Bomben auf Amerika?

That Liberty Shall Not Perish From The Earth, 1918

John Ptak recently pinned a 1964 science fiction magazine cover depicting a ruined Statue of Liberty, predating the more famous ending of Planet of the Apes by four years. He wondered about earlier images along the same lines, and after a bit of digging I found not many at all. The above is the only example, but it turns out to be relevant to my interests. It's an American propaganda poster dating to 1918, appealing to the viewer to invest in the latest war bond issue. Lady Liberty is ruined all right -- her head and her torch have tumbled down beside her. Behind her New York City is burning, and the flames and their reflection in the harbour dominate the image. The cause of the destruction is presumably the aeroplanes which can be seen on either side of the Statue. A submarine is also sailing past, which may be responsible for the merchant vessels wrecked on Liberty Island.

It's a striking, if lurid, image. I wondered if it was inspired by the fears of aerial bombardment which gripped New York in the summer of 1918, especially given the presence of the submarine. Superficially, the timing seems to fit. The hydroairplane-supersubmarine scare took place in, roughly, the first half of June; the Fourth Liberty Loan was issued in late September but it was announced as early as March. Also, the artist himself, Joseph Pennell, wrote a short book about the poster where he explains the circumstances in which he came up with his vision of 'New York City bombed, shot down, burning, blown up by an enemy':

the idea came into my head on my way back from New York, where I had attended a meeting of the Committee on Public Information, at which the Loan was announced and the posters asked for. I made the sketch on the train, carried it out on transfer paper when I got to Philadelphia, and put it on zino plates, printed it, and went West, and it was not till months after that I heard it had passed both the juries in New York and Washington, and was to be used as one of the posters for the Fourth Loan.1

This was written about two or three months after the June scare (the preface is dated 28 August). So Pennell had the idea at least a couple of months, though probably at least three or more, before then, which could fit. And the fact that he'd actually had his flash of inspiration on his way home from New York is highly suggestive. However, he doesn't actually say what give him the idea, if anything. And probably fatally, it appears that the call for poster designs for the Fourth Liberty Loan was made in May, several weeks before the scare.2 That would seem to rule out any influence, but there is some slight hope from an extension to the deadline to 15 June; perhaps the meeting Pennell attended was in this period, though he seem to suggest it was when the Liberty Loan was first announced. Maybe it was synchronicity.

However, in searching for supporting evidence I found something else relevant to my interests. On 17 June, right at the end of the hydroairplane-supersubmarine scare, the New York Tribune carried the following odd story on its front page:

Hearst Linked With Fear of Zeppelin Raid
Inquiry Reveals Relations of His Employes [sic] With German Embassy
Got Advance News Of Airship's Coming
Posters Announcing Visit of Teuton Dirigible Printed and Stored Away3

The source of the story is claimed to be connected with a US government investigation into 'the pro-German activities' of employees of press magnate William Randolph Hearst:

The Tribune has learned of relations existing between Hearst's 'American' and 'Journal' and the German Embassy before this country entered the war, sufficient to justify the fear that the German might attack America from the air.

Germany, according to evidence in hand, and this was obtained from former employes [sic] in the Hearst organization, planned to send a Zeppelin to the United States in July or August, two years ago, shortly after the U-boat merchantman Deutschland steamed up the Chesapeake in the early morning of July 9, 1916.4

It is further claimed that so confident was the Hearst press of this information, that it ordered thousands of posters in red and black, some up to six feet by nine feet in size, reading 'in substance':

Read the New York American
and the
Evening Journal
for complete accounts
of the Landing of
the Zeppelin.5

So far, so ominous. But on closer inspection it turns out to be a bit of a beat-up. The Zeppelin supposedly expected in 1916 would have brought not bombs but 'drugs and dyestuffs, as the Deutschland did, and return with war supplies, thus repeating in the air the achievement of the Hun undersea merchantman'.6 The threat was only implied: in the same way that the Deutschland's 1916 visit presaged the U-boat ravages off the Eastern seaboard in 1918, the merchant Zeppelin would have shown 'the feasibility of air raids on New York City and other places in this country similar to those made by the Germans on London and other English cities':

And following the sinking of ships here after the arrival in these waters a few days ago of the U-boats military and naval officials looked for a possible raid from the heavens by German aircraft.

New York City, it was believed, would be the most likely objective, as London had been, because the only value of air raids, even from the viewpoint of the Germans, is to strike terror into the hearts of the citizen population by killing women and children and ending the lives of the sick in hospital cots.7

But even if Hearst's newspapers had advance knowledge of a peaceful Zeppelin visit in 1916, this hardly suggests that they would be complicit in any air raid in 1918. So, if Hearst was 'Linked' with the 'Fear of Zeppelin Raid' it was because the Tribune itself was doing the linking. This isn't the only article attacking Hearst in this issue: other headlines include '"Suffolk News" Bars Hearst Advertising', 'Hearst Has Played German Game, Says Stanley Johnson', 'Hearst Papers Are Denounced in Flag Day Sermon', 'Haworth, N.J., Plans Final Drive Against Hearst Newspapers', and 'New Mexico's Fight On His Publications Alarms W. R. Hearst' -- and that's just on the back page!8 The Tribune was in fact in the middle of a bitter press war with the rival Hearst empire, in which hyperpatriotic accusations of treasonous pro-German sympathies were common tactics, and so it's hard to take this story at face value. Especially since there seems to be no other evidence that Germany even contemplated sending a Zeppelin to America in 1916.

However, it has also been claimed that Germany contemplated sending a Zeppelin to America, this time to bomb it, in 1918, not too long after the hydroairplane-supersubmarine scare and the Hearst-Zeppelin article. In First Blitz, Neil Hanson writes:

On 18 July 1918, Strasser, an intense, brooding man, with a black moustache and goatee beard, presented the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, with a plan to unleash the latest-model Zeppelins not only against London but also against New York City. The vast new Zeppelins, like the multi-engined, 694-foot L70, had the range to cross and re-cross the Atlantic. With each one capable of carrying a 4,000kg bombload, just three of them, Strasser argued, could drop enough high-explosive and incendiary bombs to paralyse New York and deal a devastating blow to American morale. Scheer considered the proposal for twenty-four hours, then returned the plans, annotated with a single word: 'Nein'. Two weeks later Strasser was dead, shot down in the L70 as he staged a futile Zeppelin raid on England, perhaps in an attempt to persuade Scheer to reconsider.9

Hanson's source for this is another secondary account, Aaron Norman's The Great Air War (1968). I'm not familiar with this book, but while it seems generally well-regarded it appears to be unreferenced. So it's hard to know how seriously to take this. If it's true, however, it must be at least possible that word of the June scare had filtered back to Strasser in Germany by the middle of July, suggesting that a visit might be profitable. If that's the case, then the American prophecies of a German air raid might have becoming self-fulfilling.

Image source: Wikimedia.


  1. Ioseph [sic] Pennell's Liberty-Loan Poster: A Text Book for Artists and Amateurs, Governments and Teachers and Printers, with Notes, an Introduction and Essay on the Poster by the Artist, Associate Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, Division of Pictorial Publicity (Philadelphia and London: J. P. Lippincott Company), 18, 9. 

  2. Washington Herald, 10 May 1918, 5

  3. New York Tribune, 17 June 1918, 1

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 14

  9. Neil Hanson, First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918 (London: Doubleday, 2008), 312. 

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3 thoughts on “Bomben auf Amerika?

  1. Martyn Barber

    This poster (and Pennell) is discussed by Max Page in his book 'The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction' (Yale UP 2008) - in fact, it features as the frontispiece.

  2. This post has Zeppelins! Cities reduced to rubble! Menacing German text!* Hotlinks to cult films!
    Why has there only been one (reasonable, useful) reply?**

    *Although sadly lacking Umlauts of any heaviness, or Gothic fonts.
    **But now - Heh, heh, heh...

  3. Post author

    John Ptak pointed me to a May 1917 magazine article (and garish cover) about the aerial threat to New York (Zeppelins more than aeroplanes, though the latter are there too, along with submarines and battlecruisers). So the idea was there well before June 1918 (even excluding H. G. Wells's The War in the Air).

    Martyn:

    Thanks for that! The copy at my uni library is out but I'll look it up.

    JDK:

    I know! I posted it to Twitter and everything.

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