The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

An excerpt from Michael S. Neiberg's new book.

Editor’s Note: The following was reprinted from The Path to War by Michael S. Neiberg with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.

In February 1915 the German government had announced its intention to sink ships headed into active war zones. On March 28, one American died when a German ship sank the liner Falaba off the coast of Sierra Leone. On May 1, a U-boat had struck the American oil tanker Gulflight off the coast of Cornwall, killing three more Americans. The German government apologized and blamed the latter incident on a case of mistaken identification. Wilson pledged to hold the Germans to “strict accountability,” but the incidents soon faded from public view.

Just a few days later, however, the issue of submarine warfare catapulted back onto center stage when a U-boat sank the Lusitania, the world’s foremost luxury liner, a ship that had transported statesmen, journalists, businessmen, and tourists between the United States and Europe in war and peace alike since its celebrated launch in 1906. Edward House had sailed on it earlier in the war, as had war correspondents Frederick Palmer and Irvin Cobb when they left for Europe to cover the German invasion of Belgium. The Lusitania was therefore more than just any ship. It represented to many people, on both sides of the Atlantic, a pinnacle of Western civilization; the Cunard Liner company advertised its magnificent ship as “a perfect epitome of all that man knows or has discovered or invented up to this moment in time.”

American and British leaders saw the sinking of the unarmed and vulnerable Lusitania as a symbol of the threat that Germany posed to the vital links between them and to civilization itself. Page had not mentioned any specific ship by name in the letter to his son, but just days before the sinking King George V had specifically asked House, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?”

Germany had announced its intention to sink passenger liners; German officials had even taken out advertisements in New York newspapers, warning Americans that they traveled into the North Atlantic war zone at their own risk. Several people with bookings on the ship’s ill-fated voyage, including playwright Justus Miles Forman, had received mysterious phone calls in the days before the ship’s departure from men with German accents urging them not to travel on the ship. They had all ignored the warnings, presuming them to be a hoax or some kind of sick joke. No one in the United States seemed to believe that the Germans would actually target a famous and luxurious ocean liner carrying innocent civilians. The Lusitania, a massive ship with four distinctive funnels, was not the Falaba or the Gulflight; in this case, there could be no claim of mistaken identification. Most believed that the famous ship was safe from harm; in any case it was supposed to be fast enough to outrun submarines.

Nonetheless, a German U-boat did sink the ship off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Almost 1,200 people died in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, including 128 Americans. The tales of horror told by the 764 survivors, as well as the photographs of their hollowed, traumatized faces, first shocked and then outraged Americans. Although there were no anti-German riots in the United States—as there were in Canada—anti-German sentiment ran hot. Newspapers brought out what they called their “Second Coming Type” for once-in-a-generation size headlines. The German embassy’s statement that the ship had been carrying war contraband failed to convince contemporaries of the justice of sinking it and the German government’s celebration of the event, including the casting of commemorative medals, only added to American fury. Life responded with a cover image showing a submarine’s periscope (sliding menacingly westward) across an ocean with a caption reading “The Assassin.”

The Lusitania sinking proved that the European war had finally become America’s. American lives had now been lost, including those of innocent women and children. Fifty children under one year of age had died on the Lusitania, and several newspapers reprinted a photograph of a Philadelphia couple and their six children with the caption “all lost with the Lusitania.” The ensuing diplomatic crisis created a need to come together and face an unprecedented international crisis with one voice. Virtually all Americans felt an impulse to demonstrate that, whatever their views on the war, they now stood shoulder to shoulder with their countrymen in a time of need. From Richmond, Virginia, came a pledge from the Jewish community to prove that “Good, red American blood had not disappeared from the face of the earth.” Patriotism, they noted, “asserted itself,” both inside the Jewish community and out. One newspaper pledged that American Jews “will take their stand with the body of patriotic Americans who are intent on preserving the honor of the Republic and on safeguarding the welfare of its people.” The American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger urged calm but noted that the nation faced a moment of truth as grave as anything since the sectional crisis that had produced the Civil War. The sinking was, in the eyes of the editors, “a demonstration of the terrors that war can bring to noncombatants innocent of any thought of human destruction.” If America had believed itself immune from the nightmare of that terror, the sinking of the Lusitania definitively proved otherwise.