A Liner, A U-boat... And History

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The first part of May, 1915, was a time of concern in Europe, not so much for the public which everywhere still had the heart to accept the optimistic headlines of the press, but for the handful of men in each of the warring nations who understood that crucial decisions were in the making. On both sides the first crafty calculations of quick victory had been exploded. The overconfident blueprints of conquest had been laid aside as control passed into the hands of sober soldiers and politicians who understood that the war would be long and hard.

A somber mood hung over London. Nine months before Foreign Secretary Grey had seen the lights go out all over Europe and had marked it down as the beginning of the end of the world that he had known. There was no cause for greater optimism now. The first German thrusts had been repulsed. But the ultimate outcome was still unclear. Many an Englishman now thought the country’s best hope for the future lay in strengthening its understanding with the United States.

The longstanding enmity between the former colony and the mother country had begun to abate toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. Old grievances had been settled and English statesmen had gone out of their way to pay court to Americans. Now and then the hope was even expressed that some day the transatlantic breach would be healed and some form of union would draw together the two “Anglo-Saxon” powers.

The outbreak of war made the rapprochement crucial, for the United States was the most powerful neutral on earth. The British launched an intensive propaganda campaign to win over the Americans to an understanding of the Teutonic menace to civilization. American aid in the form of munitions and money began to flow across the Atlantic.

For the Germans the war had begun with a series of miscalculations. All their lives the members of the General Staff and the Kaiser’s elaborate corps of imperial advisers had labored to reduce the manifold possibilities of international politics to a scientific system, mathematically coherent enough to take account of every contingency. Assuming that power A acted, while B and C did not, and E remained indecisive, then we in conjunction with F must move into phase G, prepared to deploy, on day H at I hour, J men according to scheme K. So ran the elaborate plans they spun, abstract from any immediate human consideration.

Hemmed in by formulae, and bound by the cast-iron obligations of alliances, they seemed to have lost their freedom of diplomatic maneuver. In the complex pattern of the European balance of power every event had its necessary response. If the Russians mobilized, the Germans had to declare war. If the French came in in support of the Russians, the quick thrust through Belgium was inescapable. It had all been set down in logic so tight there was no crevice through which to wiggle to an alternative.

By the spring of 1915, however, it was sadly apparent that the elaborate plans had miscarried. The Prussian tradition had always looked toward short brisk wars; and in contemplating this one the General Staff had envisaged quick knockout blows to east and west that would create the conditions for a settlement. No one had foreseen the bloody stalemate that was to bog down great armies as they took to the trenches.

For the time being the German naval command limited its operations to the destruction of Allied commerce, hoping thus to counteract the influence of the blockade. It used toward that end whatever miscellaneous corsairs it could scrape together, including a few submarines, then regarded as little more than experimental toys. In February, 1915, a war zone had been proclaimed around the British Isles within which all Allied ships were to be sunk at sight.

In the next few months an occasional sinking brought protests; Germany had after all signed various international conventions, agreeing that passengers be warned and given the opportunity to leave the ships about to be sunk. The advertisement in the New York papers of May i had been the response. Travelers intending to embark on the Lusitania had had their warning, and their opportunity.

In Washington quite a different view prevailed.

The Democrats had come back to office after sixteen years out of power. None of the party chiefs had much experience with foreign affairs.

The first place in the cabinet had gone to William Jennings Bryan as a reward for his aid in securing Wilson the nomination. Given the circumstances, the appointment was far better than anticipated.

The central problem was peace. Bryan took office in a period of high hopes. A little earlier Andrew Carnegie, setting up the endowment for international peace, had worried over the disposition of his fund when wars had ceased to exist; so near to the desired goal did men then think they were! The new secretary launched upon a program designed to further international understanding by arbitration treaties and other measures. When the war came he was terribly disappointed; but he was resolved, like his chief, that American neutrality was the best means of quieting Europe in its feverish state.