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Sinking the Lusitania: Lying America into War, Again

Lusitania Propaganda Poster

As Republican presidential candidates debate the Iraq war, history reminds us that that was not the first time Americans were lied into war. 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—the murder of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Contending alliances acted as transmission belts of war. Every state was willing to risk war for interests that look dubious, even foolish in the light of history. 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 (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) were no prize. However, the British grouping included a terrorist state, an anti-Semitic despotism, a ruthless imperial power, a militaristic colonial republic, and Britain.

The latter was the best of a bad lot, but it ruled much of the globe without the consent of those “governed” and cared little for those crushed beneath its global ambitions. This clash of empires was no “war for democracy” and “war against war,” 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.” A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace figured that the blockade probably killed around 600,000 civilians during the conflict and perhaps 100,000 afterwards.

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, used such vessels as auxiliary cruisers, 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 informed the President of the Board of Trade 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. Among the 1,198 dead were 128 Americans, who had knowingly put their lives in danger.

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.

An armistice was reached on November 11, 1918, with the Versailles “Peace” Treaty to follow in June 1919. The egotistical, vainglorious Wilson was outmaneuvered by cynical European leaders. The treaty turned out to be but a generational truce during which the participants prepared for another round of war.

No one emerges from World War I with much honor, especially Wilson. He unforgivably dragged Americans into other people’s war. Many Americans succumbed to Britain’s deceitful propaganda campaign.

Today America’s unofficial war lobby routinely clamors for Washington to bomb, invade, and occupy other lands. 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.

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