Who Sank The Lusitania?

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Again, Simpson spends a lot of time arguing that the Lusitania ’s cargo consisted in part of cartons of high explosives disguised as cheese and furs. If so, this was contraband, of course, and further reason to justify a German attack; but besides that, if the high explosives were really there, they may have caused a second heavy explosion after the torpedo struck, and helped to sink the massive liner in record time (eighteen minutes). Bailey and Ryan demonstrate that Simpson’s evidence on the supposed high explosives is dubious, and they make a good case for believing that the almost incredible impact of the German torpedo resulted from a lucky strike on one of the ship’s boilers, which then devastatingly exploded. What seems to be more important, however, is that they carefully document the fact that some 4,200,000 rounds of rifle ammunition were indeed part of the Lusitania ’s cargo. Again, therefore, Bailey and Ryan actually support an argument that they attack Simpson for pushing, namely that (as they put it) the ship was “a potential armed merchant cruiser actually carrying munitions for the making of German widows and orphans.” In view of their promotion of this line of argument, their nasty tone toward Simpson seems considerably overblown.

But it is Simpson’s contention that Winston Churchill deliberately exposed the Lusitania to German submarines that most arouses the wrath of Bailey and Ryan. “If,” they say, “a bloody-handed Churchill had contrived to slaughter some twelve hundred men, women, and children, he was a wholesale murderer of human beings, most of them his own people.” This sensational choice of words, it should be noted, is not Simpson’s; and it should also be noted that nobody, including Churchill, could have predicted the amazingly rapid sinking of the Lusitania or the consequently enormous loss of life. What Simpson argues is that Churchill was ruthless enough in war to contemplate with equanimity the loss of a considerable number of lives, whether military or civilian, for the sake of gaining a distinct advantage over the enemy. Churchill’s whole career lends ample evidence to support that view. In the present case the relevant questions are whether the First Lord of the Admiralty was eager to get America into the war in 1915 and, if so, whether he may have considered exposing the Lusitania , with her 197 Americans aboard, as a means to that goal.

Although Bailey and Ryan explain why few British leaders in 1915 wanted America in the war (she was too valuable as a “neutral” supplier of war materiel which, if she became a belligerent, would be diverted to her own use), they may not fully have considered Churchill’s penchant for looking ahead. In this instance, with the western front settling down to a long war of attrition, he almost certainly foresaw the time when direct American military assistance would be wanted. More specifically, there is evidence that Churchill had required a subordinate to submit a paper “on the political results,” as Simpson puts it, “of an ocean liner being sunk with American passengers on board.”

Yet this is a far cry from proving that Churchill conspired to expose the Lusitania unduly in May, 1915. Everything considered, Bailey and Ryan are persuasive in arguing that Colin Simpson was mistaken and that Winston Churchill, however adept he may have been at thinking the unthinkable, was not the mastermind of a plot that brought about the disaster. They also produce many carefully documented details that throw serious doubt on Simpson’s methods of research and his reliability as a historian. One interesting question revolves around a letter written, according to Simpson, in 1915 by “a lady whose family to this day forbid her name to be mentioned, possibly because one of them in due course became a President of the United States”—a letter supporting the idea that the Lusitania carried concealed armament. Professor Bailey has declared that this letter does not exist; and indeed, when AMERICAN HERITAGE attempted to track it down, the search proved futile. Simpson’s notes credited it to “the Robert Lansing papers…; but it is not to be found in that collection, and when we urged Mr. Simpson repeatedly, by mail and by telephone, to send us a photocopy of the letter, he became quite vague and failed to produce one.

As indicated above, the violence of Bailey and Ryan’s attack on Simpson, plus certain ambiguities and confusions in their essay, gave us pause about publishing their review. It is a pleasure to report, now, that Professor Bailey and Captain Ryan have completed their own book, The Lusitania Disaster , and that it not only adopts a far calmer and more detached attitude toward Mr. Simpson but seems in every way to be the most judicious and thoroughly researched book on the Lusitania affair ever published. If the work has a major fault, it is derived from its virtues: the average reader will be told far more than he wants to know about the rules of international warfare before and after the introduction of the submarine, sinkings of merchant ships prior to that of the Lusitania , boards of inquiry afterward, and so on; and he may grow irritated over the seemingly endless repetition of certain facts, important though they may be.