The British luxury passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed a century ago. The sinking was deemed an atrocity of war and encouraged American intervention in World War I.
But the ship was carrying munitions through a war zone and left unprotected by the Royal Navy. The “Great War” was a thoroughly modern conflict, enshrouded in government lies. We see similar deceptions today.
World War I was a mindless imperial slugfest triggered by an act of state terrorism by Serbian authorities. Contending alliances acted as transmission belts of war. Nearly 20 million died in the resulting military avalanche.
America’s Woodrow Wilson initially declared neutrality, though he in fact leaned sharply toward the motley “Entente.” The German-led Central Powers were no prize. However, the British grouping included a terrorist state, an anti-Semitic despotism, a ruthless imperial power, and a militaristic colonial republic.
Britain was the best of a bad lot, but it ruled much of the globe without the consent of those “governed.” This clash of empires was no “war for democracy” as often characterized.
London ignored the traditional rules of war when imposing a starvation blockade on Germany and neutrals supplying the Germans. Explained Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, Britain’s policy was to “starve the whole population—men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission.”
Since Berlin lacked the warships necessary to break Britain’s naval cordon sanitaire, Germany could retaliate only with surface raiders, which were vulnerable to London’s globe-spanning navy, and submarines. U-boats were more effective, but were unable to play by the normal rules of war and stop and search suspect vessels.
The British Admiralty armed some passenger liners and cargo ships, and ordered captains to fire on or ram any submarines that surfaced. Britain also misused neutral flags to shelter its ships. Thus, the U-boats were forced to torpedo allied and some neutral vessels, sending guilty and innocent alike to the ocean’s bottom..
However, Churchill encouraged the voyages. The week before the Lusitania’s sinking he explained that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”
Wilson complained about the British blockade, but never threatened the bilateral relationship. Washington took a very different attitude toward the U-boat campaign.
The Imperial German government sponsored newspaper ads warning Americans against traveling on British liners, but that didn’t stop the foolhardy from booking passage. Off Ireland’s coast the Lusitania went down after a single torpedo hit; the coup d’ grace apparently was a second explosion of the ship’s cargo of munitions. The dead included 128 Americans.
There was a political firestorm in the U.S., but the flames subsided short of Churchill’s desired declaration of war. Still, the president demanded “strict accountability” for the German U-boat campaign.
His position was frankly absurd: Americans should be able to safely travel on armed vessels of a belligerent power carrying munitions through a war zone. The president eventually issued a de facto ultimatum which caused Berlin to suspend attacks on liners and limit attacks on neutral vessels.
As the war dragged on, however, Berlin tired of placating Washington. In January 1917 the Kaiser approved resumption of submarine warfare. But the effort could not redress Germany’s continental military disadvantages.
After the conflict ended the egotistical, vainglorious Wilson was outmaneuvered by cynical European leaders. The Versailles “peace” treaty turned out to be but a generational truce during which the participants prepared for another round of war.
Today America’s unofficial war lobby routinely clamors for Washington to bomb, invade, and occupy other lands. As I wrote on Forbes, “On the centennial of the Lusitania’s demise Americans should remember the importance of just saying no. Now as then Americans need a president and Congress that believe war to be a last resort for use only when necessary to protect this nation, its people, liberties, and future.”