Why was the Sinking of the Lusitania so Controversial?
By Allyn Lawrence
If you asked people a reason for the United States of America entering the First World War, one of the most common answers would be the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. On May 7, 1915, this British ocean liner was spotted and torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank within eighteen minutes, leading to the death of 1,198 individuals, 128 of whom were American. One Washington State newspaper, issued six days after the ship’s sinking, cited an American citizen describing the attack on the Lusitania as “nothing short of savagery.”i Indeed, the sinking of the Lusitania enraged the American public. German/American relations suffered immediately following the event. The sinking helped to motivate the United States of America to join the world conflict two years later in April of 1917.
However, the Lusitania was not the only passenger ship destroyed during World War One. From 1914-1918, over 6,000 Allied and neutral ships were sunk by U-boats of the Triple Alliance. The German Navy specifically targeted close to 50 foreign passenger ships as a part of its military campaign, using direct ambushes and underwater mines to sink enemy vessels.
On August 19, 1915, the Germans targeted and torpedoed the SS Arabic, a White Star ocean liner en route to New York from Ireland. 44 people died when the ship sank.
In November of the same year, the HMHS Britannic suffered a catastrophe when the ship hit a mine left by the German Navy near the Greek island of Kea. 30 lives were lost.
And in 1916, a German U-boat fired upon the SS Sussex (a French passenger ferry) in the English Channel, leading to the death of 50-100 individuals.ii
Obviously, the Lusitania was just one of the thousands of ships sunk by the German Imperial Navy during World War One. Yet, to this day, it is remembered as a major precipitant of the United States joining the war. Why is this? Why was the sinking of the Lusitania so controversial? Why was this event so important?
One explanation may lie in those sailing on the ship during its final voyage. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a wealthy businessman and one of the richest men in the United States at the time, had booked a trip on the Lusitania for business. Son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Alfred spent his career building up the Vanderbilt fortune, working at different Railroad companies on the East Coast. Most notably, he worked as a clerk at New York Central Railroad, and was later a director for Fulton Chain Railway Company. Alfred also built the Vanderbilt Hotel (at Park Avenue and 34th street) in New York City. A captain of industry, Alfred Vanderbilt symbolized the strength and prowess of American capitalism.
After the torpedo hit the Lusitania on May 7, Vanderbilt promptly began helping others into lifeboats. He gave up his life vest to a young mother and her child in the final moments before the ship went down. Unfortunately, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished when the ship sank. His body was never recovered. When he went down with the ship, his fortune was given to different members of the family, who later squandered his wealth.iii
Perhaps this is one reason the United States of America was so aggrieved with Germany’s attack on the Lusitania. It would be natural for the people of the United States to mourn the sinking of the Lusitania, if only because of the number of Americans who died that day. However, the United States might have felt particularly victimized because a powerful member of the Vanderbilt clan – a family that had helped build American railways in the nineteenth century – was one of those Americans who perished. Alfred himself was a symbol for capitalism; therefore, Germany essentially assaulted American economics. The Germans had killed one of the United States’ brightest businessmen, cutting short his future impact on the world economy.
Vanderbilt’s death could also explain the press coverage of the sinking of the Lusitania. When famous individuals are lost at sea – such as John Jacob Astor IV (a millionaire) and Isidor Straus (the co-owner of Macy’s department store) when the Titanic sank – there is always more press.iv On the thousands of other ships destroyed by Germany in World War One, no one else of Vanderbilt’s status had died. Vanderbilt’s death certainly garnered additional attention through the press’ coverage.
Another reason the sinking of the Lusitania was controversial could be attributed to Germany’s response. After the events of May 7, 1915, the U.S. government expected Germany to admit guilt. Yet this did not happen. Germany, instead, tried to validate its actions. The nation originally claimed that the torpedoing of the Lusitania was justified, citing the fact that Americans were warned not to travel across the Atlantic on British ships during the war. The German government also claimed that, because the ship was carrying ammunition, it was fair game for attacks. Such a response from Germany further angered the American public, who was looking for an immediate apology from the belligerent nation.v
President Wilson sent three notes to Berlin. He asked Germany to deny the sinking, compensate those impacted by the sinking, and stop attacking peaceful ships. After the sinking of the Lusitania in May and the Sussex in March of 1916, Germany promised it would not sink any more passenger ships. However, Germany resumed its unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917. Germany’s blasé attitude and fickle promises might have made the United States view the sinking of the Lusitania as a significant matter. The number of innocent lives lost on May 7, 1915 upset the American people, who were looking to Germany for remorse. Instead, Germany continued with its actions. This made the United States want to advocate for the Lusitania and its tragedy.vi
In the months following the ship’s sinking, newspapers, journalists, and cartoonists captured the public’s outrage. This media coverage made the sinking of the Lusitania a popular news topic. Political cartoons, such as the one included, depicted Kaiser Wilhelm II and the rest of the German Reich as devious. There was talk that the torpedoing was a planned sneak attack, that the Germans had targeted the Lusitania to hurt the British and American people. Soon, the ship became associated with evil and malice.
As the Lusitania gained more press, the events of May 7, 1915 became more controversial. Just as the cry “Remember the Maine,” after the sinking of the battleship during the Spanish-American war engendered public support, the phrase “Remember the Lusitania” was coined to rally the American public. Posters were made to remind the people of what happened. Such publicity effectively put the Lusitania into the international spotlight. When the United States joined the war in 1917, people were still advocating for the remembrance of the Lusitania.vii
In truth, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania was controversial for innumerable reasons. The high death toll, the loss of prominent citizens, Germany’s response – all played a role in enraging the American public. The controversy over the ship’s sinking has allowed it to be remembered by history books a hundred and six years later. The sinking of the Lusitania certainly motivated the United States of America to join the war, although it was not the only cause. We pay respect to all those who lost their lives on May 7, 1915 – innocent victims caught up in an ugly war. For all of these reasons, even today, we must “Remember the Lusitania.”
[i] "May 13, 1915 (Page 4)," The Washington Socialist (1914-1915), May 13, 1915, 4, https://proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/historical-newspapers/may-13-1915-page-4/docview/2434489880/se-2?accountid=14378.
[ii] “The Sinking of the Lusitania at 100: Passenger Ships in World War I,” US Naval Institute Staff, May 7, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/05/07/the-sinking-of-the-lusitania-at-100-passenger-ships-in-world-war-i.
[iii] Larry Holzwarth, “10 Reasons the Vanderbilts Lost the World’s Greatest Fortune,” History Collection, August 3, 2018, https://historycollection.com/10-reasons-the-vanderbilts-lost-the-worlds-greatest-fortune/8/.[(iv] Stephanie Barczewski, Titanic 100th Anniversary Edition: A Night Remembered (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2012), ProQuest Ebook Central, 38-39, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/towson/detail.action?docID=5309677
[v] Frank Trommler, "The Lusitania Effect: America's Mobilization against Germany in World War I," German Studies Review 32, no. 2 (2009): 241, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40574799.
[vi] Ibid., 244.
[vii] Ibid., 243.
Allyn Lawrence is a Spring 2021 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.