A Convenient Indignation

In the late spring of 1915, all of Europe was gripped with fear. In Russia, the Germans had broken the lines and were advancing through Poland. In Belgium, poison gas had been deployed by the Kaiser’s forces for the first time against the French, with horribly devastating effects. And in England, they were calculating the days until they ran out of food, suffering under the third month of a complete submarine blockade of their ports. As the lamps went out across Europe, America remained rigidly neutral, at least officially, but behind the scenes the players continued to make their plays.

Two men stood in the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace in whispered conversation. One was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the other was an American envoy with no particular title except “Colonel” House.

“Tell me, Colonel,” Sir Edward spoke through a haze of smoke, “what will the Americans do if the Germans sink an ocean liner with American passengers aboard?”

Colonel House replied slowly, with a hint of East Texas drawl, “A flame of indignation would sweep across America…”

From a window on the East Façade overlooking the Mall, King George turned and addressed Colonel House.

“Suppose it was the Lusitania?”

“I think that would be enough to carry us into the war.”

Just four hours later, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by German submarine U-20, eleven miles from the coast of Ireland. 1,200 persons drowned; 195 of them Americans. One of the largest ships ever built, it went down in only eighteen minutes.

It took almost two more years, but America finally did enter the war on April 4, 1917. Absent in the government findings of the incident was that the “ocean liner” Lusitania was carrying over six million rounds of contraband ammunitions and explosives.

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