The Sinking of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The sinking of the Lusitania was the first attack by a German submarine on a passenger liner. The New York Times report of the sinking, with its probable loss of American lives, was restrained in tone, while pointing to the difficulties that the incident created for relations between the United States and Germany. Although this event did not precipitate the immediate entry into the war by the United States, it remained in the back of people’s minds and figured in the later decision to do so. The shock of the surprise attack on a ship carrying about 2,000 people was felt across the nation, even though it was a British ship. The acceptance by the newspaper of the idea that President Wilson had to find out the facts of the situation before responding, helped to calm a populace that, at that time, was somewhat unsure how to react. It also helped stave off calls by some to enter the war immediately.

Summary Overview

The sinking of the Lusitania was the first attack by a German submarine on a passenger liner. The New York Times report of the sinking, with its probable loss of American lives, was restrained in tone, while pointing to the difficulties that the incident created for relations between the United States and Germany. Although this event did not precipitate the immediate entry into the war by the United States, it remained in the back of people’s minds and figured in the later decision to do so. The shock of the surprise attack on a ship carrying about 2,000 people was felt across the nation, even though it was a British ship. The acceptance by the newspaper of the idea that President Wilson had to find out the facts of the situation before responding, helped to calm a populace that, at that time, was somewhat unsure how to react. It also helped stave off calls by some to enter the war immediately.

Defining Moment

At the start of World War I in July 1914, Germany had a small number of submarines and was in the process of building many more. Submarines had been developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but had not been tested to verify that they would be an effective weapon system in combat conditions. The large-scale use of them was new, and initially, they were used against British naval vessels only. However, the German leaders rightly understood that if all shipping to Britain could be cut off, it would greatly weaken the Britons. In line with traditional rules governing civilian, or neutral, ships, the submarines initially surfaced and gave warning to any ships about to be attacked. However, this resulted in submarines being sunk or damaged by ships that were thought to be unarmed, but which actually carried weapons. In February 1915, therefore, the German leaders gave orders to initiate a blockade of Great Britain and authorized attacks against ships without prior warning. The Lusitania was the first major casualty of this campaign, which accounts for the shock people felt when they heard the news. While at the time British leaders did not admit it, the holds of the Lusitania were filled with ammunition–which is the reason it exploded so dramatically and sank so quickly, causing the deaths of almost 1,200 people.

Although most of the American population leaned toward supporting the Allies, rather than Germany and the other Central Powers, the sinking of what most held to be a clearly identified civilian ship pushed popular support for the Allies to new levels. The New York Times, as one of the most influential newspapers in the United States, cautiously reported the events and waited for the president to investigate what happened. This sentiment carried the day, and there was no rush to enter the war.

It should be noted, however, that the attack was not a total surprise. The Saturday before the Lusitania sailed, the German embassy placed an advertisement in the New York newspapers warning Americans not to sail on the ship. There were also reports that some wealthy individuals received personal telegrams informing them that the ship would be attacked. These warnings were generally ignored, and most Americans remained unaware of the warnings. The image that most Americans had, and have continued to have down through the decades, was that of a civilian ship being unjustly attacked by the Germans.

Author Biography

The New York Times was founded in 1851, and has published daily since that time. Throughout the nineteenth century, it gained stature, until it was one of the leading newspapers in the United States. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), it developed the mechanisms to quickly get news into print, doing news stories from reports radioed in from the scene. Thus, in a situation such as the sinking of the Lusitania, the paper was able to report the story quickly and to update it as new information came in. The quality of the news reports was not always the same because different reporters and staff members wrote different portions of the report. Also, as in this instance, there could be contradictory or unclear statements, owing to portions of the story being written at different times. A widely respected newspaper, the New York Times was taken as current and factually accurate by its readers, and thus had the ability to influence people from all parts of society.

Document Analysis

Technological change has affected all aspects of life, including warfare. The development of submarines as vessels capable of carrying relatively accurate, highly explosive torpedoes, changed naval warfare and created a crisis in international law. When, if ever, was it allowable for civilian ships to be attacked without warning? What exactly constituted a civilian ship? These questions were brought to the forefront when a German submarine sank the Lusitania off the Irish coast. However, of more importance for most citizens of the United States was the question of how the nation should respond to the loss of American lives in the attack.

By the end of 1914, the Western Front had stalled. The trenches were in place and neither side could make great advances. German leaders decided to cut the supplies entering Britain and France, hoping to upset the balance. With the British having a strong surface fleet, U-boats, as German submarines were called, were called on to block shipping. The public announcement by Germany of a blockade of Great Britain was the first step. The Germans believed that this met what had been the requirement that civilian ships be given notice prior to being attacked. The Germans also knew that many civilian ships carried not only civilian goods, but supplies specifically for the armed forces. In the German mind, any actions against these ships were justified. Obviously, those on the other side did not believe this.

The news, arriving via London, that the Lusitania had been sunk, stirred up great passion. When the second wave of reports arrived, stating that about 1,000 people had died, it was clear that among these would be many Americans. The newspaper documented the time that President Wilson received the news, noting, too, that, later, when verification of the casualties was received, it was not deemed important enough to wake up the president. (It was treated as amplifying information.) The administration officials, who were awake when the reports arrived, took the standard “no comment” when asked what the United States would do in response. The Times seems to accept this as understandable under the circumstances. As the paper’s editors did not seem to be agitating for war with Germany, the whole tone of the article is to adopt a “wait and see” philosophy. However, the paper does note that the attack created a “grave situation.”

At the time of the sinking, Congress was not in session. The expectation was that, had Congress been called into special session, it would have produced an official declaration of war on Germany. The desire on Wilson’s part not to go this route may explain his and his staff’s seemingly patient reaction to the news about the Lusitania. Wilson wanted to stay out of the war (at this point). The fact, however, that the United States did enter the war two years later, when seven American ships were sunk within a few months, demonstrates that the American government took the sinking of civilian ships seriously. In February 1915, the United States had given a “warning note” to Germany that many regarded as “too drastic.” The American warning, however, dealt with the sinking of American ships, so technically, it was not applicable to the destruction of the British Lusitania.

The mention of the pubic warnings that Germany had given was another attempt by the Times to calm the situation. While a newspaper ad is not the same thing as notifying the captain of a ship that an attack would occur if the ship was not turned around, the ad did indicate that some prior warning had been given. The manner in which the Times referred to the ad made it clear that the newspaper was not endorsing this as an appropriate warning prior to the attack.

Essential Themes

This article in the New York Times demonstrates a number of major points concerning journalism, governmental action, and the tragedy of war. In terms of journalism, for example, the restraint that the Times demonstrates in its reporting is the result of not having adequate information to describe the whole situation or to make a reasoned comment on it. The paper shows an understanding of the series of events and positions that unfolded prior to the attack: the difficulty of remaining neutral while a major war engulfs strategic trading partners; the American warning to Germany regarding submarines; Germany’s warning to Americans in US newspapers; the tragedy of the sinking of the ship itself; and the measured response by the American government.

Similarly, when describing the government’s response to the initial reports, as well as the later ones, the Times shows caution. There is no rush into war, nor is there a total dismissal of the event as something between Britain and Germany, given that they were the owners of the two vessels involved. Not wanting to push the United States into war, President Wilson and his administration demonstrated concern, but did not see the need for immediate action. Demanding facts before taking any action that could cause an irreparable division between the United States and Germany, Wilson is said in the report to have gone about his usual routine. Wilson’s methodical approach to possibly making the biggest decision of his presidency is viewed by the Times as the way things ought to be. It does not criticize him for a weak-kneed or lackadaisical reaction. It seems to accept that the considered response should serve the country well.

Finally, the Times alludes to the critical issues of 1) what it meant to be neutral in a time of war and 2) how to make a determination between ships supporting the war effort versus those that are only helping civilians to traverse the waters. As illustrated by the loss of American lives, staying neutral was not easy, and one had to expect adverse fallout from the war. Similarly, the government knew that outward appearances were not always accurate. Thus, the lack of military response by the United States is probably the result of the government verifying that the Lusitania had carried munitions in addition to passengers. Even so, from the tone of the report, the Times, and the American public, had a difficult time accepting the massive loss of life that the attack on the ship entailed.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ballard, Robert D., and Rick Archbold. “Lost Liners: Lusitania,” PBS Online. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Service, 2014. Web. 4 June 2014.
  • Peeke, Mitch, Kevin Walsh-Johnson, and Steven Jones. The Lusitania Story. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002. Print.
  • Preston, Diana. Lusitania: an Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker & Co., 2002. Print.
  • “The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1915.” EyewitnesstoHistory.com. Columbia, MD: Ibis Communications, 2000. Web. 4 June 2014.
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