When the Lusitania sank off the coast of southern Ireland, far more than 1,200 passengers and crew members became casualties of the German submarine attack on the British liner. So did the political career of America’s Secretary of State, any notions of inviolable neutrals in wartime, truth in the face of propaganda—and, ultimately, any chance that the U.S. could stay out of the conflict raging in Europe.
Unlike another ocean liner that had experienced a comparable loss of life three years before, the Lusitania has not formed the backdrop of any blockbuster films, let alone British TV costume dramas or Broadway musicals. Nor, contrary to misimpressions conveyed over the years, did it immediately lead the United States (which protested vehemently over the loss of 128 of its citizens aboaed) to declare war.
But, again unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania sinking did lead to outcries over human-rights violations, and did form part of a campaign that convinced Americans that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany represented an outlaw state that was threatening international order and peace.
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, American public opinion still overwhelmingly favored staying out of the conflict—a not entirely surprising result, considering that one in seven Americans traced their ancestry to one of the countries involved. But more than the reluctance of certain immigrant groups tilted toward neutrality: Americans still heeded George Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address to avoid “permanent alliances.” Feeling ran strongly in the United States against involvement in Europe’s ancient quarrels.
In his new bestselling history of the attack, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson stresses the notion of contingency in this fateful event. If only Captain William Turner had received submarine warnings that had been sent to him; if only he had followed the recommended protocol then in place for British vessels that found themselves in harm’s way; if only a thick fog off the Irish Coast hadn’t lifted that day…
But I've come to the conclusion that all of this was immaterial given the supercharged atmosphere prevalent at the time, one that not only assured that the belligerents would test non-combatants in a way they never had been before. The technology and conditions of war had become 20th century, but public expectations that civilians could stay unharmed--especially when the British Navy was maintaining a blockade that could starve Germany--might have been back from the Crimean War. The Literary Digest neatly summarized the prevailing wisdom after the attack: “Condemnation of the act seems to be limited only by the restrictions of the English language.”
To me writing this post in a 21st century dominated by a 24/7 news cycle, the most astonishing aspect of the crisis was how long it took for the U.S. government to react. When Woodrow Wilson heard the news about the sinking, he was so upset that he slipped away from the Secret Service and walked the streets of the capital by himself—where, amazingly, he was left alone.
It would be another three days (during which the President did not consult with his Cabinet) before Wilson could sort out his thoughts enough to speak, and even then he might have wished he could have walked back what he said. In an address to naturalized citizens at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, Wilson only alluded to the crisis in the most high-flown terms:
“The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”
One person who was having none of that was Theodore Roosevelt. The leader of the charge up San Juan Hill, having suffered a bitter loss to Wilson in the Presidential race three years before, still hankered for glory—if not on the battlefield, then in the Oval Office. No longer in the White House, he felt no compunction in criticizing its current occupant.
The sinking, TR said in a statement the day after, was “piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced….It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity but to our own national self-respect.”
As John Milton Cooper, a historian of the Progressive Era, has noted, the war—and especially the Lusitania—provided Roosevelt a “chance to cast off restraints.” He would argue ceaselessly for American intervention, and when that didn’t materialize immediately, beat the drums for a monthlong “preparedness” camp to train civilians for military duty.
Privately, to his son Archie, Roosevelt derided Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan as “abject creatures” who “won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it.” In fact, though, significant differences between the two were developing that would, in the end, be unbridgeable.
In recognition of Bryan’s role as kingmaker at the 1912 Democratic convention, Wilson had named him to lead the State Department. Two years into the administration, it was clear that the two were little suited to each other, with the two men's basic agreement on a moralistic foreign policy being more than outweighed by Wilson's contempt for Bryan as an intellectual lightweight.
But it was the Lusitania crisis that exposed a policy difference which finally drove them apart. Wilson may have told Americans, immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, that they needed to be "neutral in fact as well as in name," but in practice Bryan was far more likely to back this principle.
Wilson sent a note affirming the right of neutrals to sail on the high seas and protesting to the German government about their violation of this in the case of the Lusitania. He would not, however, agree to Bryan’s suggestions that the President send a similar message to Great Britain and urge the American people not to travel on Allied ships. The Secretary of State, who could not get the President to see that modern technology had eroded the ability to protect neutrals, signed the note for the President, but with the gravest of reservations, believing it would unnecessarily provoke Germany.
A second, more strongly worded note from Wilson, demanding an end to German submarine warfare, led Bryan to resign on June 9, 1915--who, though lamenting the loss of life on the liner, could not see that it was worse than the British blockage starving hundreds of thousands of Germans to death in a blockade.
It was an extraordinary moment in American diplomatic history—only one of two times in the 20th century when a Secretary of State resigned in protest over a specific act or policy. (The second time did not occur until 65 years later, when Jimmy Carter’s dispatch of a hostage rescue mission into Iran prompted Cyrus Vance to act similarly.) Wilson ignored Bryan’s offer of assistance in any capacity when war broke out two years later, and the politician who had been the Democratic nominee for President three times would never again run for, let alone hold, public office again.
Before he left, however, Bryan put his finger on the matter that has been the focus of debate on the Lusitania in the years since: what about the presence of munitions aboard the Cunard liner? He bemoaned the loss of life, but thought that Germany was within its rights to sink the liner to prevent contraband from reaching the Allies. Moreover, he did not see how, as the President stated baldly, “England’s violation of neutral rights is different from Germany’s violation of the rights of humanity.”
The Lusitania had been carrying small-arms munitions for the British Army in Flanders. Almost immediately, however, speculation ran rampant that even more arms, surreptitiously placed, had been aboard the ship. What fed the suspicion was 1) a second explosion heard by many survivors, and 2) the enormously rapid (18 minutes) time it took for the ship to sink. (By comparison, the Titanic went down in almost three hours.) These additional arms, the theory ran, were high explosives, and if their presence could be proven, they would indict the British government for concealing the fact from civilians.
Famed maritime explorer and diver Robert Ballard, while acknowledging that the area surrounding the wreck had been tempered with over the years, concluded that it was most likely clouds of coal dust mixed with oxygen that created the second explosion.
But the controversy is unlikely to rest there. The possibility exists, for instance, that it was the Germans, not the British, who were responsible for the second explosion, in the form of a second torpedo launched by the U-boat commander, Walther von Schwieger. A denial of an ordered second torpedo in his diary long served to dismiss the notion out of hand. However, that was not the original version of the diary but a retyped one, and the German government would certainly find it within its interest to discredit any notion of their own callousness by falsifying the evidence.
But the chance that it was Britain’s responsibility for the catastrophe, at least in some measure, cannot be ruled out. There was, for instance, the message sent three months before by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany….For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better, and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.” There is also the curious decision of the Admiralty not to provide Lusitania with an escort when it came closest to the war zone.
Last year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported on consternation within the Foreign Office in 1982 at the thought that a salvage mission could expose divers to unexploded munitions and explosives still present in the murky waters around the Lusitania. Moreover, the head of its North American office worried that, 70 years after the event, descendants of the North American victims could still sue the British government by showing that German fears about extensive munitions were well-founded.
A war declaration by Congress after all of that was a mere formality.
Much, but by no means all, of the outrage expressed over the Lusitania’s sinking would have been mitigated by any such discovery. The following passage from an editorial in Scientific American about the sinking would not have had to be changed by a single word, even if the persistent conspiracy theories about The Lusitania could be proved:
“This is the first instance in the history of mankind where a regular transatlantic liner, filled with civilians of many nationalities, has been deliberately sunk on the high seas, and this act was committed, not after allowing innocent women and children to escape in lifeboats, but wantonly and wickedly without allowing the victims of the weapon of destruction any chance for their lives.”
For the change in relations with America, the German government had, in the end, nobody but themselves to blame. Diana Preston, author of Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy and A Higher Form of Killing, notes that the attack was just one event over the course of six weeks in which Germany violated the conventions of warfare and international law. Two months before, it had unleashed poison gas at French and Canadian positions near Ypres. Then, at the end of May, it chose to rain destruction not from the ground or the depth of the sea, but from the air, in the form of a zeppelin that dropped explosives and aerial bombs on London.
While initially disposed to be conciliatory toward the United States, Kaiser Wilhelm was soon heeding the advice of his military advisers that sterner measures were called for. Thus ensued months of espionage, sabotage, and even planned assassinations on American soil. By the time British intelligence had intercepted and translated the Zimmermann telegram guaranteeing Mexico Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if it joined Germany and Japan in an invasion against the U.S., the American public had had enough.
A war declaration by Congress after all of that was a mere formality.