As much as the US influence in the modern world is strong, the imperialistic ambitions in the United States at the start of the 20th century were far more modest. The US Army was still more concerned with fighting Native Americans in the still largely unpopulated West and with intervening in conflicts in the Pacific and Caribbean. America itself was enjoying its brief flirtation with traditional empire-building, but the general mood in the nation was one of isolationism and non-intervention right up to the 1898 outbreak of the Spanish-American War.
It was into this milieu that the Germans planned their attack on the United States. In an attempt to gain territory in the Caribbean, Alfred von Tirpitz – the secretary of the German Navy – came up with a daring plan to draw the Americans into a conflict. Using what was presumed to be superior naval power, the Germans would traverse the Atlantic, engage the Americans and subsequently bombard Newport News, Hampton Roads and Norfolk Shipyards in Virginia.
Portsmouth, Maine and parts of New Hampshire were also to be targeted and blockaded in an attempt to force a positive settlement from the Americans. The US expansion into Cuba, the Philippines and Samoa as part of the Spanish-American War put paid to this idea, probably for the best for the Germans. The closest Germany ever got to the Americans was a contretemps in Manila Bay, where warning shots were fired.
The subsequent movement towards Cuba and Puerto Rico by the Americans – the two islands pencilled in as German staging posts – would prompt a second plan, this time with an eye to an invasion. In early 1899, the Kaiser’s new idea was to bomb the shoreline of New Jersey while troops landed at the Sandy Hook peninsula and moved swiftly inland. Meanwhile, German Navy warships would shell Manhattan and induce panic in the New York population, hopefully allowing for the land troops for arrive successfully. Again, this plan was less than well thought out.
Cuba, the ideal place from which to spark such a maneuver, was quickly occupied by the Americans, while Alfred von Schlieffen (later to lend his name to the German’s Belgian invasion plan in World War One) estimated that 100,000 troops would be needed to take Boston and even more to take New York City. It was noted at the time that the entire German shipping fleet would have been incapable of moving such a huge number of soldiers and the necessary equipment. Yet later, a third plan was hatched. An attache from the German embassy in Washington was sent to scout out a potential landing site around Cape Cod, which was to be used as a base from which to attack Boston. It again fell through.
The effects of these plan were minimal at the time, but the potential that they showed would come to some fruition. Germany was confident in itself and knew that expansion was required to fulfil the economic plans of the Imperial Reich. When the idea of invading the United States was shelved in 1906, it was in favour of preparing for a conflict on the European mainland, now increasingly likely after the signing of the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain in 1904.
Britain and France had considered the treaty necessary as a bulwark against the perceived growing power in Germany, particularly as a result of the nascent naval power spearheaded by von Tirpitz. Thus when the First World War began in 1914 (and the United States joined in 1917), it could be seen as the culmination of the conflict planned way back in 1897.