If you are a graduate of a U.S. school system, the words “Remember the Lusitania” may be as vaguely familiar to you as “Remember the Alamo.” And you may be just as fuzzy about the details. We learn roughly that the sinking of the British luxury liner was an act of German aggression that moved the U.S. to enter World War I. That lesson is largely the result of a propaganda effort launched at the time to inflame anti-German sentiments and push the U.S. out of isolationism. But it would take almost two years after the attack before the country entered the war. The Lusitania did not change President Woodrow Wilson’s position. While the “sinking of the Lusitania was a crucial moment in helping to sway the American public in support of the Allied cause,” it was only kept in the public eye by those who wanted the U.S. in the war.
Mainstream U.S. coverage immediately afterward was not overly belligerent. A week after the disaster, in a May 16th, 1915 issue, the Sunday New York Times ran a two-page spread entitled “Prominent Americans Who Lost Their Lives on the S.S. Lusitania.” Two weeks later, another photo spread honored the ship’s dead, reflecting a “panorama of responses to the disaster,” the Library of Congress writes, including “sorrow, heroism, ambivalence, consolation, and anger.”
These were emotional surveys of a tragedy, not investigative journalism of an act of war. “Remarkably,” the attack had “dominated the headlines for only about a week before being overtaken by a newer story.” We might compare this to news of the Titanic disaster three years earlier, credited as “one of the first and most significant international news stories of the 20th century.” There is much about the Lusitania the public did not learn, leading to later accusations of a British Naval Intelligence cover-up.
For one thing, stories reported that the ship had been hit by two torpedoes when there was only one. Immediately after its impact, however, a secondary explosion from inside the ship caused the Lusitania to list perilously to one side (rendering most lifeboats useless) and take on water. Where the Titanic had taken 2 hours and 40 minutes to go down, the Lusitania sank in 18 minutes — as you can see in the real-time animation above — killing approximately 1,200 passengers including around 120 Americans. The second explosion lent credibility to German accusations that the passenger ship was carrying munitions from New York to Britain. (Divers in a 1993 National Geographic expedition found four million U.S.-made Remington bullets on board.) While this could not be proven at the time, the British had taken to hiding arms on passenger ships, and the Lusitania was outfitted to be commandeered for war.
Not only did British authorities put the Lusitania in harm’s way by allowing civilian passengers to sail through blockaded waters in which German submarines had been sinking merchant ships, but passengers knowingly put themselves in danger. The German High Command had warned of attacks in American newspapers in days before the ship set sail. Yet “only a couple of people actually canceled,” says Erik Larson, author of the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. No war at sea or recent memory of the Titanic could dissuade them.
They saw this ship as so fast it could outrun any submarine. They saw it as being so immense, so well built, so safe, and so well equipped with lifeboats in the wake of the Titanic disaster that even if it were hit by a torpedo, no one imagined this thing actually sinking. But no one could imagine a submarine going after the Lusitania in the first place.
Larson’s last point signals the critical difference between this attack and all of those previous: the sinking of the Lusitania was a shocking turning point in the war, even if it didn’t force Wilson’s hand as Churchill hoped. No one had expected it. “In the history of modern warfare,” the Library of Congress notes, the Lusitania signaled “the end of the ‘gentlemanly’ war practice of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a more ominous and vicious era of total warfare.” While the Germans ceased the practice after British outcry, they resumed the targeting of passenger and merchant ships in 1917, finally prompting U.S. involvement. The era that began with the Lusitania continues over a century later. Indeed, the wanton destruction of civilian life no longer seems like tragic collateral damage in current war zones, but the very point of waging modern war.