Plots to Destroy America, From British Redcoats to Al Qaeda


130 years after Cockburn's raid on Washington, Japanese technical major Teiji Takada plotted the destruction of the continental United States. By late 1944, the Japanese home islands suffered from devastating U.S. air raids. As Takada recalled, "Trembling with fear of the raging fire, we desired to make use of the fire hoping its violence [would] be fully displayed in the enemy country."

How could Japan propel trembling fire 5,000 miles away to the United States? The answer lay with mulberry paper and potato flour. Japanese scientists had recently discovered "rivers of fast moving air" blowing easterly across the Pacific at 30,000 feet, which would later be called jet streams. Japanese high school girls glued mulberry paper together into balloons capable of carrying a 33-pound bomb. Filled with hydrogen, the balloons were designed to fly across the Pacific, and spark great forest fires in the United States, inducing panic and drawing manpower away from the U.S. war effort.

The first balloon was released in November 1944. Takada watched the device drift out across the ocean: "the balloon was visible only for several minutes following its release until it faded away as a spot in the blue sky like a daytime star." About 9,000 balloons were eventually launched, with perhaps 1,000 reaching North America. They landed across the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, from Nevada to Michigan. But the military impact was negligible. The only casualties were five children and a minster's wife, killed in Oregon during a church group picnic, when they tried to pull one of the balloon bombs from a tree.


In March 1942, Life magazine imagined a pincer movement invasion of the United States by Germany, Italy, and Japan, but none of the Axis powers had serious plans for such an assault. LIFE.

The balloons might seem like a primitive technology, but they were the first intercontinental weapons in history, and they symbolized a new phase in plots against America: the age of missiles from 1941 to 1989. Here, enemies planned to destroy the United States by firing projectiles at the continental United States, often from great distances.

In World War II, the threat didn't simply come from Japan. Nazi Germany developed the Amerika Bomber, which was a long-range aircraft designed to strike the United States from bases in the Azores--possibly with an atomic bomb--as well as winged rockets like the Amerika-Rakete, an early ICBM.

The Germans envisaged suicide attacks, with planes crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers. According to Germany's armaments minister, Albert Speer, Hitler fantasized about "how the skyscrapers would be transformed into gigantic, burning torches; how they collapsed onto one another, and how the glow of the bursting city brightened the dark sky." All of these Nazi projects were abandoned before they got much further than the prototype stage.

As technology evolved, balloons gave way to nuclear missiles. Stalin mobilized the slave labor of the Gulag archipelago in a crash program to build the Soviet Bomb, which was successfully tested in 1949.

In the age of missiles, the Soviet Union could conceivably devastate the United States in a matter of hours, with no defense. But nuclear deterrence made such a strike suicidal and induced a wary peace.

With the end of the Cold War, the age of missiles came to an end. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the immediate concern was the safeguarding of its nuclear stockpiles. The danger was no longer Russia's strength, but its weakness.


"Very helpful...when he talks to you he'll be smiling," was one classmate's description of this 1986 graduate from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed followed an unusual post-graduation career trajectory, traveling to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and becoming one of the world's most prominent terrorist entrepreneurs.

Radicalized by his experience in Afghanistan, where he developed contacts with a network of jihadists, including Al Qaeda, Mohammed came to despise the United States for its support of Israel. He may also have seen the United States as a debauched society--although there were few signs of this when he lived in North Carolina. By the late 1990s, Mohammed was involved in a wide variety of terrorist plots, from car bombings to assassination.

Like the British in 1814 and the Japanese in 1944, Al Qaeda faced the strategic challenge of striking at the American homeland. The British had utilized their naval assets by raiding the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Japanese had bypassed the oceans with balloon bombs. Al Qaeda's answer was to employ the resources within Fortress America by hijacking American planes. The terrorists didn't need to transport weapons across the oceans: the weapons were already here. At 7.59 a.m., on September 11, 2001, American Airlines flight 11 departed from Boston, the first of four aircraft to be hijacked that morning. Three hours later, nearly 3,000 Americans were dead.

The 9/11 attacks symbolized the age of viruses, or the third era of plots against America. Viruses evade a body's immune response, penetrate a host cell, replicate using a cell's own machinery, and finally destroy the cell. U.S. enemies planned to attack like viruses, with small-scale operations that assembled within the host, and turned America's capabilities against itself.


Damage from the 1916 Black Tom explosion. Courtesy of Liberty State Park.

Terrorists are not the only actors to strike like viruses. An early state-sponsored attack came in 1916, when German saboteurs exploded a munitions stockpile on Black Tom Island in New York harbor. The United States had not yet entered World War I, but the weapons were destined for Germany's adversary, Britain. The explosion sounded like an earthquake and awoke people as far away as Maryland. Fragments from the explosion lodged in the arm of the Statue of Liberty, permanently closing it to tourists. Half-a dozen people were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1953, Germany agreed to pay $50 million in compensation for the attack, with the final payment coming in 1979.

Another type of virus strike is a cyber-attack, often originating from the state, criminal networks, or individual hackers in Russia or China. One of the most common cyber-attacks is spying by one business on another, with the objective of stealing research and product information--which can erode America's edge in technology and innovation.

Virus attacks rarely threaten the basic security of the United States. But they are also harder to defend against or deter. And they can be cheap and cost effective: Al Qaeda spent $500,000 to kill nearly 3,000 Americans.


One can hardly imagine three more different men than George Cockburn, Teiji Takada, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yet the English baronet, the Japanese engineer, and the Kuwaiti terrorist all struggled with the same strategic dilemma: How can the United States be destroyed? They assailed America with invading armies, missiles, and viruses--all without decisive success.

America's enemies failed to pursue the one strategy that might have worked: sowing discord. Back in the 1860s, adversaries had a golden opportunity to destroy the United States by aiding the South in the Civil War. The French leader Napoleon III favored backing the Confederate cause. But he wouldn't act without British support. London refused to intervene until the Confederacy won a decisive victory--which never came.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked: "Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!...If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher."

Perhaps Lincoln was right. Foreigners cannot destroy the American project. Only Americans can do that.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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