World War 1 (1914-1918) is generally recognized as the one single event that clearly, and significantly, impacted the world for the next century. Estimates vary, but between sixteen and twenty million civilians and soldiers died during the conflict, and another thirty-seven million were casualties. The war helped create the roots of World War II. The war brought about the collapse of the Russian Empire and the birth of communism. The cost of the war helped push the world into a ruinous economic depression, one that, along with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, nearly devastated Germany until Adolph Hitler came along and offered them a solution. After a decade of misery (1929 to 1939) the United States finally pulled itself out of the Great Depression, by and large because of the rise of World War II. Some would argue that in an effort to stop the growing evil of world tyranny, World War 1 needed to be ended, and many in the world looked to America’s president for leadership. Others, especially American isolationists, pacifists, Protestant religious leaders and others wanted the nation to stay out of the fight. Caught in the vacuum, that pressure cooker between pro-war and anti- war advocates, warmongers and peace lovers, the physically fragile Woodrow Wilson was in the center of the storm.
It only took eighteen minutes. The time was a little past 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 7, 1915, and most passengers had just finished lunch. Thomas and Phyllis Richard of Meaderville, Montana were strolling along the deck with their three young children – Percy, age seven, Cecil, age four, and little Dora who was nearly two. It was sunny and rather warm for a spring day and many passengers – men, women and lots of children – were enjoying the moment standing on the deck. The Great War was in full speed and it was well known by the passengers that German U-boats were operating in the North Atlantic, and had even made threats about attacking passenger ships. They had been assured by the Cunard Shipping Lines and Captain Turner personally, that they were safe, and that the Lusitania was much too fast for a submarine to keep up with. Plus, the thought of attacking a passenger ship was sinking to a low level, even for the Germans. The single torpedo, however, from the German submarine struck the ship on its starboard side exactly where many of the ship’s porters were organizing passengers’ luggage items. They were killed instantly. Within a minute or two a second blast, an internal explosion from within the boiler room created a huge fire and the loss of even more lives. In less than a minute mass chaos erupted on the 800 foot ocean liner, and, of the ship’s 48 lifeboats, only six were lowered successfully, many hanging from the ship crushing the helpless frightened passengers. A number of the collapsible life boats washed completely off the decks along with bystanders. Several people were sucked into the ship’s massive four smoke stacks as it went down.
Some stayed with the ship, hoping it would stay afloat, but the majority simply jumped into the sea. It was 2:18 p.m. and the beautiful Lusitania, one of the fastest ships in the world, had disappeared beneath the calm waters of the Irish Head of Kinsale. The sinking of the Lusitania was a terrible tragedy which included the senseless loss of 1195 innocent individuals, many of them women and children. Nine hundred of their bodies were never found, including the bodies of the entire Richard family.
By 1915 the British and French were on the wrong side of the war with the Germans and needed help from the United States to win. On January 19, 1915 two Zeppelins conducted Germany’s first air raid on Britain. On April 22, near Ypres, Germans sent a cloud of chlorine gas drifting toward French and Canadian lines. And then there were those deadly German U-boats.
In Germany many citizens were starving due to the lack of food supplies caused by the British blockades of German ports. The British and French were not faced with that same challenge since they were enjoying a plentiful amount of supplies from the United States. Despite the hardships Germans were making progress in controlling the North Atlantic by increasing their deadly U-boat attacks. In fact, the German military strategy was relying heavily on the development and use of its fleet of U-boats, growing their number from 33 in 1914 to 150 by 1918. The British hoped that the sinking of the Lusitania, an unarmed British passenger ship which included many Americans, would be enough provocation for the Americans to join in the war with them. They were counting on it. The head of the British Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, was holding his breath, hoping that President Woodrow Wilson wanted revenge enough to engage in the conflict against the Germans. The problem was that Wilson was a calm and rational thinker, and not prone to making decisions based on emotion, or impulse.
In June 1915, less than a month after the Lusitania disaster, a propaganda type poster made by Fred Spears of Boston entitled “Enlist” began circulating throughout the nation. The message was clear: Americans needed to enlist in the military and fight the Germans. Spears’s poster recalls the horrors of the Lusitania sinking with a ghost-like illustration of a mother and child drowning.
To combat the growing interest the war movement, the anti-war advocates found inspiration through a song which became a national favorite entitled ” I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier”, song by Ed Morton. Soon Americans were taking sides regarding the war issue.
President Wilson, however, had already ignored a number of other German U-boat attacks on American shipping that included the sinking of the Gulflight oil tanker, killing 3 people, four days prior to the Lusitania incident, and four other commercial shipping attacks off the coast of the United States during April 1915. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was demanding that the U.S. enter the war in 1915, but Wilson refused, saying ” we are too proud to fight.” Roosevelt essentially called Wilson a coward when he referred to Wilson as “a lily- livered skunk.”
Although Wilson pushed back on the notion of war, he quickly called for a state of preparedness by initiating the draft. In the center of the angst of war and peace Wilson tried to continue to maintain some semblance of America’s neutrality during the conflict. In an act of defiance against Wilson’s submarine policy with Germany, William Jennings Bryan, a strict pacifist, who was Wilson’s Secretary of State, abruptly quit his job, believing that Wilson was not being anti-war enough. Wilson, who was trying to defend the rights of the 128 innocent Americans who were killed on the Lusitania, had simply demanded that Germany cease attacking passenger liners, and Bryan felt that Wilson was being overly aggressive in making that demand. Wilson could not satisfy either the pro-war or the anti-war people in his own nation.
Woodrow Wilson was no coward, but more of a trusting idealist who accepted the German apology for the Lusitania incident, and he believed them when the Germans declared that they would cease attacking passenger ships in the future. The last thing the Germans wanted was for the United States to enter the war against them, Wilson thought.
The American public was split on whether to go to war or continue to sit it out. The nation was thriving economically because of the war “across the ocean”, also referred to as “someone else’s war.” In some industrial areas full employment existed as a result of American workers building anything from tanks, ships and airplanes, to flame throwers, firearms, and food and medical supplies all sold directly to France, Brittain and Russia. Being neutral had its benefits, and American bankers were making a killing negotiating war loans to the same nations, which included Germany. By 1917 the United States had become a financial powerhouse and was not particularly interested in changing that status by engaging in the world conflict. America had moved on from the horrors of the Lusitania tragedy, but then Germany reneged on its promise of not attacking passenger vessels, and additionally, they tried to enlist Mexico as an ally to attack the United States. Frustrated, in April 1917 Wilson advised Congress that the U.S. had little choice but to engage in a war against Germany, and Congress agreed.
Churchill bitterly wished that the United States had entered in 1915, stating this about President Woodrow Wilson, ” What he did in April 1917 could have been done in May 1915. And if done then … in how many millions of homes would an empty chair be occupied now?” He firmly believed that a million or more people could have been spared death if the United States had entered the war earlier. Wilson, however, had been more interested in the lives of Americans than Europeans. Again, Woodrow Wilson was met with mixed feelings, and from our own allies.
Some historians suggest that the British allowed the Lusitania to be sunk in an effort to pull the United States into the war against Germany. It is true that the Cunard liner was without a military escort, which was customary for large passenger ships traveling in dangerous waters; additionally the British Admiralty had received the U-boats’ encryption transmissions on a regular basis, so they were aware of the approximate location of the submarine, and never advised the Lusitania. At the last minute the British Admiralty canceled sending out a fast rescue ship to aid the sinking Lusitania. Some historians suggest that the Lusitania tragedy was a “cock up”, a term used by the British to label something a mistake.
Other historians argue a different conspiracy, and that Wilson had conspired to have the United States engage in the war, and against public opinion. The reason given was that Woodrow Wilson was determined to spread his ideology of democracy, akin to his deep faith in Christianity, because the world needed to be saved from the other types governments. Indeed, even in Wilson’s address to Congress in 1917 asking for a declaration of war against Germany, he said that war was needed so that the world, “was to be made safe for democracy.” The horrendous carnage just needed to be stopped. Millions of Europeans had already lost their lives, and even more faced the rest of their lives with horrible disfigurements and disabilities. In France alone, half the men between the ages of 20 and 32 had already perished. These arguments are compelling, but only complicate the tragedy of both the sinking of the Lusitania and the ongoing harsh realities of World War 1.
History has a way of remembering the impulsive and demanding Teddy Roosevelt more than the intensely serious and patiently cautious Woodrow Wilson. In the nineteen months that the United States waged war (April 1917 to November 1918) 116,708 American soldiers died, and an additional 204,000 were wounded. In the five years that World War 1 lasted, over 16 million soldiers and citizens died and there were an additional 20 million in casualties. Approximately two thirds of the deaths were in battle and the balance was related to disease, especially the Spanish flu pandemic.
Winston Churchill was probably correct that if the United States had engaged in the war in 1915, and not 1917, many British and French would have been spared and the war would have ended considerably earlier than late 1918. There is also an argument that an American military presence as early as mid to late 1915 may have prevented the collapse of Tsar Nicholas’s Russian empire, the demise of which brought about the advent of Communism. Wilson probably also pondered whether the British had set the entire Lusitania sinking up to pull the U.S. into the war. There is scant proof of any British conspiracy, and the mistakes that led to the ship’s sinking were likely “cock ups” and not a set up to pull the United States into the war. Wilson patiently took his time running a nation and avoiding war, and was even re-elected in 1916 based on keeping America out of the war. There is also little proof to support the notion that Wilson was conspiring to enter the war just to spread America’s doctrine of democracy throughout the world. These, and others are the “what if’s” of history which keep historians busy chasing all the dark scenarios of the past.
Woodrow Wilson was not interested in helping our European friends win the war and ultimately save French and British soldiers. That was their responsibility he felt, not that of the United States. He wanted to save American lives, not European ones. He held firm to his convictions and resisted the heavy criticism and persistent pressure from Britain, France and his own divided nation. By the spring of 1917, the United States entered the war when it had no other choice, and President Woodrow Wilson felt that all peaceful remedies had been explored.
National Geographic, 2015
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania , Erik Larson
Personal letter June 15, 1915, Theodore Roosevelt
“The Lusitania and the Secrets of War Revealed” Saul David, The Guardian
The Lusitania Disaster, Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan