WASHINGTON, May 7, 2013 — Today marks the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania. The crown jewel of the Cunard Line, the Lusitania was on a New York to Liverpool voyage when a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland attacked it.
The torpedo hit the ship at 2:10 p.m. and exploded, only to be followed by a second internal explosion which sent the ship to the bottom of the Celtic Sea. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 were lost, including 128 Americans.
It was, however, President Woodrow Wilson’s notion that America had a moral responsibility to spread democracy abroad that would sink the U.S., not a torpedo.
Despite an initial declaration of neutrality, by 1917 Wilson was looking for a way to intervene in the war. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 shifted broader public opinion in a hawkish direction. A message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the Mexican government, and which proposed a German-Mexican alliance which might help return Texas and other territories to Mexico, was intercepted and decoded.
The Zimmerman Telegram along with unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans enabled Wilson to renege on his prior declaration of neutrality. America entered the war under the pretext that the world needed to be made “safe for democracy.”
Wilson’s decision to intervene shouldn’t come as a surprise. As prize-winning author, historian, and political analyst John G. Stoessinger has pointed out, Wilson was a “crusader” from the very beginning. He very much believed that his divine mission as president was to sustain peace and democracy abroad.
The US had already been actively engaged in supporting the allied forces for years. Wilson was clearly interested in influencing Europe’s economic and political reformation after the war had ended. Nonetheless, the rhetoric leading up to American intervention never wavered, and Wilson remained insistent that it was America’s responsibility to “vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world.”
Wilsonian rhetoric is pervasive today in neoconservative circles, where the notion that America has a singular duty to police the world is both a prerequisite and philosophical cornerstone.
Prior to Wilson, U.S. foreign policy was largely isolationist, with a handful of exceptions, none of which approached the scale of World War I.
The recent discovery of the sunken ship has lent support to rumors that the Lusitania was covertly transporting munitions. Found onboard were rounds of .303 ammunition, thought to be made by Remington and on its way to the British Army. Gregg Bemis, the venture capitalist leading the expedition to recover Lusitania, expects to discover more.
Were those munitions responsible for the second explosion that sent the ship plummeting to the ocean floor?
Adding to long-term damage of WWI was the War Revenue Act. In conjunction with the Federal Reserve irresponsibly dabbling in money creation, roughly one-third of the war was funded via taxation, and Wilson would transform more than half of the U.S. economy from generating civilian goods to wartime goods. It was a transformation economist Henry Hazlitt clearly pointed out as detrimental in his book, Economics in One Lesson.
In addition, the U.S. military would expand from 200,000 to over 4 million soldiers, and the level of U.S. federal taxation would never fully return to its pre-War level.
Couple this with Wilson’s disastrous handling of the Treaty of Versailles, which helped fuel the rise of German nationalism, its turn to fascism, and the rise of one of history’s most infamous beasts, Adolf Hitler, and the U.S. was already on the path to its next World War.
The Lusitania was not the reason the U.S. entered the war, but it certainly was one of the many catalysts that turned an isolationist nation into a military power and sent it to war, with Woodrow Wilson leading the way.
Some 116,000 Americans died with the stroke of Wilson’s pen.
While a legitimate argument can be made that the US had every right to defend its shipping routes and passenger liners from attacks, Wilson’s democratic, moral, and divine justifications for defending them turned defensive military action into a global moral crusade, and they still very much pervade American politics and foreign policy today.
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