The Red Scare of the 1950s. The Japanese invasion panic of WWII. Fears of ISIS troops running amuck in our major cities… the US has long been a country worried that someone’s gonna invade it. Aliens, Commies, North Korea, you name it. Someone, somewhere, has fantasized about America being dominated by it.
The most ironic part of all this is how unlikely it actually is. A massive nation bordered by allies to the north and south, the US is almost comically difficult to attack. In WWII the Nazis didn’t even try. The Imperial Japanese occupied a measly handful of Alaskan islands. The last time an enemy nation directly carried out a successful invasion was when the British burned down the White House in the war of 1812, and even they were eventually repulsed.
But that hasn’t stopped other powers from dreaming of marching troops over American soil. Some of the following plans were deadly serious. Some were mere fleeting ideas. One or two even actually succeeded. Terrified at the thought of the US being invaded? The following suggest you needn’t worry.
10. The Kaiser’s Crazy Pre-WWI Invasion Plan
What do you picture when you hear the words “Kaiser”, “America”, and “war” in a sentence? We’re betting it’s 1917 and images of US troops poring onto the battlefields of France as Woodrow Wilson sits in the White House. If the Kaiser had had his way, you’d be imagining something very different: the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt as president, and Germany launching an insane invasion of the eastern seaboard.
Nearly a decade and a half before WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm II was already planning a gigantic cross-Atlantic war. At the time, the US was backing the construction of the Panama Canal, leading Berlin to worry Germany would be excluded from Pacific trade. The Kaiser had already been toying with an invasion of America since 1897. The new canal seemed the ideal pretext to order the bombardment of Manhattan.
The plan itself was audacious. As German ships shelled Manhattan, sixty troop carriers would land on the Atlantic seaboard with orders to attack. Roosevelt would be forced to sign away the Panama Canal, or watch Washington and Boston burn. Incredibly, the invasion nearly went ahead. The order was about to be given to attack when German chief of staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, vetoed the plans for being completely insane.
9. Canada’s Crazy Post-WWI Invasion Plan
Yep, you read that right. Canada, the country so nice even Denmark thinks it’s soft, once planned to invade the USA. And not at some sane point, like in the aftermath of the War of 1812. This plan was mooted only three years after the countries had fought side-by-side in WWI. Known as Defense Plan No. 1, it was borderline insane.
The rationale for making a plan was, incredibly, Canadian fears the US would invade first if they didn’t. Rather than sitting around waiting to be annexed, Ottawa figured they should attack first. The problem was the US army was clearly better trained, better equipped, and much bigger than the Canadian one. So Lt.-Col. James “Buster” Sutherland Brown drew up an attack plan that avoided having the Canadian army fight at all costs.
Instead, Canadian troops would launch lightning strikes on northern American cities, occupying Maine, destroying Detroit and the Twin Cities, and burning Seattle and Portland. They’d then retreat as the US army mobilized, pausing only to blow up bridges. Once safely back in Canada, they’d scream “look you guys, America is attacking!” and sit back while Britain mobilized the Empire’s troops to save them.
Not surprisingly, everyone thought this was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard. Buster’s successor ordered all copies of the crazy plan burned.
8. The Nazi Plan to Bomb New York
For about half a century, successive German regimes were fixated on bombing New York City. After the Kaiser’s wacko plan above was shelved, Adolf Hitler took up the mantle. And, boy, was he serious about it. According to Albert Speer, Hitler was obsessed by the idea of New York in flames. From 1937 onwards, at least part of the Nazi war machine was consistently looking for ways of attacking the Empire State.
Their first plan was to develop a long-range bomber that could fly to America and back from occupied France without having to refuel. Known as the “Amerika” aircraft, it would do to NYC what the Blitz did to London. While the Nazis eventually managed to develop planes that could nearly fly 10,000 kilometers on a single tank, they didn’t quite hit the 11,800 kilometers needed to make bombing NYC viable. So they switched to rockets. As V2 rockets crashed down on London, the Nazis began construction of an “Amerika rocket” that would’ve crashed into New York at supersonic speeds, killing hundreds.
The scariest part is how close some of these projects got to completion. The Amerika rocket was almost ready at the war’s end. Had the Nazi state held out just a few months longer, it seems likely that Hitler would’ve realized his dream of seeing Manhattan on fire.
7. Japan’s Plan to Annex Hawaii
The bombing of Pearl Harbor remains one of the biggest losses of American life in a single action. So imagine how much worse it could have been if Japan had followed it up with an invasion of Hawaii. Back in 1941 it was a terrifying possibility. Had one faction of the Japanese Imperial army had their way, it might even have become reality.
The idea came from Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval strategist who orchestrated the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto was convinced the US was significantly stronger than Japan and that a massive, early propaganda victory would be needed to shake American morale. With an invasion of the US mainland out of the question, it stood to reason that Hawaii was the only sensible target. Yamamoto’s plan called for the Japanese to follow up Pearl Harbor with an invasion of the island, securing a quick Japanese victory.
Given the way the US public freaked when Japan occupied a few lumps of rock off the coast of Alaska, it’s fair to say Hawaii being annexed would probably have sent the county nuts. In the end, though, Yamamoto’s superiors disagreed. Pearl Harbor was bombed, but Hawaii itself spared.
6. Pancho Villa’s Successful “Mexican Invasion”
There are very few people who aren’t dead, 19th century Brits who can say they successfully invaded the US and burned an entire town. Pancho Villa is one of those people. A Mexican Revolutionary leader, he started life as America’s golden boy in the huge unrest happening south of the border. But then the government of Woodrow Wilson switched support to his rival, Venustiano Carranza, and threw Villa under the bus. Villa responded by unleashing hell on any American who crossed his path.
First, he managed to kidnap 18 Americans inside Mexico and had them all slaughtered. But his crowning achievement came on March 9, 1916. Followed by a band of 1,500 guerillas, Villa crossed the border onto US soil. His troops surrounded the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. A few hours later, the citizens were dead, and Columbus itself was in flames.
It marked the last time in US history that a town on American soil was laid siege to and destroyed by foreign attackers. The US responded by invading Mexico, supported by Carranza’s government. Although the carnage they caused was enough to dissuade Villa from ever attacking America again, they were unable to capture the rebel leader. Villa wouldn’t be assassinated until 1923.
5. Japan Partially-Occupies Alaska
Although Pancho Villa’s ‘invasion’ of New Mexico would be more dramatic, it was the Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska that really scared the public. That’s because both are part of the island chain that makes up the far-western fringe of Alaska. And while Alaska wasn’t yet a state in 1942, it was an American territory. In the same way that we’d freak out about a hostile force occupying Puerto Rico today, Americans of the time went loopy at Attu and Kiska’s annexation.
After Pearl Harbor, it was probably the biggest psychological blow of the entire war. The public fretted the Japanese army would proceed along the Aleutian chain until they conquered Alaska proper. Only a few months before, the Battle of Los Angeles had seen antiaircraft guns pepper the LA sky when someone thought they saw a Japanese plane, and now the Imperial army was making a real move on America.
Yet nothing like what the press and public feared ever came to pass. Japan had neither the resources or the inclination to occupy the whole of Alaska. In fact, some historians think they only grabbed Attu and Kiska to distract US attention from their attack on Midway Island. Whatever the truth, the occupation only lasted 14 months before the US retook the islands.
4. The Kaiser’s Plan to Have Mexico Invade Texas
Despite his reputation as a fearsome warmonger, Kaiser Wilhelm sometimes seems more like a supervillain from a cruddy Saturday morning kids’ show. He even had a knack for coming up with the sort of easily-defeated plans Skeletor would be embarrassed by. Chief among those was the time he tried to convince Mexico to launch an unprovoked invasion on Texas.
It was January 1917, and the US was a mere four months away from joining WWI. Rather than do everything in his power to keep the Americans out, the Kaiser had foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann telegram the German ambassador to Mexico, instructing him to make Mexico an offer they could almost certainly refuse. With German financial and military backing, the Mexicans would invade America, while also trying to convince the Japanese to join in the war. In return, Mexico would be able to reclaim territory recently taken by Texas.
For a plan that relied a whole lot on Mexico taking arms against the US, it failed to recognize that there were literally no scenarios where Mexico could defeat the American military. On top of this, the British managed to intercept and decode the Zimmerman Telegram and make its contents public. Mexico wisely decided to keep out of the war. The US, meanwhile, decided to join in, achieving the exact opposite of what the Kaiser had hoped for.
3. Britain and France Almost Join the Civil War
In the early days of the Civil War, the Confederacy really believed it could get the European powers on its side. The South was the main exporter of cotton to the continent. European countries, it was believed, would all rather recognize the Confederacy than face a cotton shortage. In the end, Britain and France nearly did join in the war… but not due to any cleverness on the South’s part. Instead, they almost attacked the Union over a badly-bungled Yankee mission to arrest two Confederate diplomats.
At the time, the diplomats were traveling on the British ship Trent to drum up European support for their cause. The North seized the ship, arrested the two Confederate men, and then let the Trent continue on her way. Unfortunately, holding a neutral ship up was in violation of international law. When the British found out, they hit the roof.
London immediately began drawing up plans for war, including an attack from Canada and a bombardment of the Union ships blockading Confederate ports. At the same time, France announced it would back Britain in any conflict with America, raising the insane possibility of the US Civil War spilling over into WWI’s unnecessary prequel.
Ultimately, the Union apologized to Britain and let the arrested men free. The UK and France backed off, and the prospect of a Confederacy with powerful friends never materialized.
2. Japan Successfully Occupies Guam
A small island in the Pacific, Guam was taken from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War and has been classified as an unincorporated US territory ever since. In WWII, it was also the site of Japan’s most successful invasion of American territory. Hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Army seized the island. What followed was a thirty month horror show of rape, forced labor, murder and torture.
The occupation of Guam was the closest the Japanese got to interring American citizens en masse and it shows just how lucky we are that they never got any closer. Chamorros (Guam natives) were beheaded, worked to death, and forced into concentration camps in the heart of the jungle. They were beaten, their women raped, and their children mutilated. Then the American navy attacked to retake the territory, and the shelling killed even more Chamorros.
Eventually, on August 8 1944, US forces succeeded in liberating Guam. It marked the end of Imperial Japan’s hopes of invading and occupying America.
1. The Confederacy Nearly Takes Washington, DC
We mentioned earlier that no enemy nation has successfully invaded the American mainland since the British burned the White House. Depending on how you define a nation, the Brits might have almost had some company. In 1864, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Confederate troops under Jubal Early nearly pulled off an impossible trick. They came within a hair’s width of successfully invading and destroying Washington, DC.
It’s impossible now to imagine how this could’ve affected our perceptions of the war. The destruction of the Federal capital at the hands of Southern rebels would’ve thrown the entire Yankee force into disarray. And it nearly happened by accident. Early just happened to march near Washington at a time when Union defenses were stretched so thin his army could break through. So he rallied his troops, and nearly pulled off the impossible.
We say ‘nearly’ because one factor stood in his way: his men were just too dang tired. After relentless days of marching in the middle of a suffocating heatwave, they simply couldn’t move fast enough. To Early’s dismay, his men weren’t up to the job. Washington was saved.