The First World War was a dark and horrible conflict which saw the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians. However, it was not fought by men in the trenches alone. Numerous instances of subterfuge were attempted by both sides in order to help swing the war in their favor. One such ploy was the Great Phenol Plot, which was an attempt to purchase the American supply of phenol so as to preempt its use in British explosive production. The plot was unveiled on August 15th, 1915.
Phenol is a chemical precursor used in organic chemistry. Importantly, it is used in both the production of aspirin and in high explosives. Immediately after WWI began Britain imposed a naval blockade of Germany. Thus, only Britain and her allies were able to engage in large-scale trade with the United States. Before the war, Britain produced most of the phenol used by American manufactures but the start of hostilities meant that British production had to be used almost exclusively for armaments. Thus, American manufacturers like Thomas Edison built phenol plants to supply domestic demand. Germany realized that this phenol could be used to make weapons for Britain, and so looked to cutting the supply off. Germany had numerous agents in the US tasked with sabotaging war production and maintaining popular support for neutrality. One agent, Hugo Schweitzer, was ordered by ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff and Interior Ministry official Heinrich Albert to buy Edison’s excess phenol using money funneled to him by the interior ministry. The phenol would go to the American subsidiary of the German company Bayer to be used in the production of aspirin, which had been disrupted by the lack of the chemical. However, the Secret Service was in the process of investigating Albert for distribution of propaganda and their agents picked up his briefcase when he forgot it on a train on June 24th, 1915. While his activities were not strictly illegal, someone in the Secret Service leaked information of them to the New York World, an anti-German newspaper. The World published the details of the plot on August 15th, forcing Albert to stop funding purchases. Schweitzer was able to secure a new source of funding and continue the operation for a few more months, but he was forced to ease all purchases by the end of the year as funding was pulled.
Although the Phenol Plot was ultimately foiled, it did benefit Germany. Enough phenol to make 4.5 million pounds of explosives was diverted and the plot made a net of two million dollars from sales of phenol. The plot may have harmed American public opinion of Germany to some small extent, but America was already turning against Germany as a result of the sinking of the Lusitania. In the end, though, the attempt to turn American production away from supplying British arms factories was futile, as shipments of weapons and resources to Britain would only grow, especially when it declared war on Germany.