- Historic Sites
A Liner, A U-boat... And History
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
In February, 1915, the German declaration of the war zone—an illegal act—had offended the President. Bryan, foreseeing the consequences, had urged the government to forbid its citizens to expose themselves to risks that were also risks for the whole nation. But Wilson would not yield. Americans had a perfect right to travel where they wished and on what ships they chose, including those of belligerents; and the United States would hold the Germans strictly accountable for any harm that might befall them.
By May 7 he had not in the least modified this rigid position.
That day Captain Schweiger watched the ship speed across his periscope. Its name was unclear. But it was certainly British and large. A fair prize.
The time was short. The tube was ready. He ordered a torpedo released.
As he watched the course of the speeding missile, Schweiger’s heart sank in disappointment. The torpedo was obviously wide of its mark.
He had not time, however, to move back from the eyepiece when he noticed the target unaccountably veer and head directly into the path of the approaching torpedo. The torpedo struck home, and the ship quivered from the impact. Slowly she began to sink.
The U-20 stood back to watch its victim’s boats being lowered and to see the passengers taken off. Schweiger could not make out the confusion aboard, the dismay and incomprehension among those who had thought themselves almost safely ashore. He only knew that the work went slowly. Eighteen minutes later a sharp explosion tore the vessel apart. She went down stern foremost. Just before the waters closed over her proud bow, the U-boat commander could at last make out her name. His prize had been the Lusitania .
Schweiger went home to a promotion and a medal; this had been the greatest victory of the German submarine campaign.
But the sinking of the Lusitania had another deeper significance. Including the 600 crewmen almost 1,200 people had perished. A shock of revulsion passed through neutral America. Civilians, it was believed, ought not to be spattered with the blood of the battlefields. Now all the faith in the gallantry of war began to fade; those battles were not limited to the men in arms, but reached out to embrace everyone. And the Germans had been responsible.
Among those who went down with the Lusitania were more than one hundred Americans. Their death was a direct challenge to the President who had said that he would hold the Germans strictly accountable for such loss of lives. For almost two years the government of the United States tried to get Berlin to accept responsibility and to make adequate reparations. The Germans would not yield.
For the President, however, still more was involved. A principle was at stake. The submarine campaign flouted international law. To him that was clear while all else was dark and confused. The seesaw of armies across Europe made the future of that continent uncertain. Menacing moves by the Japanese threatened the stability of Asia. At home there was a brief recession, and the American economy became ever more meshed in with the needs of the Allied war machines.
By the end of the month the German Government had rejected the first American note of protest, maintaining that the attack on the Lusitania was an act of “just self-defense” and rejecting entirely the President’s contention that it was responsible for the loss of lives.
The President himself set the terms of the American rejoinder. It was phrased in words so strong that Bryan refused to sign it. The note took a position from which the United States would not in the future be able to recede, one from which there could be no response to a German rebuff but war. The secretary of state feared the dangerous slope down which the nation was plunging and resigned rather than send off the message.
Wilson did not think that war would follow, and he was right. The Germans preferred to spin out the discussions over months, and finally, almost a year after the Lusitania went down, announced the suspension of the submarine campaign.
This turn of policy was not due, however, to acceptance of Wilson’s principle or to rejection of the submarine as a weapon. The Kaiser at that juncture wished to keep the Americans mollified while the summer campaigns, newly planned, brought him victory. The issue fell into temporary abeyance, and Wilson could in good earnest claim in the campaign of that year that he had kept us out of war. Nonetheless, he now and then expressed his uneasiness; he had not withdrawn from the advanced position of the Lusitania notes, and another shift in German policy might compel him to move on to action.
In the fall and winter of 1916 the memory of the Lusitania was vivid also in other minds. The German columns moving forward were everywhere at length stopped; the snow began to cover Europe with the war still unended. More than ever it was necessary to break out of the vise of the blockade and to cut the revivifying flow of supplies that kept the Allies strong. The naval command thought back to the achievement of the U-20 . How readily the tiny craft with its handful of men had destroyed the 40,000-ton pride of the British merchant marine!