as the sequel, and almost everything that happened prior to World War II seems to have been overshadowed by the Great Depression. But as many are fond of saying, history repeats itself, and those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes.

Besides documenting some uncanny parallels to our post-9/11 world, the book manages to make the real life tedium of international legal wrangling and file scouring interesting. Millman has a gift for narrative, able to deftly insert small tidbits of personality into what would be dry and boring in less-skilled hands.

Make no mistake; this is not a page-turner, nor does it offer any cliff-hanging plot twists. It’s a workmanlike, well-researched account of an incident in our country’s history that would otherwise remain a footnote in a textbook. Millman has breathed new life into that incident and his account will enliven the most scholarly interest in that period of history.

The primary shortcoming of the book is that the author didn’t take the opportunity to address the obvious parallels between that time in history and today’s. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions, and that’s fine — perhaps even preferable if the alternative is to have some revisionist dogma laid out. But one gets the feeling that Millman would have been an objective and informed guide in helping us to place some of the most important events of this century into the historical context of the previous century.

If you’re a fan of American history, this 286-page book, published last month, will probably be right up your alley.

You can learn more about the book and the author here.

Disclosure: A review copy of The Detonators was graciously provided to me by the good folks at the Online Marketing Group of the Hatchette Book Group USA.

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  1. There’s a long pier coming out from the New Jersey shore to the south of the Liberty Island that pretty much marks where the explosion occurred. Far more of a threat to the statue than to Manhattan itself (I suppose if the Flash promo on the website had said Bayonne was nearly destroyed it wouldn’t have been as good a 9/11 paralell). But despite that, the book does sound like interesting reading.

  2. According to the book, when the munitions dump went up, it broke almost every window in Manhattan (and it did damage the Statue of Liberty). Still, it wasn’t devastation on the same scale as 9/11, but there’s very little that can compare to that event anyway from that perspective.

  3. I don’t doubt the explosion was big — while my dad was born in Merkel, he was living in New York when I was born and used to tell me about the explosion when as a kid I would drag him on a trip on the Staten Island Ferry. And I believe there are still pits on the statue from the shrapnel from the explosion. But any blast that did really serious damage to Manhattan, which is about two miles from the blast site, would have taken out Liberty Island, Elllis Island and the east side of Bayonne first.
    Doesn’t make it an uninteresting story — I’ll probably check to see if the book’s available at B&N this weekend — but its just the website does overhype where the main threat from the blast was, in order to more closely tie it in with Sept. 11.

  4. John, not to be spoilerish about the book, but the explosion and fire themselves were a VERY minor part of the book, far out of proportion to the marketing hype.
    And the book is, indeed, available at B&N. They had a stack of ’em on the front display last week.

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