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Fiction: 'The Conquest of America' by Cleveland Moffett

Conquest of America

The purpose of this story is to give an idea of what might happen to America, being defenceless as at present, if she should be attacked, say at the close of the great European war, by a mighty and victorious power like Germany. It is a plea for military preparedness in the United States. (Cleveland Moffett, 1916)

"The Germans are in the streets!"

What followed was still more terrifying. Somewhere at the back of [Madison Square] Garden, a piercing whistle cut the air - evidently a signal - and suddenly we found ourselves facing a ghastly tragedy, and were made to realise the resistless superiority of a small body of disciplined troops over a disorganised multitude.

"Fertig! Los! Hup!" shouted a loud voice (it was a man with a megaphone) in the first gallery opposite the platform. Every face in that tremendous throng turned at once in the direction of the stranger's voice. And before the immense audience knew what was happening, five hundred German soldiers, armed with pistols and repeating rifles, had sprung to life, alert and formidable, at vantage-points all over the Garden. Two hundred, with weapons ready, guarded the platform and the Committee of Public Safety. And, in little groups of threes and fives, back to back, around the iron columns that rose through the galleries, stood three hundred more with flashing barrels levelled at the crowds.

I counted fifteen of these dominating groups of soldiers in the northern half of the lower gallery, and it was the same in the southern half and the same on both sides of the upper gallery, which made sixty armed groups in sixty strategic positions. There was nothing for the crowd to do but yield.

"Pass out, everybody!" screamed the megaphone man. "We fire at the first disorder."

"Out, everybody!" roared the soldiers. "We fire at the first disorder."

As if to emphasise this, an automatic pistol crackled at the far end of the Garden, and frantic crowds pushed for the doors in abject terror. There was no thought of resistance.

"Use all the exits," yelled the megaphone man; and the order was passed on by the soldiers from group to group. And presently there rolled out into the streets and avenues through the thirty great doors and down the six outside stairways that zigzag across the building such streams of white-faced, staggering, fainting humanity as never had been seen on Manhattan Island.

I was driven out with the others (except the Committee of Public Safety), and was happy to find myself with a whole skin in Twenty-sixth Street opposite the Manhattan Club. As I passed a group of German soldiers near the door, I observed that they wore grey uniforms. I wondered at this until I saw overcoats at their feet, and realised that they had entered the Garden like spies with the audience of citizens, their uniforms and weapons being concealed under ordinary outer garments, which they had thrown off at the word of command.

We stumbled into the street, and were driven roughly by other German soldiers toward the open space of Madison Square. We fled over red and slippery pavements, strewn with the bodies of dead and wounded policemen and civilians - the hideous harvest of the machine-guns. At the corner of Madison Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street I saw an immense coal-carrying motor-truck with plates of iron covering its four sides, and through loopholes in the plates I saw murderous muzzles protruding.

It appears that shortly after midnight, at the height of the debate, four of these armoured cars came lumbering toward the Garden from west and east, north and south; and, as they neared the four corners of the immense yellow building, without warning they opened fire upon the police, which meant inevitably upon the crowd also. In each truck were a dozen soldiers and six machine-guns, each one capable of firing six hundred shots a minute. There was no chance for resistance, and within a quarter of an hour the streets surrounding the Garden were a shambles. On Madison Avenue, just in front of the main entrance, I saw bodies lying three deep, many of them hideously mutilated by the explosive effects of these bullets at short range. As I stepped across the curb in front of the S.P.C.A. building, I cried out in horror; for there on the sidewalk lay a young mother... But why describe the horror of that scene?

With difficulty I succeeded in hiring a taxicab and set out to find General Wood or some officer of his staff from whom I might get an understanding of these tragic events. Who were those German soldiers at the Garden? Where did they come from? Were they German-Americans?

It was four o'clock in the morning before I located General Wood at the plaza of the Queensborough Bridge, where he was overseeing the placing of some artillery pieces. He was too busy to talk to me, but from one of his aides I learned that the soldiers at the Madison Square Garden were not German-Americans and were not von Hindenburg's men, but were part of that invisible army of German spies that invariably precedes the invading forces of the Kaiser. Arriving a few hundred at a time for a period of more than three years, 50,000 of these German spies, fully armed and equipped, now held New York at their mercy. More than that, they had in their actual physical possession the men who owned half the wealth of the nation. That New York would capitulate was a foregone conclusion.

After cabling this news, I went back to my hotel, the old Brevoort, for a snatch of sleep; and at half-past eight I was out in the streets again. The first thing that caught my eye was a black-lettered proclamation - posted by German spies, no doubt - over Henri's barber shop, and signed by General von Hindenburg, announcing the capitulation of New York City. The inhabitants were informed that they had nothing to fear. Their lives and property would be protected, and they would find the Germans just and generous in all their dealings. Food and supplies would be paid for at the market price, and citizens would be recompensed for all services rendered. The activities of New York would go on as usual, and there would be no immediate occupation of Manhattan Island by German troops. All orders from the conquering army in Brooklyn must be implicitly obeyed, under penalty of bombardment.

I could scarcely believe my eyes. New York City had capitulated! I asked a man beside me—an agitated citizen in an orange tie - whether this could be true. He said it was - all the morning papers confirmed it. The immense pressure from Wall Street upon Washington, owing to the hold-up of multimillionaires, had resulted in orders from the President that the city surrender and that General Wood's forces withdraw to New Jersey.

"What about John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan and the other hostages?" I asked.

"The Sun says they have been taken over to Brooklyn where the German army is, and they've got to raise a billion dollars in gold."

"A billion dollars in gold!"

"Sure; as an indemnity for New York City. You'll notice we could have bought a few defences for that billion," sniffed the angry citizen.

Things moved rapidly after this. All the shipping in waters about the island metropolis, including ferry-boats, launches, pilot-boats, everything that floated, was delivered over to the Germans. The Sandy Hook defences were delivered over, and the rivers and bays were cleared of mines. All motor-cars, supplies of gasolene, firearms, and ammunition in New York City were seized and removed to Brooklyn. The telephone service was taken over by the Germans and operated by them, chiefly for military purposes. The mail service ceased. The newspapers were ordered not to appear—with the exception of the Staats-Zeitung, which became the official organ of the invaders and proceeded to publish editions in English as well as German.

"What will happen if we go ahead and get out the paper in spite of your order?" inquired the city editor of the Evening Journal when a youthful Prussian officer informed him that the paper must not appear.

"Oh, you will be shot and William Randolph Hearst will be shot," said the officer pleasantly.

About noon on the day of capitulation, May 25, 1921, a company of German soldiers with two machine guns, two ammunition carts and a line of motor trucks landed at the Battery and marched quietly up Broadway, then turned into Wall Street and stopped outside the banking house of J. P. Morgan & Co. A captain of hussars in brilliant uniform and wearing an eyeglass went inside with eight of his men and explained politely to the manager that the Germans had arranged with J. P. Morgan personally that they were to receive five million dollars a day in gold on account of the indemnity and, as four days' payment, that is twenty million dollars, were now due, the captain would be obliged if the manager would let him have twenty million dollars in gold immediately. Also a match for his cigarette.

The manager, greatly disturbed, assured the captain that there was not as much money as that in the bank, all the gold in New York having been sent out of the city.

"Ah!" said the officer with a smile. "That will simply put you to the trouble of having it sent back again. You see, we hold the men who own this gold. Besides, I think you can, with an effort, get together this trifling amount."

The manager vowed it was utterly impossible, whereupon the captain motioned to one of his men, who, it turned out, had been for years a trusted employee of J. P. Morgan & Co. and had made himself familiar with every detail of Wall Street affairs. He knew where a reserve store of gold was hidden and the consequence was that half an hour later the German soldiers marched back to the Battery, their motor trucks groaning under the weight of twenty million dollars in double eagles and bullion.

"You see, we need some small change to buy eggs and chickens and vegetables with," laughed the officer. "We are very particular to pay for everything we take."

An hour later the first show of resistance to German authority came when a delegation of staff officers from General von Hindenburg visited the city hall to instruct Mayor McAneny as to the efficient running of the various municipal departments. I had the details of this conference from the mayor's private secretary. The officers announced that there would be no interference with the ordinary life of the city so long as the results were satisfactory. Business must go on as usual. Theatres and places of amusement were to remain open. The city must be gay, just as Berlin was gay in 1915.

On the other hand any disorder or failure to provide for German needs in the matter of food and supplies would be severely dealt with. Every morning there must be delivered at the foot of Fulton Street, Brooklyn, definite quantities of meat, poultry, eggs, butter, vegetables, flour, milk, sugar, fruits, beer, coffee, tea, besides a long and detailed list of army supplies.

"Suppose we cannot get these things?" protested the mayor. "Suppose the train service to New York is cut off by General Wood's army?"

"Hah!" snorted a red-faced colonel of artillery. "There are two and a half million Americans on Manhattan Island - and we'll see that they stay there - who will starve within one week if General Wood cuts off the train service. I don't think he will cut it off, Mr. McAneny."

"Besides, my dear sir," drawled a slender English-looking officer, wearing the iron cross, "if there should be any interference with our food supply, remember that we can destroy your gas and electric lighting plants, we can cripple your transportation system and possibly cut off your water supply with a few well directed shots. Don't forget that, Mr. McAneny."

The trouble began as these German officers walked down Broadway with a small escort of soldiers. Whenever they passed a policeman they required him to salute, in accordance with published orders, but a big Irishman was defiant and the officers stopped to teach him manners. At which a crowd gathered that blocked Broadway and the officers were insulted and jostled and one of them lost his helmet. There was no serious disorder, but the Germans made it a matter of principle and an hour later the Staats Zeitung came out with a special edition announcing that, inasmuch as disrespect had been shown to five German officers by a Broadway crowd, it now became necessary to give the city an object lesson that would, it was hoped, prevent such a regrettable occurrence in the future. That evening five six-inch shells would be fired by German siege guns in Brooklyn at five indicated open spaces in Manhattan, these being chosen to avoid losses of life and property. The first shell would be fired at seven o'clock and would strike in Battery Park; the second at 7.05 and would strike in Union Square; the third at 7.10 and would strike in Madison Square; the fourth at 7.15 and would strike in Stuyvesant Square; the fifth at 7.20 and would strike in Central Park just north of the Plaza.

This announcement was carried out to the letter, the five shells exploding at the exact points and moments indicated, and the people realised with what horrible precision the German artillery-men held Manhattan island at their mercy.

The newspapers also received their object lesson through the action of the Evening Telegram in bringing out an extra announcing the bombardment. My own desk being in the foreign editor's room, I witnessed this grim occurrence. At half-past five a boyish-looking lieutenant sauntered in and asked for the managing editor, who was sitting with his feet on a desk.

"Good-evening," said the German. "You have disobeyed orders in getting out this edition. I am sorry."

The editor stared at him, not understanding. "Well, what's the answer?"

The officer's eyes were sympathetic and his tone friendly. He glanced at his wrist watch. "The answer is that I give you twenty minutes to telephone your family, then I'm going to take you up on the roof and have you shot. I am sorry."

Twenty minutes later they stood up this incredulous editor behind the illuminated owls that blinked down solemnly upon the turmoil of Herald Square and shot him to death as arranged.


Taken from The Conquest of America: A romance of disaster and victory: USA, 1921 AD Based on extracts from the diary of James E. Langton, War Correspondent of the London Times, by Cleveland Moffett (1916). 

Image credit: USS Akron flying over the southern end of ManhattanNew YorkNew YorkUnited States, circa 1931-1933 (Photo #: NH 43900)