100 years ago today, at 2:10 pm, the RMS Lusitania was about fifteen miles off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland, when the second officer called out to Captain William Turner: “There is a torpedo coming, sir.”
Two torpedoes struck the Lusitania on her starboard side, the second hitting the boiler room. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew who were aboard, 1,198 lost their lives, including 128 American passengers.
War had broken out in Europe only a year prior to the fateful voyage, and Germany had announced a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around Great Britain in February 1915, deploying U-boats around the British Isles.
Two months later, adjacent to an advertisement promoting the Lusitania’s impending voyage from New York to Liverpool, the German embassy in the U.S. placed a notice in 50 American newspapers:
TRAVELLERS 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 travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.
These warnings, coupled with the sinking of several merchant ships off the coast of Ireland, prompted the British Admiralty to warn the Lusitania to either avoid dangerous waters or take evasive action on the crossing. But warnings were ignored.
Woodrow Wilson had pledged U.S. neutrality from the outset of World War I in 1914, and most American’s agreed—Europe should handle European affairs. But the sinking of the Lusitania, and the deaths of 128 Americans, including Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, incited public outcry across America.
In Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I, Justus Doenecke outlines President Wilson’s diplomatic options. First, accept Germany’s “deepest sympathy at the loss of American lives,” though the message from Berlin also attempted to excuse German actions, arguing that Americans were inclined to trust English promises rather than heed German warnings. The attempted apology was not well received by either the media or the public. Second, Wilson could protest to London that their blockade of Germany—the original inciting action for Germany’s deployment of the U-boats around Britain—led to the attack. This was an attractive option to American exporters and businessmen who objected to Britain’s blockade. Had Wilson exercised this option, however, it would have put America at odds with both sides of the war. Or Wilson could have pressed Germany to make monetary compensation for the loss of American life and property, thought it would have meant ignoring his belief that the incident constituted a breach of international law.
Ultimately, Wilson issued the first Lusitania note on May 13, 1915, declaring that Germany acted “absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare,” and demanded the immediate abandonment of U-boat warfare against American and belligerent liners and merchantmen. He called for Berlin to disown the sinking of the Lusitania and make reparation for the loss of American lives, while endorsing the right of citizens from neutral countries to travel on belligerent ships.
By early 1916, Germany still would not concede that the Lusitania’s sinking was illegal. As the 1916 president campaign for Wilson’s reelection ramped up, the president’s challenger Charles E. Hughes promised to “protect and enforce American rights on land and sea without fear and unflinchingly with respect to American rights, American property, and American commerce.” Wilson’s campaign slogan? “He kept us out of war.” Wilson narrowly won reelection by 23 electoral votes and by less than 600,000 popular votes.
Soon after the election, despite all of his efforts to maintain peace and the neutrality of the United States, Wilson conceded that “we must inevitably drift into war with Germany upon the submarine issue.”
The sinking of the Lusitania had been merely the first, largest instance of American deaths as a result of Germany’s U-boat strategy and belligerence. When, in 1917, Germany’s U-boats began to attack and sink American merchant ships, owned by American corporations, and flying American colors, former president Theodore Roosevelt scorned Wilson’s policies, stating “Germany is already at war with us. The only question for us is ether we shall make war nobly or ignobly.”
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress.
After the Lusitania sinking, Wilson wanted to remain at peace and protect America’s rights. “I wish with all my heart I saw a way to carry out the double wish of our people,” he stated, “to maintain a firm front in respect of what we demand of Germany and yet do nothing that might by any possibility involve us in the war.”
As Doenecke concludes in Nothing Less than War:
In the end, it was Germany that forced the administration’s hand. . . When U-boats began sinking American vessels without rescuing their crews, Wilson had run out of options. He could only hope that the conflict would justify the required sacrifice.