The Buzz

The Lusitania Sinking: Why No American Declaration of War on Germany?

Asking “what if” is a popular parlor game. Seldom, however, do we ever get an answer, and certainly not almost immediately.King George V of Britain is a rare exception. On the morning of May 7, 1915 in the midst of discussing Germany with a visiting American envoy, Colonel Edward M. House, he asked, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania, with American passengers on board?” Within hours he had his answer.

The day had turned out to be surprisingly beautiful off the coast of southern Ireland. The morning’s fog had lifted, replaced by bright sunshine. The passengers on board the RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious cruise ship on the seas, eagerly anticipated their impending arrival in Liverpool, just six days after departing New York. What they didn’t know as their ship sliced through the Irish Sea in the early afternoon, just a dozen miles off Old Head of Kinsale, was that a German submarine had spotted them, or that, the Lusitania’s captain, despite knowing of possible submarine activity in the area, ignored recommendations that he plot an evasive course. It was a fatal mistake. At 2:10 p.m., the submarine fired one of its two remaining torpedoes, scoring a direct hit. The “Greyhound of the Seas” sank in just eighteen minutes. Nearly 1,200 people died, including 128 Americans.

News of the Lusitania’s sinking shocked the American public, much as Pearl Harbor and September 11 would shock future generations. Unlike those two tragedies, however, the sinking of the Lusitania didn’t produce a national consensus in favor of war. True, staunch nationalists like former president Teddy Roosevelt, who thought that President Woodrow Wilson had erred eight months earlier in declaring the United States neutral in the war in Europe, denounced the attack as barbarous and demanded a confrontation with Germany. So did some newspapers. The day after the Lusitania’s sank, theNew York Herald ran a headline exclaiming, “WHAT A PITY THEODORE ROOSEVELT IS NOT PRESIDENT!

But as horrified as most Americans were at the thought of civilians being attacked without warning and left to a cruel fate in the sea, they recoiled at the thought of war. Many Americans still saw Washington’s advice to stand apart from Europe and Jefferson’s warning against “entangling alliances” as gospel. Irish Americans had no interest in fighting to help Britain so long as it denied Ireland its independence. German Americans sympathized with their ancestral homeland. And still other Americans saw no virtue in either war or the squabbling European powers. When New York newspapers asked editors around the country how the United States should respond to the Lusitania’s sinking, only six out of the thousand who responded urged war.