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Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Lusitania Conspiracy

From a quick glance at the cover of my book Conspiracy History (a close-up of which is shown above) you might think it includes a section about the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. Actually it doesn’t – although it might have done, since there is no shortage of conspiracy theories associated with that event. But the ship shown on the cover is not the Titanic but her lesser known rival RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat a hundred years ago this month, on 7 May 1915.

I wrote about the basic facts of the case in an online article What Happened to the British Ocean Liner Lusitania? last year. But for the conspiracy angle, here is what I said in the book:
The RMS Lusitania was launched by Cunard in 1907. At 32,000 tons she was one of the largest passenger ships of the time, becoming a regular on the lucrative transatlantic route between Liverpool and New York. By April 1915, some nine months after the outbreak of the First World War, the Lusitania had completed no fewer than 200 Atlantic crossings.

Britain was one of the countries fighting the war. British ships like the Lusitania were prey to German U-boats, particularly in the waters around the British Isles which Germany had declared to be a War Zone. The United States remained neutral in the war, but was happy to supply Britain with arms and ammunition – transported across the Atlantic on whatever ships had space in their holds.

When the Lusitania arrived in New York on 24 April at the end of her 201st transatlantic crossing, she was duly loaded up with shells, machine gun ammo and other explosives in addition to almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Of the passengers, 139 were U.S. citizens – many more Americans had been deterred from travelling by a notice the German embassy had placed in newspapers warning that the ship was a legitimate target for their submarines.

On the last day of the return trip – 7 May 1915 – when the Lusitania was less than a day away from docking in Liverpool, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the coast of Ireland. The huge liner sank almost immediately, with the death of more than a thousand people – including 128 of the 139 Americans on board. In light of the German warnings, this tragic outcome seems all but inevitable.

Why did the British allow the Lusitania to sail, without an armed escort, through the very waters the Germans had declared to be a War Zone? There are only two possible answers – either the government was grossly incompetent, or they knew exactly what they were doing. Most conspiracy theorists would put their money on the second of these. Britain didn’t like the fact that America was remaining neutral in the war – they wanted to see Americans fighting alongside them against the Germans. An atrocity like the sinking of a civilian liner was just the sort of thing that could swing American public opinion in their favour. Shortly before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill – who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty – had written to another minister that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Translating from the deliberately obscure phraseology of the professional politician, this boils down to “the sooner an innocent ship gets sunk, the sooner the Americans will join us in the trenches”.

As it turned out, the ruse – if it was a ruse – was not immediately successful. Instead of joining the war, the Americans secured a promise from the German government that an incident such as the sinking of the Lusitania wouldn’t happen again. It was only when the Germans withdrew this promise, early in 1917, that the United States finally decided it was time to go to war.
That’s just one of the 69 historical conspiracies discussed in the book. At the last count, there were still several billion people in the world who haven’t bought their copy yet, so you might be able to snap one up if you hurry:

11 comments:

Colin Jones said...

I don't know if anybody has ever considered the following as a "conspiracy theory" but my father always believed that President Roosevelt knew in advance that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbour and did nothing to prevent it because he wanted a reason to get America into World War II.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I hadn't heard that theory in the specific case of Pearl Harbor, but the general principle, that governments will turn a blind eye to an attack because they want an excuse for a war, is a common pattern in conspiracy theories. It makes a lot of sense and I'm sure it's happened many times throughout history.

Kid said...

I get the impression that, back then, most Americans expected to join the war and maybe even wanted to. So America really didn't need an excuse to do so, but I'm sure they could have invented one less drastic if they had wanted.

Looks like an interesting book, Andrew. I'm committed to a few other books already, but once they're bought, I may well treat myself to this.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - hope you enjoy the book if you do buy it!

Colin Jones said...

Kid, actually there was a big popular campaign at the time to keep America out of the war in Europe - Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 promising not to get involved so I doubt most Americans wanted to join the war or expected to. Maybe that's why a huge event like Pearl Harbour would have been needed because only a blatant attack against America would have been enough to make Americans accept they had to join the war.

Andrew May said...

The huge popularity of comics like Captain America in the period after WW2 broke out but before the US officially took sides suggests that "ordinary people" in the States were itching to get involved. So maybe it was just the politicians who were dragging their heels.

Colin Jones said...

Well, I can only go on what I've heard about it and as far as I know most Americans definitely didn't want to get involved in another European conflict. The popularity of Captain America doesn't mean anything - he was mostly read by kids and his Jewish creators had a reason for wanting America to join the war against Hitler.

Kid said...

Well, CJ, I'm the same as you - I can only go by what I've read or heard, but notice I said 'MAYBE even wanted to'. However, there did seem to be an expectation that America would eventually join the war - it was almost practically inevitable as their allies (the Brits) were involved. Of course there were those who didn't want it to happen, to protect business interests and the like, so they would've been the loudest protestors against it. Doesn't necessarily mean, 'though, that they represented the largest sector of public opinion. Roosevelt could've been elected for other reasons that his anti-war stance. And note the apparent contradiction in what you're suggesting - if he was so against the war, why would he then allow Pearl Harbour to be attacked so that he could join the war?

As for Captain America being mostly read by kids, kids would've thought pretty much what their parents thought, so Simon and Kirby would've tapped into what seemed to be the popular opinion. I doubt that their publishers would've allowed anything that went against the grain at the time.

Kid said...

Oh, meant to say - he wouldn't have had to let the attack on Pearl Harbour happen (if he'd known about it in advance) to have an excuse to enter the war; had the attackers been successfully repelled, with no loss of American life, the mere attempt of the attack would've been all the excuse Roosevelt needed.

Colin Jones said...

Kid, there was no contradiction in what I said - Roosevelt was re-elected in 1940 saying he would keep America out of the war but that doesn't mean he believed it himself. He was just saying what the public wanted to hear. If the U.S. public wanted to remain isolationist then just repelling a Japanese attack wouldn't have been enough to make them want to join the war - America had to be seen as the victim of blatant aggression. If the 9/11 attacks had been thwarted would George W. Bush have been able to invade Iraq ?

Kid said...

I said note the 'apparent' contradiction - but there not being one is entirely dependent on your speculation that Roosevelt wanted to go to war being correct, and you can't prove that. And why would Roosevelt want to enter a war that the American people were against? (IF they were against it.) And I'd have to dispute your assertion - America would still have been seen as the victim of blatant aggression even if they had successfully repelled a Japanese attack - the attack would've provided reason enough.

As for George Bush - I believe that he would've had cause (or believed that he did) if the 9/11 attacks had been repelled at the last minute. However, regardless of whether that's the case or not, both instances are hardly comparable. The second world war was resonating around the globe back then; it was only a matter of time before the U.S. became involved - attack on Pearl Harbour or not.