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

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The Kaiser’s government weighed the risk. More certainly than Wilson himself they realized that this would mean war with the United States. But the Americans were remote and not mobilized; they could hardly make ready in time to affect the course of events. And the decisive calculation was this: the Lusitania had shown that submarines could be built far more quickly than the ships they destroyed. At the end of January, 1917, the Imperial German Government gave notice that it was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

For Wilson the long struggle for neutrality was ended. A man of peace, he had a hatred for war; and better than most of his contemporaries he could foresee what the costs of war would be. Yet as Bryan had predicted, the stand taken in the heat of indignation at the sinking of the Lusitania compelled the President now to treat the resumption of submarine operations as an aggressive act directed against the United States. Wilson could not withdraw without an unbearable sacrifice of principle. Diplomatic relations were cut at once, and shortly a formal declaration of war associated the United States with the Allied Powers.

For Wilson, who moved reluctantly toward it, and for many Americans who welcomed their involvement innocently, almost gaily, the destruction of the Lusitania had been a turning point. Had the ship made a safe landing and Captain Schweiger proceeded disconsolately home, millions of Americans might not then have recognized the horrifying face of modern war. And without the mood of revulsion that followed, the government might not then have committed itself to a course that in time led the nation unprepared into the midst of the fighting.