Who Sank The Lusitania?

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by Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan The Free Press, 306 pp. $10.95

About two years ago this magazine was approached by Thomas A. Bailey, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford University, with the suggestion that he submit a review of Lusitania , a book about the famous World War I sea disaster by Colin Simpson, published in 1972. The proposed review would “expose the major misconceptions … about this subject, including Simpson’s.” We agreed, and in due course the review arrived— written by Professor Bailey in collaboration with Captain Paul B. Ryan, a retired naval officer.

Simpson’s book, published both in England and in America, had enjoyed a considerable success. This was attributable in part to an easygoing narrative style, in part to the impressive bibliography and notes (which seemed to puncture any suspicion that the breezy prose reflected any lack of serious research)—but above all to Simpson’s sensational thesis. Briefly, his book claimed to present evidence showing that the sinking of the gigantic liner by a German submarine, with a loss of some twelve hundred lives, was not only justified from the point of view of international law but in fact was deliberately provoked by the British Admiralty (with Winston Churchill the mastermind of the plot) in order to outrage American opinion over the 128 American lives lost and bring this country into the war as Britain’s ally. It was because we at AMERICAN HERITAGE found this thesis rather unconvincing that we welcomed Professor Bailey’s proposal to write a rebuttal of Simpson’s book.

What frankly took us by surprise was the harsh tone of the Bailey and Ryan review, which we have never run. It got off to a fierce start by calling the Simpson book “fictionalized history”; it then wound up, after several pages of concentrated attack, by calling Simpson “an authentic throwback to the sensational yellow journalism of the Spanish-American War era, when the reporter was not supposed to invent or exaggerate unless he improved the story.” When we reflected that Bailey and Ryan were, as they had informed us, currently at work on a book on the Lusitania affair themselves and therefore might be suspected by some as not quite impartial, we felt growing doubts about the propriety of running their review.

Nevertheless it is an intriguing document—not least because of a strange ambiguity: after apparently rejecting some of Simpson’s basic arguments about the Lusitania, Bailey and Ryan go on to produce paragraphs that seem to support those same arguments.

Take the question of the Lusitania ’s armament. Simpson argues that the great steamer was in effect a warship because she was equipped (he claims) with twelve 6-inch guns—hidden, to be sure, but capable of being put into place and used against enemy shipping in a matter of minutes. True or false, Simpson’s point here is meant to partly justify (“like the Germans of 1915,” Bailey and Ryan say) the U-boat commander who, on the afternoon of May 7, 1915, fired a torpedo into the bowels of the Lusitania totally without warning and sent to the bottom the world’s biggest, fastest, and most luxurious ocean liner. Bailey and Ryan do a good job of making Simpson’s evidence on this point look egregiously flimsy and exaggerated, and the dispassionate reader must conclude that in high probability there were no guns, hidden or otherwise, on the Lusitania . It is all the more surprising, therefore, to have Bailey and Ryan proceed, in the next paragraph, to jump over on Simpson’s side of the fence:

But in a sense this “innocent” passenger ship was armed offensively, with a massive steel prow, and was hence in German eyes a warship subject to destruction without warning. The luckless captain, William T. Turner, was carrying top-secret orders from the Admiralty to “steer straight for” any menacing submarine “at your utmost speed,” provided that ramming or attempted ramming seemed a safer course than trying to escape. This tactic, of course, was offensively defensive; and if the American case against Germany had been submitted to impartial arbitration, as Berlin proposed, a body like the Hague Tribunal might have regarded the Lusitania … as in effect a warship.

Thus, “like the Germans of 1915,” Bailey and Ryan tend to justify the sinking of the liner just as Simpson does, only on better grounds.