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Oklahoma’s Blind Senator and Lessons from World War I

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 wro