Lusitania? Background Information

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History Lab: Who should be held accountable for the death and destruction of the Lusitania?

Background Information:

In 1916, citizens elected President Wilson for a second term. His campaign slogan1 was, “he kept us out of war.” Less than a year later, the country entered the war reluctantly, but determined. The biggest change of American public opinion about the war came after the sinking of a British supply ship, the RMS Lusitania. Here is the story of the famous ocean liner.

In February 1915, the German government announced a new policy of unrestricted2 submarine3 warfare. Their underwater U-boats would sink any vessels around Great Britain. Before, Germany had captured enemy ships. Now they would simply destroy ships, passengers and all.

On May 1, 1915, the British ship Lusitania set course from New York to Liverpool, England. The passengers and crew knew about Germany’s policy. Many ships had been sunk already. However, the Lusitania was famous for its speed. The passengers were confident that the ship would be safe. When the ship approached dangerous waters, fog blanketed the air. Worried by the weather, Captain William Turner slowed down. At less than top speed, the Lusitania made an easier target.

Off the southern coast of Ireland, a German submarine spotted the ship. The submarine shot a single torpedo. The shot crashed into the hull, or main body of the ship. The torpedo exploded on contact. A few seconds later, another explosion rocked the ship. Experts think that coal storage areas caught on fire during the first explosion and caused the second explosion. In 18 minutes, the ship was under water. Over 1,100 people out of more than 1,900 on board died, including more than 120 Americans.

The United States was outraged. President Wilson and United States citizens could no longer ignore the war. Germany did not want the United States to get involved. Temporarily, Germany stopped sinking vessels with civilian passengers, but this policy change was only temporary. In February 1917, Germany again declared unrestricted submarine warfare. To make matters worse, Germany decided to shoot neutral ships, including United States vessels—not just the ships of the countries already at war. (Remember that the Lusitania was British.)

United States’ ships had been supplying Great Britain food and vital4 supplies. Germany wanted to cut off trade routes between the two countries and starve Great Britain into surrender. Great Britain could not survive without American supplies, and President Wilson and the American people could not ignore Germany’s announcement. Great Britain was only six weeks away from running out of food supplies. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked the Congress of the United States to declare war.

Source: 2012 ReadWorks


Source 1: Image of the Lusitania

the lusitania: the ship sank in just 18 minutes and still lies at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of cork in ireand


Source 2: A 1915 sketch of the Lusitania passenger ship tragedy

disaster: a 1915 sketch of the lusitania passenger ship tragedy in which 1,198 people were drowned


Source 3: April 22, 1915 NY Times add paid by German Government Warning of Submarine Attacks

Source 4: Woodrow Wilson – May 10, 1915 – Address to New American Citizens

The example of America must be a special example. The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.

Source 5: Woodrow Wilson – May 13 and July 21, 1815 – Official Response to German Government

In view of recent acts of the German authorities in violation of American rights on the high seas which culminated in the torpedoing and sinking of the British steamship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by which over 100 American citizens lost their lives, it is clearly wise and desirable that the government of the United States and the Imperial German government should come to a clear and full understanding as to the grave situation which has resulted…

The sinking of the British passenger steamer Falaba by a German submarine on March 28, through which Leon C. Thrasher, an American citizen, was drowned; the attack on April 28 on the American vessel Cushing by a German aeroplane; the torpedoing on May 1 of the American vessel Gulflight by a German submarine, as a result of which two or more American citizens met their death; and, finally, the torpedoing and sinking of the steamship Lusitania constitute a series of events which the government of the United States has observed with growing concern, distress, and amazement.

Future attacks by German Naval commanders will be regarded as unfriendly and elevated to a most serious status.

Source 6: Former President Theodore Roosevelt, June 23, 1915

“I am pretty well disgusted with our government and with the way our people acquiesce (submit) in and support it. I suppose, however, in a democracy like ours the people will always do well or ill largely in proportion to their leadership. If Lincoln had acted after the firing on Sumter in the way that Wilson did about the sinking of the Lusitania, in one month the North would have been saying they were so glad he kept them out of war and they were too proud to fight and that at all hazards fratricidal war must be averted.”

Source: Theodore Roosevelt to Oscar King Davis, June 23, 1915. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC08003)

Source 7: A Survivor of the Lusitania, Margaret Haig Thomas

As a matter of fact, I believe that no British and scarcely any American passengers acted on the warning, but we were most of us very fully conscious of the risk we were running. A number of people wrote farewell letters to their home folk and posted them in New York to follow on another vessel.”

Source: Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

Source 8: Controversial historian Howard Zinn’s take on the sinking of the Lusitania

“It was unrealistic to expect that the Germans should treat the United States as neutral in the war when the U.S. had been shipping great amounts of war materials to Germany's enemies. In early 1915, the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. She sank in eighteen minutes, and 1,198 people died, including 124 Americans.
The United States claimed the Lusitania carried an innocent cargo, and therefore the torpedoing was a monstrous German atrocity. Actually, the Lusitania was heavily armed: it carried 1,248 cases of 3-inch shells, 4,927 boxes of cartridges (1,000 rounds in each box), and 2,000 more cases of small-arms ammunition. Her manifests were falsified to hide this fact, and the British and American governments lied about the cargo.”

Source:  Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, page 361

Source: Pro-American Political Cartoon

Source 9: American Political Cartoon Reacting to the sinking of the Lusitania

i want you for the u.s. army (1917)

Source: William Allen Rogers, Here are the Facts (May, 1915)

Source 10: Official German Government Response to the sinking of the Lusitania, August 19, 1945

The Imperial Government must specially point out that on her last trip the Lusitania, as on earlier occasions, had Canadian troops and munitions on board, including no less than 5,400 cases of ammunition destined for the destruction of brave German soldiers who are fulfilling with self-sacrifice and devotion their duty in the service of the Fatherland. The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defense when it seeks to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy with the means of war at its command.”

Source: Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg speech in the Reichstag on the sinking of the Lusitania 

(August 19, 1915)

Source 11: Life Magazine Political Cartoon - April 13, 1916

Kaiser Wilhelm II to President Woodrow Wilson: "Here's money for your Americans. I may drown some more." Life Magazine 

i want you for the u.s. army (1917)

Source: Life Magzine, April 13, 1916

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Source or Text

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Source 1:

Image of the Lusitania

Source 2:

Sketch of the sinking of the Lusitania

Source 3:

German Warning Add

Source 4:

Response to New American Citizens

Source 5:

Woodrow Wilson to German Government

Source 6:

Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s take on the Lusitania

Source 7:

Survivor of the Lusitania

Source 8:

Controversial Historian Howard Zinn’s take on the Lusitania

Source 9:

American Political Cartoon

Source 10:

Official German Response to Lusitania

Source 11:

Life Magazine Kaiser Wilhelm Political Cartoon

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