The sinking of RMS Lusitania is often described as the event that brought the US into the First World War. In fact, the US did not declare war on Germany until almost two years after the loss of the passenger liner. However, the Lusitania sinking did strongly affect US public opinion, raise tensions with Germany, and create the conditions for the US entry into the Great War in April 1917.
The US declared its neutrality in August 1914, at the outset of the First World War. Pro-Allied support was evident in the US, with the transatlantic connection strengthened in the ensuing months by increased financial and trade assistance from the US to France and Britain. In addition, an Anglo-American campaign to provide humanitarian assistance to Belgium emphasised German crimes (real and imagined), which raised anti-German sentiment. Pro-German opinion was less common in the US, but it could be found within influential ethnic communities of German-America and Irish-America. Overall, America’s neutrality in the war remained the most popular policy choice. President Woodrow Wilson’s later description of the Great War as, “a drunken brawl in a public house” seemed to resonate with his people.
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In late 1914, both Germany and the UK blockaded each other’s ports in ways that violated international law. The British banned food imports from neutrals’ powers while German submarines (known as u-boats) sank vessels entering the ‘war zone’ without warning. However, unlike the Royal Navy blockade which only seized vessels and contraband, the u-boat attacks resulted in a high number of deaths of sailors and ship passengers, including some American citizens.
In February 1915, President Wilson announced a policy of “strict accountability” of Germany for any American vessels or lives lost during the u-boat blockade. However, Wilson neither laid out the penalty for such German offences, nor clarified the response to Americans killed travelling as passengers or crews on vessels belonging to belligerents.
The Lusitania sinking in May 1915, therefore, arrived at a sensitive moment in US/German relations.
From a German standpoint, the sinking of RMS Lusitania was a disaster. The British vessel sailed from New York City, the media centre of the US. Once torpedoed, the liner sank rapidly, resulting in extremely high fatalities. The dead were almost entirely civilian non-combatants, and included members of America’s elite and hundreds of women and children.
Afraid of just this kind of incident prior to Lusitania’s last sailing, the German embassy in Washington, DC placed newspaper advertisements to warn passengers of potential danger. The precaution backfired, as it seemed to indicate a premeditated German plan to sink the liner, which was not the case.
Before the sinking, British propaganda had sought to condition the US public to see Germany as a rogue nation operating beyond the boundaries of acceptable warfare. A new British campaign used the Lusitania sinking to argue that Germany deliberately made war on women and children, making its defeat in the best interest of civilisation. Within weeks, the loss of Lusitania amplified anti-German sentiment in the US, and created a crisis over the perceived right of US citizens to travel the seas safely.
Following the Lusitania sinking, the Wilson administration debated its response. Some argued that the US should demand that both Germany and Britain stop interfering with neutral shipping, and to instruct Americans to no longer travel aboard belligerent vessels. Instead, Wilson pressed forward his view that Germany was respon- sible for the death of any Americans killed in a u-boat attack. Placing its credibility on the line, his government implied a threat of war should further fatalities occur.
The situation escalated in early August, when a German u-boat sank the White Star liner Arabic off Fastnet, with the loss of two more American lives. Fearful of drawing the US into the war, the German government apologised for the Arabic sinking, offered compensation to the victims, and promised to abandon unannounced attacks on passenger ships. Germany later agreed to avoid sinking merchant vessels without warning (which required the attacking submarine to surface), thus severely handicapping its u-boat operations.
In fact, the German high command sensed defeat in its war of attrition with the Allies, and concluded that unrestricted submarine warfare offered the best hope for victory. To cut the UK off from food imports, u-boats would sink any vessels entering British waters, even at the risk of war with the US.
In 1916, the German Navy quietly accelerated submarine production, gambling that “unrestricted” submarine warfare would end the war before the Americans could effectively intervene in the war.
In January 1917, the German government declared a quarantine area around Britain and Ireland, and ordered u-boats to sink without warning any ships found within, even those from neutral countries.
This unrestricted submarine warfare quickly resulted in a number of American deaths. The US declared war on Germany and the Central Powers in April 1917.
Initially Germany’s submarine blockade of the UK seemed successful. At one point, u-boats sank about one in every four ships destined for Britain.
Heavy shipping losses created food shortages in the UK, and raised fears of terrible losses by troop ships carrying the US army to France. However, the tide turned following the introduction of a convoy system that used war ships to escort merchant vessels and troop transports. Allied shipping losses dropped sharply in late 1917, and the crisis passed entirely in 1918.
The convoy system had been made possible by the dispatch of the US navy’s modern destroyer fleet to Cork Harbour, in order to guard the Western Approaches to Britain.
These fast vessels were perfect for escort duties, and proved decisive in defeating the submarine menace.
The US navy was busiest in the port and waters most closely associated with the Lusitania sinking.
It is unknown whether those most affected by the 1915 tragedy were comforted by that twist of fate.