Did the Lusitania Propel America into World War 1?
The RMS Lusitania was the world’s largest and faster ocean liner in 1915. It plied a route between New York City and Liverpool. May 7, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of this ship in the Irish Sea. Struck by a torpedo from a German submarine, the passenger liner sank in 18 minutes, causing 1200 civilian casualties. The world rightly condemned this heartless attack on civilians. Americans too were shocked, but they badly wanted to stay out of Europe’s war and elected Woodrow Wilson in 1916 because “he has kept us out of war.”
Nonetheless, reversing earlier reluctance, the United States entered the war against Germany in April, 1917. By all historical accounts, Americans’ shock and anger over the sinking of the Lusitania initiated the process that finally propelled the United States into the First World War in which 135,000 Americans died. These accounts are sort-of correct, but they are also sort-of incorrect, and the incorrect side is what needs airing as we mark the centennial.
The British claimed that two German torpedoes had struck the Lusitania, and President Wilson agreed with them. The Germans claimed that only one torpedo had struck the ship, and the second explosion was internal to the ship. The Germans claimed that the Lusitania was secretly and illegally carrying war materiel, then using the civilian passengers as human shields to deter attack by submarines. On the German view, the submarine’s torpedo ignited the secret cargo of explosives on board the ship, causing the ship to sink so rapidly with such great loss of life. The Titanic took two hours and a half to sink but the Lusitania, a ship of the same size, sank in 18 minutes.
A century later, we know now that only one torpedo was fired. We also know that the British knew it as well at the time and lied. Their second torpedo claim was a bald-faced lie. Something on board the Lusitania exploded in the aftermath of the German torpedo, and that second explosion sank the ship. The British wanted to suppress that truth so they lied. It’s quite likely, although not definitively proven, that secret munitions aboard the Lusitania did explode just as the Germans claimed. It’s certain that the Lusitania was carrying secret military explosives in defiance of American law.
Knowing all this today, we can confirm that the Lusitania was a war crime alright, but it was a British/German co-crime, not just a German crime. The second torpedo propaganda concealed that fact from Americans in 1915. That mattered because if Americans had regarded the Lusitania as a joint British/German war crime, they would have been more reluctant to enter the war in Europe. As a joint British/German war crime, the Lusitania’s terrible fate implied the wisdom of remaining neutral in Europe’s Great War.
So it was not the Lusitania that propelled the United States into the Great War. It was lies about the Lusitania that did so. Of course, the same could be said of Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin in 1965 and Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003. They all point to a sad conclusion. “Truth is the first casualty of war.” Those who will not learn this lesson from history are doomed to repeat it.
Ivan Light is the author of Deadly Secret of the Lusitania (Lost Coast Press, 2015). Visit the book’s website: www.deadlysecretofthelusitania.com