This busy World War I munitions company in Connecticut was too good to be true

From the excellent Why Is This Interesting newsletter comes the story of the Bridgeport Projectile Company, a munitions manufacturer based in Connecticut in 1915 that made artillery shells. With World War I raging in Europe, the company planned to do a brisk business and placed large orders with leading U.S. munitions suppliers. On July 24 of 1915, a German lawyer named Heinrich Albert had his briefcase stolen on the Sixth Avenue El in Manhattan. But this was no ordinary snatch and grab — the thief in this case was a US Secret Service agent named Frank Burke, and the contents of the briefcase, which quickly found their way into the hands of U.S. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, revealed that Bridgeport Projectile wasn’t a defense contractor at all, but rather a secret plot created by the German government. As a written account describes it:

“The plan for the Bridgeport Projectile Company, conceived by Heinrich Albert and Franz von Papen and approved by the German general staff, called for the sheer waste of tens of millions of dollars. Bridgeport Projectile was in business merely to keep America’s leading munitions producers too busy to fill genuine orders for the weapons the French and British so desperately needed. The false-front company had ordered five million pounds of gunpowder and two million shell cases with the intention of simply storing them.”

The Bridgeport Projectile episode has been cited by U.S. policymakers as a cautionary tale, an early example of how foreign direct investment in the United States—that is, non-U.S. entities or individuals buying or investing in U.S. companies—can harm U.S. national security. It helped lead to the creation of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews the national security implications of certain foreign investment transactions through the an interagency body comprised of nine executive branch departments and offices and backed by the U.S. Intelligence Community.

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