The infamous May 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania that killed nearly 1,200 men, women, and children, including 128 Americans, is typically cited as one of a series of World War I German outrages to which U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reacted with restraint and patience prior to America’s 1917 entrance to the war. Eventually, so the story goes, even Wilson, a devout, peace-loving man, was forced to make war upon the Germans in order to protect the people and land of America. Yet few in America at the time suggested the nation should go to war because of the sinking of “a British ship flying a British flag.” In fact, that British “passenger” ship carried over four million rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells—unknown to its passengers and destined for use against German soldiers.
“A ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack,” wrote Wilson's own Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. “It would be like putting women and children in front of an army.” Bryan presciently feared that Wilson's orders to balloon the size and firepower of the American military would multiply the chances of the country finding a war in which to involve them.
It is interesting to note what was and what was not told the American passengers who perished on the Lusitania, which embarked from New York and was the fastest commercial liner in the Atlantic. They were told by the Germans, in full page newspaper ads in the New York Times and elsewhere, as well as in prominent newspaper articles reporting the same, that boarding a British ship heading into the war zone would place them at risk. They were not told by the British that the ship was a virtual floating munitions dump.
For at least one British leader, losses such as the sinking of the Lusitania were perhaps no great tragedy in the larger context of the war. “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany,” First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote. The more neutral “traffic” the better, he insisted, and “If some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
As in, getting sunk, with the loss of dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of American non-combatants.
It was the first of two World Wars in which Churchill would exert the full strength of his being to drag America into the conflict in order to preserve victory for the British.
“A ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack. It would be like putting women and children in front of an army.”
—William Jennings Bryan, U.S. Secretary of State
Floating Ammunition Dump
Before and after the Lusitania tragedy, the Germans protested to the world that the ship was a floating ammunition dump headed to supply Allied armies. Supportive evidence abounded. Then, nearly a century later, an American diving team found over four million U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 cartridges within the 300-foot-deep hold of the sunken Lusitania.
“They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I—bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania,” wrote Vogue magazine reporter Hampton Sides, an American who witnessed the discovery.
“Now that we've found it, the British can't deny any more that there was ammunition on board. That raises the question of what else was on board,” said American businessman Gregg Bemis, who funded the expedition.
This haunting history resounds with significance a century later. The sinking of the Lusitania dealt a devastating emotional blow to the American public. It now looms as a major turning point not just within the era, but in all of American history, with specific regard to the nation’s turn away from the Founders’ non-interventionist international vision. Waves of false propaganda, much of it generated by British agents working inside America, fanned the flames of hatred, including the canard that German children received a day off from school to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania.
The event catapulted the United States toward a war that bequeathed the nation a bitter harvest of death, disease, and loss, even in victory. Related events and those that followed hold important lessons for Oklahoma and the American public, which then and since have been maneuvered and provoked into questionable and catastrophic wars without the objective evidence upon which to wisely determine their support of such endeavors.
Gore Opposes President
No one can claim that a chorus of voices did not sound to prevent the nation from pursuing such a course in World War I. Leading the historic effort was blind Oklahoma pioneer and U.S. Senator Thomas P. Gore of Lawton. Gore was a notable statesman to fill the role. He ranked as one of the President’s biggest political allies, and had been the first major elected official to endorse his candidacy, back in 1911.
Several months after the Lusitania went down, he boldly introduced a bill forbidding his fellow countrymen to travel aboard ships which carried war-related contraband such as ammunition, weapons, and military supplies to European ports. He also spearheaded a Senatorial resolution effort to prohibit armed foreign merchant ships from leaving U.S. ports with American passengers. Gore aimed all this at protecting American citizens from getting caught in the murderous crossfire between the British-led Allied Powers and the German-led Central Powers, and thus potentially dragging the United States into the latest, and most catastrophic, of Europe’s millennia-long series of bloody wars.
The Sooner State’s other Senator, part-Cherokee Robert L. Owen, supported Gore’s stand. So did several of Gore’s and Owens’s Texan Congressional neighbors to the south, including James Slayden, Jeff McLemore, and James H. "Cyclone" Davis. All of them unleashed memorable tirades against Wilson’s gathering crusade. Davis accused governmental and industrial titans of "forming cabals to force upon the country a stupendous program of military preparedness, hoping to put in the White House a dictator to execute it."
Concerning "the unhappy nations of Europe," Davis declared that “‘The wages of sin is death’ applies to nations the same as to individuals. The nations, now drunk on blood, rioting in ruinous war, are paying the death penalty because their sins have found them out. Given over to ravenous greed, with a riotous aristocracy living in luxury and lust, ruling in rapacity . . . they are now reaping the harvest of their sowing.”
Slayden reminded his audience of “the sound advice of George Washington” in Washington's farewell address regarding foreign entanglements and attachments. He exhorted other leaders to mobilize the American public “against the majority of the newspapers and great commercial interests.”
A Great War?
Despite these and numerous other passionate voices within his own Democratic Party, President Wilson not only angrily rejected suggestions that he secretly desired war for America, he guided the nation progressively in that direction. Among other controversial directives, Wilson ordered merchant ships supposedly armed only for “defensive” purposes and bound for England or elsewhere with American passengers and potentially war-related contraband, classified as non-combatant, and warned German U-boat submarines against firing on them under any circumstances.
He also warned the Germans against firing on such ships, even if bristling with clearly offensive guns, without first offering warnings. He ordered all this within a context that found the Germans enmeshed in a desperate struggle for their very survival. Not only were they fighting a gargantuan land, sea, and air war against the British, French, and Russian Empires, and numerous other nations, but their general populace faced the mortal peril of a brutal British starvation blockade that eventually killed around 800,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and the aged.
Such Wilsonian policies appear nonsensical with the perspective of a century of historical contemplation of them, at least for a President trying to keep his nation out of a sanguinary war on the other side of the world. They are, however, consistent with Wilson’s habit of dogged—many historians would assert arrogant—single-mindedness.
The Senate and House of Representatives rejected Gore’s dauntless efforts to forestall what he viewed as perilous and unjustified steps toward war for America. Adding insult to injury, he was lambasted with public accusations implying he lied about Wilson’s intentions. The Oklahoma founding father offered eloquent response:
“My action was based on a report, which seemed to come from the highest and most responsible authority, that certain Senators and certain members of the House in a conference with the President of the United States received from the President the intimation, if not the declaration, that if Germany insisted upon her position the United States would insist upon her position; that it would result probably in a breach of diplomatic relations; that a breach of diplomatic relations would probably be followed by a state of war; and that a state of war might not be of itself and of necessity an evil, but that the United States by entering the war might now be able to bring it to a conclusion and thus render a great service to civilization.”
Though Wilson and Senate leadership ridiculed Gore’s suggestion that they believed world war might constitute a positive experience for America, first person Senatorial accounts surfaced that confirmed his statement, to the great validation of his integrity and the detriment of his opponents’.
Thirty Years War
Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Only a month after beginning his second term, however, he called upon Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in order to "make the world safe for democracy." Both the Senate and the House of Representatives overwhelmingly affirmed his request.
Even after America’s entry into the war, Gore took the rare step of opposing it, in the face of mounting patriotic fervor. Vainly standing up for the well being of the nation’s young men, hundreds of thousands of whom would soon have their lives ended or permanently damaged, he opposed drafting, or forcibly conscripting, them.
In addition to his opposition to the draft, according to political writer Bill Kauffman, Gore "was one of the earliest and most vigorous sponsors of a constitutional amendment to require a popular referendum on any congressional declaration of war.” In other words, he pioneered the notion of the people who would have to suffer, bleed, and die in a war being the ones to decide whether or not to fight it.
In the final accounting, the “Great War” that Thomas Gore so intrepidly and selflessly opposed was only the opening chapter of a new Thirty Years War. That war climaxed, more than 80 million deaths later. with the incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it launched a bitter half-century Cold War involving triumphant atheistic Soviet Union and the ultra-virulent Bolshevistic strain of Communism. It also cost Thomas Gore his senate seat, as war-roused Oklahomans voted him out in his party primary, then proceeded to vote in a rare Republican in the general election.
After World War I and its “peace” were concluded with the infamous Versailles Treaty, meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times opined: “It is quite impossible to tell what the war made the world safe for.”
Thomas Gore pioneered the notion of the people who would have to suffer, bleed, and die in a war being the ones to decide whether or not to fight it.