Will: Lusitania's role in history overrated

George Will
Washington Post

In 1968, Gregg Bemis became an owner of the Lusitania. This 787-feet-long passenger liner has been beneath 300 feet of water off Ireland's south coast since a single German torpedo sank it 100 years ago Thursday.

It is commonly but wrongly said that the sinking altered history's trajectory. Yet some people, including Britain's first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, hoped an attack on a ship would pull America into the war.

In "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania," Erik Larson notes that early in 1915 warfare was evolving. Larson's story concerns a technology central to Germany's strategy: Submarines supposedly would interdict supplies heading to Britain, which imported two-thirds of its food.

The morning the Lusitania left New York, Germany's U.S. embassy placed on the shipping pages of the city's newspapers its usual notice that vessels flying the British flag "are liable to destruction" in the war zone, including waters around the United Kingdom. Capt. William Turner soothed anxious passengers by noting that his ship could outrun a submarine. Turner also said that upon entering the war zone, the ship would be enveloped by the British Navy's protection. He was wrong.

Because some passengers had to be transferred from another liner, Lusitania left America two hours late. To pare costs in the face of declining wartime travel, the ship conserved coal by using just three of its four boiler rooms, which prolonged the voyage. If neither delay had happened, Lusitania's course probably would not have intersected U-20's. British officials did not tell Turner to alter Lusitania's route to Liverpool and did not send even a single one of the available navy vessels for protection.

Churchill had spoken of attracting shipping to Britain's shores "in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany."

Larson notes that the day Lusitania was sunk, Col. Edward House, Wilson's adviser, was in London, where King George V asked him: "Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?"

American anger was muted and the nation's neutrality survived until two months after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. A "dead wake," Larson explains, is maritime vernacular for a trail of "a fading disturbance," as from a torpedo. What Gregg Bemis owns is a relic of a tragedy that was a consequence, not a cause, of many others.

George Will writes for the Washington Post.