The Lusitania’s Two Conspiracies

The Lusitania sinking, people in the water, illustration

The Lusitania sinking, people in the water

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 linked two conspiracies, one before and one after the event. The pre-sinking conspiracy has attracted most of the attention, but, oddly enough, it is harder to prove than the post-sinking conspiracy. The pre-sinking conspiracy theory alleges that Admiralty Lord, Winston Churchill wanted the Germans to torpedo the passenger liner in order to outrage opinion in the United States and thus to bring the United States into the First World War on the side of the Entente against Germany.

The desire of the British to encourage German submarines to attack neutral shipping is indisputable. Churchill said so in writing although his words, for obvious reasons, were not made public. The only dispute concerns whether the British intentionally fed the Lucy to the German submarine, U-20, in pursuit of his plan. There is plenty of evidence that they did. Of this evidence the most damning is the failure of the British admiralty, which knew the precise location of the U-20, to bring that information to the attention of the Lusitania’s captain, and to dispatch a destroyer to escort the liner to port. It is strange and suggestive as well that, the day before the sinking, King George V asked the American ambassador what would be the reaction in the United States if the Lusitania were sunk by a German submarine.

Of course, the British denied this culpability and continue officially to deny it. Available evidence is circumstantial. Conclusive evidence is still missing. Therefore, I regard the pre-sinking conspiracy as very likely, but unproven.

No such uncertainty attends the post-sinking conspiracy. Broadly speaking, the post-sinking conspiracy was a political cover-up of the known facts about the actual sinking. Every historian agrees that there was a political cover-up of the facts, The core of the cover-up was the claim that two torpedoes struck the Lusitania. The British knew very well that only one torpedo had been fired because they read the German submarine commander’s coded report to his base. Nonetheless, they claimed publicly that the U-20 fired two torpedoes and the Woodrow Wilson administration accepted that claim.

One torpedo or two? It made a huge difference because there had been two explosions one minute apart, and the second was larger than the first. If two torpedoes were fired, then the second explosion was the second torpedo hitting the liner. Conclusion: The Germans bore exclusive responsibility for sinking a civilian liner. If only one torpedo was fired, then something aboard the Lusitania exploded after the torpedo struck. If that were so, public attention would turn to the war materiel that the Lusitania was known to be carrying. If war materiel exploded in the cargo hold, then the Lusitania had been a legitimate military target all along and the British had used the civilian passengers as human shields. In that case, the British bore equal responsibility with the Germans for sinking the Lusitania.

The British did not want to have an open public discussion about the second explosion. It suited them to load all responsibility for this horrifying war crime upon the Germans.

That way the United States would focus its indignation upon Germany, weakening public sentiment in favor of neutrality. If a free and open discussion of the second explosion had been allowed, the United States might not have entered the First World War at all. It would make no sense to avenge the Lusitania by siding with one criminal against the other.

The second torpedo story was a bald-faced lie that began the United States’ slide from neutrality to belligerence.  “Truth is the first casualty of war” is an American folk proverb that bears repeating in this context.

Categories: Author Commentary and Historical Context.
About Ivan Light

Professor Emeritus of Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Over a long career, he has published many books and articles dealing with immigration to the United States, immigrant entrepreneurs, organized crime, big cities, and American social history.

His academic publication record and many downloads are available on his university webpage (click here).

Deadly Secret of the Lusitania is his first book of fiction.