On this date, 100 years ago, the British passenger liner Lusitania, returning from New York to Liverpool with nearly 2000 passengers, was torpedoed by a German U-boat 18 miles off the Irish coast. A second internal explosion sent her to the bottom in 18 minutes, and 1198 lives were lost. American citizens numbered 128 among the dead, almost all of the 139 on board.
It took U.S. President Woodrow Wilson almost a week, until May 13, to send a note of protest to Berlin. But Germany pointed to the Lusitania’s cargo of ammunition for Britain, and in its prevailing mood of isolationism, the U.S. maintained neutrality for almost two more years.
The Imperial German Embassy in Washington had placed a warning advertisement in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York, dated April 22, 1915: “NOTICE! TRAVELERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
The Lusitania, briefly the world’s largest passenger ship, was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, and had made 202 trans-Atlantic crossings up to its fateful departure from New York on May 1st. It had been a popular carrier of immigrants to the United States from Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan advised Pres. Wilson that “ships carrying contraband should be prohibited from carrying passengers … [I]t would be like putting women and children in front of an army.” He later resigned, feeling that Wilson was biased toward Britain in ignoring British contraventions of international law, and that Wilson was leading the nation into the war.
Bryan was, of course, not alone in opposing the drift toward war. Anarchists, syndicalists and socialists also opposed U.S. entry into the war for humanitarian reasons, and because they saw how war fever was being ginned up by the yellow press and industrialists eager to make huge war profits. They called upon international labor solidarity to ask workers not to go to war against the workers of other nations. The U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, and immediately began suppressing, imprisoning and deporting antiwar activists.
Salvage rights to the sunken ship are owned by venture capitalist Gregg Bemis, who has conducted several exploratory expeditions but is being blocked by the Irish government, which claims it wants to preserve and protect the wreck as a heritage site. There is also the possibility, as publicly stated by the British government, that disturbing the Lusitania’s remains may lead to explosions of mines and ammunition.
Photo: 1915 painting of the sinking. | Wikipedia (CC)