Mappen on Millman, 'The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice'

Chad Millman
Marc Mappen

Chad Millman. The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2006. 300 pp. $24.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-316-73496-7.

Reviewed by Marc Mappen (New Jersey Historical Commission) Published on H-New-Jersey (January, 2007)

The Big Bang of 1916

This book falls into an obscure but not unworthy literary subgenre: nonfiction books, designed for a popular audience, that touch on New Jersey. Examples of this category include Close to Shore (2001) by Michael Capuzzo, an account of a shark attack in Monmouth County; Blind Faith (1989) by Joe McGinnis, which covers a notorious Garden Sate murder case; Shadow Divers (2004) by Robert Kurson, about recreational divers who come across the wreck of sunken U-Boat off the Jersey coast; and 1776 (2005), by David McCulloch, which traces the military campaigning that culminated in the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

The Detonators, like the above books, is meant to be a page-turner. The focus is the horrendous July 30, 1916 explosion of Black Tom, a railroad and shipping terminal in Jersey City. The catastrophe was the result of deliberate sabotage by German agents who wanted to stop neutral America from shipping munitions to the Allies on the Western Front. Black Tom was only the most damaging of several other attacks around the same time.

This story has been told before, notably in Jules Witcover's 1989 book Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America. What makes Millman's book different from Witcover's is that The Detonators extends the story over the next two and a half decades to examine how Black Tom became part of the deliberations of the Mixed Claim Commission, a body created by Germany and the United States after World War I to handle financial claims stemming from the conflict. American lawyers fought a long battle to get Germany to admit its guilt in the Black Tom case and pay damages.

The slow process of legal deliberations, dragging on year after year, is not necessarily the stuff of pulse-pounding prose, so Millman works diligently to make the story interesting to the reader. He makes much of dramatic turning points, like the discovery in an attic of a secret message written in invisible ink. He adds local color, like a passing mention of the scent of roses outside a court building. Millman must have also decided that he needed to select a sleuth-like hero from among the ranks of the American lawyers to humanize the narrative. He finds such a hero in John J. McCloy, and much of the book is taken up with human interest references to McCloy's rags-to-riches career, his marriage, and his and his wife's struggle with infertility. McCloy makes a useful star because he went on to a distinguished career in foreign policy and finance. Because the number of lawyers, witnesses, saboteurs, and government officials is so vast, Millman provides a helpful section with brief biographies for all the principals, and even an organization chart of the German sabotage ring.

The publisher's dust jacket copy is somewhat hyperbolic. The book's narrative falls short of "the pace of a legal thriller," since the reader knows from the start the wartime German government was guilty. So John Grisham need not worry. And the subtitle about the "secret plot to destroy America" is also somewhat overblown, since the object of the saboteurs was simply to stop munitions shipments. But those quibbles aside, Millman succeeds in using respectable scholarship to produce a solid history-as-entertainment book for an audience of non-specialists. The Detonators is a good read, and will have a special appeal to that small but enthusiastic audience of readers who enjoy history books that touch on the Garden State.

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Citation: Marc Mappen. Review of Millman, Chad, The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice. H-New-Jersey, H-Net Reviews. January, 2007. URL:

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