Anniversary Post: Sinking of the Lusitania

LusitaniaOne hundred and one years ago, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. It is widely credited for getting the United States to enter the war. It seemed a heartless act: the Germans sinking a ship filled with civilians. But if there is one thing that I have learned in this life, it is that things are never that simple. In general, people have reasons for doing things. They don’t just go around doing evil things for the hell of it. It is a matter of perspective. Yet everywhere I look in the world, I see people who don’t understand this. As smart a guy as Sam Harris seems to think no deeper about the 9/11 attacks than George Bush’s facile, “They hate our freedoms.”

Both sides in the early days of World War I gradually increased the field of battle. On 4 February 1915, Germany announced that the entire sea around the United Kingdom was now a war zone. I’m not clear why the Lusitania was not given military escort into the United Kingdom. It was, nominally, a civilian ship. But it was carrying a lot of military equipment, including over four million rifle cartridges. Technically, everything it was carrying was legal, but the information was kept from the public given that it did tend to muddy the waters. It made it seem much less black and white.

I understand the outrage factor of the sinking of the Lusitania. Just the same, in an objective sense, it doesn’t mean much. World War I was a terrible tragedy. There were roughly 10 million military deaths and over two million civilian deaths. When the slaughter gets that big, it is hard to put a face on it. But the sinking of the Lusitania was a much greater tragedy in terms to pushing the war forward than it was because of the 1,200 people directly killed — tragic as that alone was.

So we mark this sad day just over a century ago.

8 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Sinking of the Lusitania

  1. It is interesting to note that almost TWO YEARS passed between the sinking of the Lusitania (May 1915) and the U.S. declaration of war against Germany (April 1917).
    In between those two events, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of war”. Wilson was re-elected.

    • Both things are interesting. Of course, the slogan was right — he had kept us out of war. This is why I worry about the TPP under Clinton. Although according to some, it will be rammed through after the election, so it isn’t even an issue.

  2. Yeah, the Lusitania is overrated in terms of causing the war. I’m told one of the European History teachers at my school got really mad at that meme. The truth is that the U.S. was never really neutral in WWI. We were giving immense funding and military materiel to the U.K. The British interdicted U.S. transports as well if they were trading with the Central Powers, yet that was never publicized. Wilson’s reasons for war were immensely hypocritical- he promoted “self-determination,” but it never applied to European colonialism abroad or minorities living at home, nor did he support the right of people to be communists or socialists. The whole thing was a mess, and we should have stayed the hell out of it.

    • Not causing it. But it was a great propaganda tool. But as we know from other wars, you don’t even an attack. I believe the Maine wasn’t actually attacked. And then there was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And for me, the leadup to the Iraq War was very instructive about the way leaders decide on a war and then sell it.

  3. @ both Jurgan & Dan: It’s hard to see why we joined the war. That’s probably why it inspired some of the fiercest anti-war organizing in U.S. history. I’m sure the usual suspects (banks with bond holdings in Euro countries, armament manufacturers) had their say. And we’d already been on a path towards imperial expansion for a while, so we got to practice mobilizing a huge army.

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