Remembering the RMS Lusitania and its impact on America during World War I

Lusitania 100 years University Press of Kentucky

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.

Lusitania in port, 1907

Lusitania in port, 1907.

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:


Lusitania Notice WWI

via the Robert Hunt Picture Library

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.
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.

Woodrow WilsonUltimately, 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.”

Woodrow Wilson Declaration of World War I

Woodrow Wilson’s Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War against Germany, delivered to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917

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.



Turning the Looking Glass on the 2015 Met Gala

The fashion, art, and Hollywood spheres collided Monday night, as they do every year, at the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala. This year’s theme, China: Through the Looking Glass, was designed to “explore the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries. High fashion will be juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery.”

However, many celebrities’ efforts to pay homage to China and Chinese culture fell flat or raised questions.

Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker’s red headdress earned criticism from commentators on both the red carpet and social media; but some have pushed back against accusations of cultural insensitivity. The Refinery29’s Connie Wang defended Parker saying, “[she] might have found the most clever way to pay homage to Chinese culture and its Western interpretations—all while still looking like a top-notch queen. . . . Some Chinese commentators on Weibo are also calling out [sic] a possible tribute being made made to Buddhism’s Four Heavenly Kings, and the commentary has been largely positive.”

On the other end of the spectrum was Rihanna wearing Guo Pei. This spectacular gown was one of the few designs on the red carpet by a Chinese couturier. As the artist herself told Vanity Fair, “It’s handmade by one Chinese [designer] and it took her two years to make. I was researching Chinese couture on the Internet and I found it.”

Perhaps the hit-or-miss nature of Gala attendee attire was an intentional component of this whole exercise (whether or not the stars themselves were aware). Or, at the very least, a happy accident from which the rest of us can learn.

During the fall 2014 press blitz announcing this year’s theme, Vogue described how the evening “will primarily examine how eastward-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture.” Judging by the next-day coverage of the gala, those understandings and misunderstandings were made clear by many of the attendees and even by those commenting elsewhere.

The exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, expanded on the exhibit’s goals, explaining, “The basic idea is the influence of Chinese aesthetics on designers, but I also wanted to convey how costumes and decorative arts crystallize centuries of cultural interchanges between the East and the West. They speak to an ongoing fascination of [sic] enigmatic objects and motifs. They are infused with fantasy and nostalgia and romance, and what often is created is a virtual China, a mixing of these anachronistic styles, which results in this pastiche.”

Bolton closed on perhaps his most intriguing point of all: “What is interesting is how complicit China has been in forming those fantasies.” While the Met Costume Institute’s exhibition looks at Chinese culture through a Western lens, cultural reflection, appreciation, and appropriation goes both ways.

China’s complicity in the perpetuation of these fantasies is, in fact, crucial to understand as we as a nation examine our contemporary relationship with modern China. That point is also taken up by University Press of Kentucky author Christopher Ford in his new book, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations.

While Ford’s book isn’t particularly heavy on haute couture fashion, it does explore how Chinese leaders have crafted and re-crafted portrayals of the United States in order to serve their own agendas and refine the regime’s self-image—often portraying America as an antagonist and foil, but sometimes playing it up as a model.

Ford’s book, though, suggests that by better understanding how China views the United States—and how it envisions itself in the world in relation to the United Stateswe can learn much about China and the intentions and aspirations that underlie its policy choices and the image it projects westward.

What both Ford’s China Looks at the West and the 2015 Met Gala “China: Through the Looking Glass” reveal is that Chinese and American perceptions of one another are hardly concrete. In truth, they are constantly changing and being manipulated by both nations’ citizens and by political power-brokers.


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Hat’s off to all things Kentucky!

After The Fall of Saigon: Starting from Scratch in Kentucky

Fall of SaigonToday marks the 40th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, and the end of the Vietnam War. For many Vietnamese families who did not subscribe to the ruling Communist Party’s politics, the withdrawal of American forces also meant their own evacuation from the country they called ‘home.”Huong “CoCo” Tran was among those South Vietnamese civilians for whom Vietnam was no longer safe.

After fleeing her homeland, CoCo started her new life in Louisville, Kentucky. First, packing ice cream cones at the Derby Cone factory, then later, after a lucky break and a lot of hard work, as a restaurateur. A pioneer in the Louisville restaurant industry, she opened Egg Roll Machine—the first Chinese take-out restaurant in the city in 1980, Café Mimosa—the first Vietnamese restaurant in the city in 1986, Zen Garden—the first Asian vegetarian restaurant in the city in 1999, and Zen Tea House—Louisville’s first and only Asian tea house. Her newest ventures are Heart & Soy and Roots—also vegetarian. Flavors from Home - University Press of Kentucky

And though CoCo is unique, her story of courage, perseverance, and self-reinvention is not wholly uncommon. Each year, the United States legally resettles tens of thousands of refugees who have fled their homelands. As these individuals and their families struggle to adapt to a new culture, the kitchen often becomes one of the few places where they are able to return “home.” Preparing native cuisine is one way they can find comfort in an unfamiliar land, retain their customs, reconnect with their past, and preserve a sense of identity.

The following excerpt, from Flavors of Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods, illuminates the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon through the eyes of a survivor who has redefined what it means to be a Kentuckian and an American.

Flavors from Home - University Press of Kentucky Coco Tran in her Roots and Heart & Soy kitchen

Huong “CoCo” Tran in the kitchen of her restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.

On April 30, 1975, Communist troops from North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam invaded and overtook Saigon, ending the war and a century of Western influence. CoCo [Tran] found herself in the midst of a mob scene as she tried to make her way to a ferry and return to Saigon. Her older sister, who was unable to leave at the time, asked CoCo to escort her adopted eleven-year-old daughter to freedom and safety. CoCo still recalls, even thirty-odd years later, the horrific accident that occurred just hours after the child was entrusted to her care. With thousands of people fighting their way onto the ferry, CoCo and the young girl were pushed into the water as they boarded. CoCo surfaced. The child never did. CoCo spent the rest of the day and night frantically searching for the little girl. Eventually she had to return to Saigon—alone and defeated. (She never forgot the child and spent the next three decades trying to locate her. Finally, in 2008, she found her niece alive and well in Vietnam with two children of her own.)

Because of CoCo’s father’s politics, the family knew they were no longer safe in Vietnam. On May 2 CoCo and members of her extended family—twelve adults and six children—left Saigon with only some cash and some gold and an extra change of clothing. The only thing they knew for sure was that they would pay any price for freedom.

The family members staggered their individual departures to avoid arousing suspicion and reconnected near Long Hai beach, where American ships were supposed to be waiting to pick up refugees. No ships were in sight. The family negotiated with a fisherman, paying him to transport them on his small, poorly supplied fishing boat toward international waters. CoCo remembers how dark it was that first night at sea and how terrified she was, not knowing where they would end up or whether they would even survive another day. Finally, in the distance, they spotted a merchant ship. Just when they thought their luck had turned, the captain of the Taiwanese merchant ship demanded the exorbitant sum of $9,000 for food and transportation. They gave him everything they had and traveled from port to port, alongside cows and buffalo. They stopped at Thailand, Hong Kong, and Okinawa, but each port refused them entry. At the time, no official refugee program existed to support the people who were fleeing Vietnam. Without relatives or sponsors at these port cities, no country was willing to take in CoCo’s family.

Meanwhile, CoCo’s younger brother, Tran Thien Tran, was in America working tirelessly to find a way to help his stranded kin out on the open seas. He was living in Kentucky, attending the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering. The family’s hope was that Tran could find them local sponsors so they could join him in the States. After thirty-six days at sea, the Trans finally got word that Taiwan would admit them, on the condition that they not stay on the island for an extended period. Back in the States, sponsoring groups from local churches and the University of Louisville, along with a few individual households, rallied to assist the Tran family.

A grainy photo from the Louisville Times shows a tearful CoCo giving her brother a long-awaited hug at Standiford Field airport. It is hard to reconcile this woman with the confident, relaxed, successful restaurateur sitting across from me now and smiling broadly, brown eyes shining behind maroon-rimmed glasses—the American Dream personified.

For more on the Vietnam War and the International Community in Kentucky:

“A great hat speaks for itself.” [anonymous]

It’s a Kentucky Derby fashion round-up! Whether your favorite horse came in win, place, or show (or maybe not at all,) one of the best parts of the Derby is the Hat Watching. One of the biggest icons of Kentucky Derby fashion and culture will always be the classy, creative, petite, gargantuan, awe-inspiring chapeaus that Derby-goers sport for the Greatest 2 Minutes in Sports. Below, a few of our favorite outfit toppers from Derby 140:

Photo Sources:

The Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Plan Perfect Derby Party

Of the many traditions that go hand-in-hand with the Kentucky Derby: the hat, the silks, the roses, the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” hosting a Derby party can be the most fun, especially for those who can’t make it to Churchill Downs. But it can also be the most stressful. If you’re looking to throw the Perfect Derby Party, look no further than the recipes, decor, and ideas below. If you’re looking for something printable, download a PDF here: Plan the perfect KENTUCKY DERBY PARTY.

The Space:

tissue paper roses DIYRoses! Roses everywhere! Run to the florist, or fake it up with red tissue paper to celebrate the Run for the Roses. Plus, its easy to coordinate with red plates and serving ware. Set up a photo station with your own blanket of roses covering a blank stretch of wall. It only takes three things: thin wire, a cheap shower curtain, and plenty of red tissue paper. Here’s a great how-to from Brit and Co.

Fun & Festive:

It’s not a party without party games! Here are a few of our favorites to keep the good times going until the call to the post:

  • Bring the Derby to the Derby party! Place the names of the horses (or the numbers 1 -20) on folded slips of paper into a hat (bonus points for using a derby hat!) Guests can draw the number of the horse they’re rooting for in the big race. Make sure to have a fantastic prize for the winner, maybe an extra Race-Day Pie to take home?
  • The weather is (almost) always beautiful the first weekend in May. Horseshoes and/or Corn Hole move the party outdoors into the yard, putting Derby hats to good use under the sun.
  • Speaking of Derby hats, why not have a contest to see who has the best Derby hat? The men are invited too!
  • And lastly, an idea from Ice Cube Jockey Races. Freeze small jockeys (or any differently colored or shaped tokens) to the tops of ice cubes. At the start of the race all participants can wager on a horse. Take a flat, smooth surface (glass from a large picture frame, an over-the-door bathroom mirror, etc.) and lay it across a table at an angle. Line the ice cube jockeys up, keeping them in place with a yard stick and then let them loose all at once for a fun and crazy race.To repeat simply refreeze the jockeys on new ice cubes and freeze until the down time between the next races.

The Drinks:

C’mon, this one’s obvious: mint juleps all around! Easy to prep and easy to serve, you really can’t go wrong with the most traditional of traditions; it’s a classic for a reason. Perfect MINT JULEP For the younger partiers, the designated drivers, and those who might not be bourbon fans (it’s OK, we forgive them), you can’t go wrong with a non-alcoholic sparkler. You can even reuse your mint-infused simple syrup for extra flavor. Derby Sparkler Drink

The Food:

Origin stories differ greatly, but burgoo has definitely evolved into a delicious “catch-all” stew. Basically, you can’t go wrong throwing everything you’ve “caught” into a giant pot and letting it simmer until ready. But if you’re looking for a specific recipe, The Kentucky Fresh Cookbook by nutritionist Maggie Green, has great ingredients and an easy, one-pot method.

Kentucky Fresh Burgoo

For small-bites, try Maggie Green’s steamed asparagus or green breans with toasted sesame mayonnaise:

Trim the asparagus and/or green beans and steam until bright green and tender (but still a little crisp). To make the toasted sesame mayonnaise dipping sauce, whisk 1 cup mayonnaise, juice of 1/2 lemon, 3 tablespoons dark sesame seed oil, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Serve on the side as a dipping sauce, or thin with a bit more lemon juice and drizzle it over the veggies.

Sweet Treats:

Race-Day Pie, Saturday-in-May Pie, Bluegrass Pie…whatever you call it, the trademarked treat with bourbon, chocolate, and pecans in a pie crust is a must-have on the first Saturday of May.

In Bourbon Desserts, Lynn Marie Hulsman offers up the recipe for her Grandma Rose’s Big Race Pie. If you want to go really Kentucky, snag your flour from Weisenberger Mill, your pecans from Hickman, Kentucky, and your chocolate from Ruth Hunt Candies (or your favorite, local chocolatier).

Bourbon Desserts Derby Pie

African Americans and the Kentucky Derby: A Long and Storied History

African American Jockeys Kentucky Derby

Jimmy Winkfield rides Alan-a-Dale in the Kentucky Derby in 1902.

“Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings.” —Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1875

As we’re about to celebrate the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, one cannot talk about the history of the Derby without also talking about African American history. The two are inextricably tied. Of the fifteen riders at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to victory with the help of trainer Ansel Williamson, a former slave.

In the early days of American horse racing, many of the jockeys were slaves, who, after emancipation, continued working as trainers and riders for their former owners. Black jockeys won half of the first sixteen Derbies, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight, and most of the trainers were African American as well.

Baden Baden horse Edward D. Brown

Baden Baden was trained by Edward D. Brown, and ridden to victory by Billy Walker in the 1877 Kentucky Derby.

There was plenty of fame and fortune to be found for successful trainers and riders. At the third Kentucky Derby in 1877, the rider-trainer duo of Billy Walker and Ed “Brown Dick” Brown, guided Baden-Baden to a win. Ed Brown was one of the most successful trainers in the country and famous for his expensive suits and large bankrolls. Brown’s career in racing spanned more than 30 years as a jockey (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1870), a trainer, and as an owner. His horse, Monrovia, won the Kentucky Oaks in 1893. His filly, Etta, won in 1900. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.

Some of the best-known names of the era were the jockeys. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton still holds the record as the youngest-ever Kentucky Derby winner. At the age of 15, he won the 1892 Derby astride Azra. Isaac Burns Murphy was very well respected by his fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, and fans across the country. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. James “Jimmy” Winkfield almost eclipsed Murphy’s record in 1903, when he placed second in what would have been his third Kentucky Derby win in a row.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Winkfield was also the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Since 1911, when Jess Conley finished third, only three other black jockeys have ridden horses in the Derby. As James C. Nicholson writes in The Kentucky Derby:

“In fact, black riders were forced out of the sport by jealous white jockeys and bigoted owners and trainers in an increasingly racially biased American society whose court system had given official sanction to various Jim Crow laws by the end of the nineteenth century. As the Derby became increasingly popular on a national scale in the twentieth century, blacks still played indispensable roles in the lives of racehorses and the sport of horse racing. But grooms, hot-walkers, and stable hands operated far from the spotlight that would shine ever brighter on top athletes, including jockeys.”

This Saturday, as the riders take their mounts, and we celebrate the horse-trainer-jockey team who take their victory lap around the winners circle, take a moment to remember history and the men who should never be forgotten.

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