on February 29, 2004
A fascinating story, told in flawless, fast-moving prose. Dodds has done his homework in Germany, in the archives, and at the Supreme Court. He has managed to capture the personalities of the Nazi saboteurs and the feel of World War II in America. Buy and read even if you already know the story, or think you have no interest in it.
In June of 1942, two 4-man teams of Nazi saboteurs exited U-boats onto American beaches in Florida and Long Island, NY. All of the eight had previously spent time in America. Indeed, one had spent twenty years in the U.S., and another, a naturalized American citizen, had spent seventeen since the age of five. Returning to the Third Reich for various reasons, they volunteered to return to the U.S. and sabotage that country's war effort by striking at its aluminum production plants. Each team hit the beach with a supply of explosives and $90,000 cash for expenses. Two weeks later, they were all in FBI custody. All were tried by a military tribunal and found guilty. Six of the eight were quickly executed by electrocution; two were imprisoned for the war's duration and eventually returned to Germany.
A friend of one of the saboteurs, who'd also been offered the chance to join the mission but declined, said:
"In Germany ... everything was rationed. Nobody in his right mind was going to go from a country like that to a country with everything, like America, and start blowing things up. You'd have to be nuts."
That statement just about says it in a nutshell because even though Hoover and his FBI trumpeted their foiling of the plot as the greatest victory for America since Yorktown and the former just about wet his pants in an effort to grab all the credit for (chiefly) himself and his G-men, the eight conspirators resembled more an expanded clone of the Three Stooges, and their fourteen days on the loose were a farce. Glad to be free of Germany's wartime belt tightening, they started spending their cash on food, clothes, drink, women, and, in one case, a new car. A couple of them looked up family members, wives, and former girlfriends. There didn't seem to be any great urgency to get down to the business of "blowing things up". In the meantime, the leader of the Long Island four, George Dasch, was off spilling his guts to the Feds. Though SABOTEURS: THE NAZI RAID ON AMERICA is well written and documented, one wonders why author Michael Dobbs bothered. Perhaps a clue lies in Michael's assertion that:
"One of the lessons of the saboteur affair is that it is very difficult to fight a war and respect legal niceties at the same time."
In the seventy-six pages of the book dealing with the invaders' trial and punishment, Dobbs goes to commendable lengths to describe how the accused were denied the right of habeas corpus, an abridgement not seen since Abraham Lincoln suspended such during the Civil War. Oh, and by the way, the handling of the saboteurs' case by the U.S. government is apparently the legal basis for its trying of al-Qaeda terrorists before military tribunals post-9/11.
SABOTEURS seems less about the abortive "raid" on America than an essay on its legal system when severely stressed - or perceived to be stressed - by outside forces. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is reflected in the statement by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist in a 1999 speech, and which is quoted towards the end of this volume:
"While we would not want to subscribe to the full sweep of the Latin maxim INTER ARMA SILENT LEGIS (In a time of war, the laws are silent), perhaps we can accept the proposition that, though the laws are not silent in wartime, they speak with a muted voice."
on March 21, 2004
The 1942 case of Nazi saboteurs in America is the best World War II story you've never heard. More than just an adventure tale, however, the case has been cited by the current administraton as a precedent for military tribunals of suspected terrorists.
Through this account, we learn that the events of 1942 don't present a clear-cut parallel to our own times. Thoughtful readers with an interest in the constitutional issues of today's anti-terrorism campaign are urged to read this book. Well-researched, well-documented, and very well-written.
on April 20, 2004
Michael Dobbs had written a fast-paced book of intrigue regarding the eight German saboteurs whose ineptness in carrying out "Operation Pastorius" led to their arrests and eventual jail sentences and executions. The comparison between this historical account and today's Al-Qaeda couldn't be more timely.
Dobbs weaves an intricate tale of German plans for the destruction of military and civilian targets in the United States in the spring of 1942. Everything looked good on paper (literally....with the use of invisible ink!) from its inception to the landing of the two U-boats off the coasts of Long Island and Florida. The one weak link happened to be one of the two leaders, George John Dasch, an unstable man who eventually was able to get his cohorts arrested. The author's most impressive offering through much of the book is his ability to get inside the heads of these men....what they were thinking, how and why they acted and especially their interaction with one another. It's a great story to read and is made even more attractive for the simple reality that it all actually took place.
What I found to be the best part of "Saboteurs", however, was the last few chapters. Dobbs covers the miltitary tribunals in pithy detail reserving some of the comedic parts to rivalries between the FBI and other government agencies. What J. Edgar Hoover wouldn't do to enhance his and his bureau's reputation! The culmination, in a sense, led to the defendants' lawyers appearing before the Supreme Court in a last-ditch effort to supercede the war tribunal's very existence as set up by President Roosevelt. One cannot help but compare the situation with that of today....the rivlaries between the CIA and FBI and the friction between the Secretaries of State and Defense. The most fascinating few pages deal with the afterthoughts of some of the Supreme Court justices with regard to the trial and subsequent changes of opinion. One wonders about the parallels of the detainment of these eight men and the hundreds held at Guantanemo today.
It is a fitting addition to "Saboteurs" that Michael Dobbs touches on American opinion about the case at that time and how, after the trial was drawing to a close and Americans found out more and more about the saboteurs, that anti-German sentiment began to build. The feelings of Arab-Americans today must be very much connected with those feelings of German-Americans in 1942. This is a powerful book with timely repercussions.
We have, sadly, come to understand that foreigners will enter our nation with secret plans to make havoc and scare us. It has, of course, happened before. In World War II, people didn't call these agents "terrorists," but "saboteurs." Americans at that time were lucky: the eight saboteurs authorized by Adolph Hitler to come and blow up targets in the United States were bunglers. That does not keep _Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America_ (Knopf) by Michael Dobbs from being entertaining and even suspenseful. It certainly shows how the case was a sensation in its day, and how agencies such as the FBI operated at the time. Surprisingly, judgements made by the Supreme Court in the case of yesterday's saboteurs are being cited in the cases of today's terrorists.
Operation Pastorius was born out of the recognition that American industries were a threat to the fatherland. The saboteurs rounded up for the assignment all had histories qualifying them for it; they were all German-Americans, and one was even a U.S. citizen. They had all lived in the United States, and some had families there. They got sometimes farcical training in bomb-making, invisible inks, and so on, and were transported by U-boat to the U.S. A Coast Guardsman on foot patrol on the beach came across the four who landed at the Hamptons, but his fellow Guardsmen did not believe him. They eventually went to the scene, and even saw the U-boat, but there had been so many false alarms of U-boat sightings, there was little urgency to take them seriously when they reported it. Saboteurs George Dasch and Peter Burger revealed to each other that they were ready to go over to the U.S. side. Dasch called the New York FBI, but they thought it was a crank call. He eventually traveled to Washington, went to the FBI building, and started telling his story. J. Edgar Hoover bombastically grandstanded by claiming credit for the FBI's breaking the case, skipping over the fact that the FBI had come to dead ends until it reluctantly started interviewing Dasch.
It was not long before the eight were rounded up, never having accomplished much besides shopping sprees. President Roosevelt wanted quick trials and quick executions, and a secret military commission was hand-picked to hold the trial. To the dismay of the other officers, the defense counsel took his work seriously and appealed to the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of such a secret military trial. The Court, in a decision known as _Ex Parte Quirin_, allowed the trial to stand, but the decision troubled the justices, who decided that they had to deny habeas corpus to the saboteurs (it was a war effort, after all) and then scurried to find legal pretext to do so. It is a troubling decision, which has become the precedent for the Bush administration to use military tribunals against the Guantanamo captives. The Supreme Court's decision meant for the saboteurs themselves that they were all sentenced to death. The sentences were all carried out, again in secret, except that Dasch and Burger were rewarded with a commutation to life imprisonment, and returned to Germany after the war. This story, grim at some times and at others like a comic opera (on both the Nazi and US sides), is a wonderfully researched exposition of a minor but fascinating incident in American history that is still having repercussions today.
on April 8, 2004
In 1942, two teams of Nazi saboteurs were dropped on the beaches of Long Island, New York and Jacksonville, Florida. The eight men selected had all spent time in the United States (two were naturalized citizens) and were unlikely to raise suspicion. The teams had trained in the use of explosives and other means of sabotage and were outfitted with adequate supplies of explosives to severely damage the industrial war effort in the United States. Fortunately, for the United States, the saboteurs selected, for the most part, were anxious to return to family and friends and resume life in the United States. George Dasch, leader of the New York team, quickly made his way to Washington and began unveiling the plot to the FBI. All eight quickly were arrested. A military tribunal was formed. The eight were tried and convicted. Without appeal, six were executed and the remaining two sentenced to life in prison. Sorry, didn't mean to ruin the end of the book--but, hey, this is history, you ought to know!
What makes Dobbs' book especially timely is the lessons that we should have learned then that continue to haunt us today. The first lesson is related to cooperation among government agencies, or perhaps the lack of cooperation. The FBI, the Coast Guard, and other agencies competed to see who would solve the case. Information was not shared among the agencies and the competition was fierce to solve the case. We should have learned. The second lesson relates to the military tribunals. While the stated purpose of this tribunal was to protect national security, the hidden purpose was to protect the FBI and other agencies from charges of incompetence in their handling of the case. The saboteurs' legal counsel appealed to the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the tribunal. In their ruling "ex parte Quirin" (a ruling cited by the Bush administration in favor of their own military tribunals) the court found the tribunal to be legal (they didn't want to weaken the power of the president during a time of war) but later found that ruling hard to defend. A third lesson is related to the selection of saboteurs. Anytime you select someone for a clandestine mission, their familiarity with the subject of sabotage is both a blessing and a curse. The saboteurs knew the United States well and were able to move about without much detection. They also knew the United States well and wanted to live there again.
I first learned of the Nazi saboteurs when I was in junior high school. Their mug shots and the stories of their landing in the United States was a fascinating, little told story of WWII. I appreciate Michael Dobbs book very much for shedding light on this story. Its one from which we could learn a lot!
on January 19, 2015
This is a thoroughly researched book that tells a daring story. It paints a dark picture of how the US treats people and tries to cover it up (I'm not saying that none of these people deserved to be punished, but they definitely didn't all deserve to die).
on September 15, 2014
Excellent, far better than expected! We had seen the documentary about the saboteurs on television, so we knew the story, as hard as it was to believe. But reading about it is a whole different ballgame. The book is fascinating and very well-written. Amazing story, an excellent read.
on March 7, 2004
There aren't many books describing what life was like on the home front in World War II. Saboteurs gives you a wonderful feeling for what America was like in the months after Pearl Harbor--and the false sense of security, similar in some ways to the months preceeding 9/11. In addition, this is an incredible story: Hogan's heroes crossing the Atlantic in a U-boat, landing in the Hamptons, and taking the morning rush hour train into Manhattan. A great yarn, very well-told.
on April 3, 2005
I'm still not quite sure why I liked this book so much. Let me just say Dobbs does a terrific job (aided by some very detailed sources) of outlining a story that is bizarre, funny, and strangely compelling. It's one of those books where you keep coming across events so strange you have to tell someone about them. Also, it's quite timely, as some of the legislation that came out of the Operation Pastorius trials is currently being used to the hilt by the Bush administration, even though the key Supreme Court justice in those decisions later said he regretted them.
If you like it, I would also recommend "In Harm's Way" by Douglas Stanton, about the Indianapolis disaster. That's more of a horror story than a comedy, but it also is filled with historical ironies and well-delineated characters.