Why was the sinking of the lusitania such a turning point during world war i?

In fact, logistics played a key part in bringing our nation into this conflict — in particular, America’s policy of, despite official neutrality, providing supplies to Britain via merchant ships.

At the turn of the 20th century, most Americans had grown weary of nearly a century of war. In the latter half of the 19th century alone, Americans fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Mexican War, not to mention the Indian Wars. In fact, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

But soon after war broke out in August 1914, America began to supply food, materials and even munitions to Britain and other German enemies, such as Italy. Germany — itself under pressure from a British sea blockade — began using its "unterseeboote," better known as U-boats or submarines, to sink these merchant ships in 1915. The Germans believed that American merchant ships, by delivering supplies, were contributing in a real way to the success of their enemy, Great Britain.

“Cruiser law” of the era dictated that unarmed vessels first be boarded, inspected for contraband, and if contraband was found, be afforded enough time for crew and passengers to escape via lifeboats. The first such attack, in January 1915, was of the ship William P. Frey, which was carrying wheat to Britain. Germany sank several more U.S. merchant ships that year. However, because of the comparatively genteel rules of engagement, most of these early sinkings brought no casualties.

This changed, however, with the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915. The attacking submarine gave no warning and made no attempt to rescue passengers. The attack killed nearly 1,200 civilians, including 128 Americans, many of them prominent civilians instead of the isolated losses of working-class merchant mariners in previous attacks. The sinking of the Lusitania led to widespread criticism of Germany, and so Germany soon re-imposed its own restrictions on its submarines.

But by early 1917, Germany was on the verge of losing the war. And so it declared on Jan. 31 that its submarines had the right to sink any ship in the war zone encircling the United Kingdom, without warning.

Between this announcement and the U.S. declaration of war on April 6, Germany sank 10 U.S. merchant ships. The Housatonic, first ship sunk after the announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare was carrying wheat to the British government. The second ship, the Lyman M. Law, was sunk for carrying what Germany considered lumber — in actuality thin strips of wood used to build lemon crates.

However, it was the sinking of three merchant ships in the same weekend in March that may have tipped Wilson and his cabinet toward war, according to Rodney Carlisle, in his 2007 article for the Canadian nautical journal Northern Mariner. The sinking of the Vigilancia killed 15 crew members, including six Americans. The other two ships, the City of Memphis and the Illinois, were empty and on the way back to the United States, but the fact that the Germans made no attempt to warn them, seize any contraband and give the crew a chance to escape was the probable turning point for Wilson, who considered such aggression barbaric, according to Carlisle.

In the Germans’ defense, their submarines were at great risk once they surfaced and made their presence known, given that the British government had urged merchant ships to ram German subs when possible.

As to the views of the American public, these ongoing attacks with their civilian deaths, combined with the Rape of Belgium; Germany’s offer in the Zimmerman Telegram to return to Mexico a large, recently acquired swath of the United States; and the prospect of a “war to end all wars,” turned the nation from isolationism to nationalism. And so America declared war April 6, 1917, with the first U.S. troops arriving in June.

A German U-boat sank the luxury ocean liner Lusitania, seen here in 1907, on May 7, 1915. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Why was the sinking of the lusitania such a turning point during world war i?

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Exclusive First Read: Erik Larson's 'Dead Wake'

Larson tells NPR's Scott Simon that before that day in 1915, the Lusitania was seen as invulnerable: "At the time, it was the fastest and most glamorous ocean liner then in service. And, you know, given the hubris of the time, [it] was thought to be so fast and so large that no submarine A) could catch it, B) could sink it. In fact, [Winston] Churchill was very skeptical as to whether the Germans would ever use a submarine against civilian shipping. He didn't think it was possible: It was inhumane; it violated all the rules of naval warfare that existed, at least up until that point."

Interview Highlights

On the Lusitania's captain, William Thomas Turner

He's kind of a captain of the old school — he referred to himself as an old sailor man. He was really a staunch, totally able and capable sea captain.

Why was the sinking of the lusitania such a turning point during world war i?

Dead Wake

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

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On Walther Schwieger, the captain of the German submarine — the U-20 — that sank the Lusitania

I found [him] to be such an interesting character, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if readers have a little bit of sympathy, or at least empathy, for him. You know, as a young guy, he was already one of the deadliest, most skilled submarine commanders of the war. His crew loved him. His best friend in the submarine service described him as being a guy who couldn't hurt a fly. And yet he managed to kill about 1,200 people with the press of a button.

On how much British intelligence knew before the attack

One of the really amazing things about the Lusitania saga was that, at the time, there existed in the admiralty a super-secret spy entity known as Room 40. And what had happened early in the war is, through three nearly miraculous events, the British came into possession of the three main codebooks used by the German navy. So they set up this very, very secret operation to decode intercepted wireless messages.

So here they were set up like these spiders in British uniforms, you know, listening in and essentially following the travels of every vessel in the German navy. One of those happened to be U-20. Room 40, for example, knew exactly when U-20 departed its base in Germany; knew exactly where it was during the first 24 hours of its voyage. And Room 40 also knew exactly where the submarine was headed: to a patrol zone right off Liverpool. ...

They didn't tell anybody. That's one of the enduring mysteries. ... I mean, I have to believe that Capt. Turner might have behaved somewhat differently if he had been told that there was this new, extraordinary surge, if you will, of German U-boats setting out from Germany, one of which was right in his path.

Why was the sinking of the lusitania such a turning point during world war i?

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Erik Larson's previous books include The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck. Benjamin Benschneider/Courtesy of Crown Publishers hide caption

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Benjamin Benschneider/Courtesy of Crown Publishers

Erik Larson's previous books include The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck.

Benjamin Benschneider/Courtesy of Crown Publishers

On whether the Lusitania was a legitimate military target

Oh, boy. You can debate this, you really can, because, on the one hand, the Lusitania clearly had military cargos. It had some rifle ammunition, it also had some shells — it had some shrapnel shells. There were definitely munitions aboard the ship. Does that justify sinking a passenger vessel with 1,200 passengers aboard — men, women and children? I'm not in a position to say.

On whether the sinking of the Lusitania represented a turning point in warfare

Warfare in World War I had sort of entered that turn already. I'm referring to, for example, the fact that there were the first air raids against Britain carried out by zeppelins. I'm referring to the fact that the German navy shelled civilian cities on several occasions. And probably the most egregious thing that really, really did make everybody sit up and pay attention was the use of poison gas at Ypres [in Belgium]. That was a real watershed moment in the changing nature of warfare.

On Churchill — then the civil/political head of the Royal Navy — trying to hold the Lusitania's captain responsible

He certainly attempted to hold Turner responsible. Whether or not he actually believed Turner was responsible depends, because there were a lot of secrets they were trying to cover up by holding Turner responsible.

How do I feel about that? I think that's like holding somebody responsible for his own murder because he walked down a dark alley when he should've walked down a lighted street. It really makes no sense. Why try to hold Turner responsible when the publicity value of further painting Germany as this evil empire by placing the entire blame on the German submarine and submarine commander? It sort of defies logic. So clearly there was something else going on. And I think it's because what really happened there was that Churchill was really very interested in trying to make sure that this secret of Room 40 never got anywhere.

How did the sinking of Lusitania change World War I?

The sinking of Lusitania didn't directly cause the United States to enter the war. It did, however, fuel virulent anti-German sentiment in Britain and the United States and hinder diplomatic relations between Germany and the United States.

What was the Lusitania why was it significant to World War I?

The sinking of RMS Lusitania caused international outrage and helped turn public opinion against Germany, particularly in the then-neutral United States. Of the 1,200 people killed, 128 were American citizens. But the incident did not immediately bring the United States into the war.

How did the sinking of the Lusitania affect the war?

Not only did the sinking of the Lusitania undoubtedly put the United States on a collision course with Germany, it increased anti-German sentiment amongst the American public. This can be seen in how the incident was reported within American newspapers in the days, weeks, and months that followed.

Why was the sinking of the Lusitania important quizlet?

The sinking greatly turned American opinion against the Germans, helping the move towards entering the war. Tensions were flaring in Europe at the moment. The Central Powers (Germany, A-H, Turkey, Bulgaria) were up against the Allies (France, Britain, Russia, and later on Japan, Italy and America).