21 July 2015
Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: Last Crossing of the Lusitania
The chief librarian at the Berkeley (CA) public library asked me to comment on Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: Last Voyage of the Lusitania (2015) because that book addresses the same general topic as does my own book, Deadly Secret of the Lusitania. It is a serious and important challenge. I greatly admire Erik Larson’s book which I found entertaining, carefully and accurately researched, and historically informative. Like others of Larson’s books, and consistent with his general philosophy, Dead Wake enables readers to relive history by dint of his close attention to mundane detail. A reader learns from Dead Wake in elegant detail how pleasant life was on board the Lusitania and how squalid it was aboard the German submarine that attacked it. But, in addition to coverage of life at sea, its main preoccupation, Dead Wake also covers the activities of all the major actors, including not just the Lusitania’s passengers and the crew of the U-20, but also the troubled German Chancellor, the romantically bemused President of the United States, and the cynical First Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Larson even mentions the big conspiracy theory, still very much alive, according to which the British Admiralty set the Lusitania up for destruction by a German submarine, hoping to draw the United States into Britain’s war with Germany.
All that is quite an accomplishment. Can there be more to say about the Lusitania? I think so. After all, as in any historical event, what mattered most about the Lusitania was not what really happened to it, but what people were led to believe had happened to it. Unfortunately, the beliefs and the truth were discrepant. In a political conspiracy on both sides of the Atlantic, politicians insisted that two torpedoes had struck the Lusitania when they knew perfectly well that only one had struck the ship. The newspapers and fledgling movie industry publicized their deception to the general public. The two torpedoes story was a bald-faced lie intended to avoid a public conversation about whether the Lusitania had secretly carried military munitions in defiance of American law and of the rights and safety of civilian passengers. Once this deceitful propaganda was successfully peddled to the American public in 1915 and 1916, the authorities had set the stage for the deteriorating German/American relations that drew the United States into Europe’s quarrel in 1917.
Unlike Larson’s book, Deadly Secret of the Lusitania is about the political cover-up of the truth about the Lusitania in the United States of America in the aftermath of the sinking. The cover-up was the first step in bringing the United States out of neutrality and into the First World War. Americans really did not want to enter Europe’s bloody war in 1915. At that time, the United States had not yet developed the permanent war economy and national security state that prompt and promote endless warfare. Back then, Americans still remembered George Washington’s farewell advice to his countrymen. “Stay out of entangling alliances.” For this reason, isolationism was still the country’s default foreign policy in 1915. What is more, as Deadly Secret of the Lusitania relives it, the American population in 1915 included many German, Irish, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants who, for various reasons of their own, sided with the Central Powers and against the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain. Finally, socialist opposition to the Great War in Europe was stronger in 1915 than it ever was after 1940, and more firmly against war in the United States than it was in Europe.
Deadly Secret of the Lusitania tells the story of the political cover-up through the fictional adventures of an insurance investigator and his German American fiancée. The couple resided in New York City, not far from the Lusitania’s berth. Intending only to help a stevedore’s widow receive a life insurance benefit of which she had been unjustly cheated, the couple find themselves in possession of solid evidence that the Lusitania’s cargo had secretly contained 217,000 pounds of high explosives intended for the British military. This evidence brings down upon their naïve heads British and German spies, the newly formed FBI, a rogue socialist, the Irish Republican Army, waterfront racketeers, and New York’s Tammany Hall politicians. Some of these agents want to suppress the secret evidence that the couple controls, but others want to broadcast it for their own political and economic advantage. The amorous couple is trapped in the middle of their dogfight. The novel then unfolds as a historical spy thriller in the context of violent clashes between rival teams of pro-war and anti-war agents.
The events depicted in Deadly Secret of the Lusitania illustrate a famous American proverb. “Truth is the first casualty of war.” The proverb was apt in 1915 because lies about the Lusitania justified the entry of the United States into the Great War. Because that proverb is just as apt today, the past comes to shocking life in the pages of this historical novel. In the aftermath of the bogus Tonkin Gulf incident that justified the Vietnam War, and the bogus “weapons of mass destruction” that justified the invasion of Iraq, Americans really need to relearn to the ancestral wisdom of the nation’s founders.