the sinking of the lusitania -- 12/08/14

Today's selection -- from Wilson by A. Scott Berg. The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania with 128 Americans on board was one of the key events that drove America public opinion from neutral to anti-German and helped lead to U.S. entry into World War I. But Germany had run ads with warnings in fifty U.S. newspapers before that incident. And the Lusitania was carrying war munitions. And Germany was suffering serious deprivation from Britain's naval blockade. President Wilson could scarcely be bothered though. Less than a year after the death of his first wife, he was consumed with the courtship Edith Bolling Galt, who soon became his second wife:

"On May 7, 1915, the President had just finished lunch and was preparing to play golf when he learned that a submarine had sunk the Lusitania. That first bulletin reported no loss of life, but the President canceled his game nonetheless, opting for a drive instead. News dribbled in through he night, giving him time to write Edith, 'My happiness absolutely depends upon your giving me your entire love.' He feared that she was overthinking the situation, second-guessing what was best for him -- 'when the only thing that is best for me is your love.'

"The President was beside himself that night. Possessed, he stepped right past his Secret Service guards and out the front door of the White House onto Pennsylvania Avenue, into a light shower, as though he were headed to Edith's house. Then, instead of veering left toward Dupont Circle, he felt duty pulling him home. By ten o'clock, more details of the day's events were available. It seemed that, without any warning, the German submarine U-20 had fired two torpedoes into the belly of the Lusitania -- seven days out of New York and in the Irish Sea. The great liner sank in eighteen minutes, taking 1,198 souls with it -- 413 crewmembers and 785 passengers, 128 of whom were American citizens.

"'The country was horrified, and at that moment the popular feeling was such that if the President, after demanding immediate reparation and apology to be promptly given, had boldly declared that ... it was our duty to go to war, he would have had behind him the enthusiastic support of the whole American people,' recalled Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Although the sinking of the ship was not a targeted attack on the United States, the Lusitania became a battle cry for a growing number of jingoes. Nobody sounded the charge more loudly than Theodore Roosevelt. Even before all the facts were known, he bellowed to the media that the incident was 'an act of piracy.' He said, 'We earn as a nation measureless scorn and contempt if we follow the lead of those who exact peace above righteousness.' Roosevelt told his son Archibald, 'Every soft creature, every coward and weakling, every man who can't look more than six inches ahead, every man whose god is money, or pleasure, or ease, and every man who has not got in him both the sterner virtues and the power of seeking after an ideal, is enthusiastically in favor of Wilson.'

"There was, of course, an opposing view, which Secretary Bryan voiced in the Cabinet Room. He felt Americans had to take responsibility for their actions. One week before the Lusitania's crossing, the Imperial German Embassy in Washington had posted admonitory advertisements in fifty American newspapers in a box beneath the Cunard Line's schedule. It reminded travelers that a state of war existed between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies and that travelers sailing in the war zone on British or Allied ships did so at their own risk.

Wilson ignores Uncle Sam bringing ashore Lusitania victims

"When Bryan heard the news, he immediately wondered if the ship carried 'munitions of war.' If she did, he said, 'it puts a different phase on the whole matter!' Assistant Secretary Lansing reported that an examination of the clearance papers revealed that there had been ammunition on board. International law permitted ships to carry small quantities of ammunition; but upon learning the actual numbers, Bryan said the 4,200 cases of rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel, along with cases of fuses, shell castings, and high explosives meant the United States should rebuke not only Germany for destroying the Lusitania but also England for interference in international shipping, particularly for 'using our citizens to protect her ammunition.' From London, Colonel House cabled that an 'immediate demand should be made upon Germany for assurance that this shall not occur again.' More than that, the United States must consider the inevitability of going to war. America, he added, 'must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. Think we can no longer remain neutral spectators. Our action in this crisis will determine the part we will play when peace is made, and how far we may influence the settlement for the lasting good of humanity.' Ordinary citizens were even more outspoken. One wired the White House, 'In the name of God and humanity, declare war on Germany.' To that, Wilson took offense, telling his secretary, Charles Swem, 'War isn't declared in the name of God; it is a human affair entirely.' The Washington Post editorialized that it had faith in the 'courage, patience and wisdom of President Wilson,' and it waited to see how he intended to 'uphold the honor and interests of the United States.'

"In truth, Wilson was not thinking straight -- laboring, as he was, over two, even three love letters a day, some requiring more than one draft as he felt Edith was coming around at last. 'You ask why you have been chosen to help me! Ah, dear love,' he wrote on May 9, 'there is a mystery about it ... but there is no mistake and there is no doubt!'"




A. Scott Berg


The Berkley Publishing Group


Copyright 2013 by A. Scott Berg


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