- - Tuesday, March 24, 2015



By Erik Larson

Crown, $28, 428 pages

A lawyer friend of mine routinely asks a question when preparing the defense of white-collar clients accused of high-dollar crimes: “What were you thinking?” The question comes to mind often when reading Erik Larson’s harrowing and intriguing resurrection of the infamous but misremembered sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine, the 1915 catastrophe that did not trigger America’s entry into World War I.

What were Germany’s leaders thinking when they loosed the dogfish of war against civilian shipping? What was the British Admiralty thinking when it allowed this flagship to approach Liverpool without escorts, knowing hostile subs were on the prowl? What were the passengers thinking when they embarked after the German embassy issued a warning? What was President Woodrow Wilson thinking when he let two years pass before avenging the loss of 123 Americans who perished? What was Cunard Lines thinking when it ignored lessons from the Titanic tragedy three years earlier? What was First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill thinking when he urged blaming Lusitania’s captain for the gallant ship’s loss?

Answering the most pressing of these questions, Churchill was engaging in a cover-up and seeking a scapegoat; Captain William Thomas Turner was the best candidate, though he was the model of maritime rectitude and innocent of wrongdoing. As for Wilson, smitten with Edith Galt and wooing his new bride, he wanted to maintain American neutrality. As for the British Admiralty, they were trying to lure America into the great European war and, Erik Larson argues, were willing to sacrifice the ship and her company in order to do it.

As for the Germans, proving the torpedo-armed submarine’s horrible efficacy in 1915, they were waging a lethal campaign to bring Britain to her knees. It nearly worked. Within two years, the submarine fleet had tripled in size and so improved in weaponry that by April “any ship leaving Britain had a four-in-one chance of being sunk,” Mr. Larson writes. “Admiralty officials secretly predicted Britain would be forced to capitulate by November 1, 1917.” On April 2, Wilson told Congress “the world must be made safe for democracy,” but when America finally committed, the trigger was not Lusitania’s loss. It was the “Zimmermann telegram” that London deciphered and shared with Washington: Germany’s secret invitation to Mexico to enter the war in order to annex Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Mr. Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of the Beasts” among other notable bestsellers, proves his mettle again as weaver of tales of naivete, calumny and intrigue. He engagingly sketches life aboard the liner and amply describes the powers’ political situations. Offering lackluster explanations of mechanical matters and physics questions, he disarms notions that clandestine cargo of ammunition caused secondary explosions to sink the ship. In any case, she sank in 20 minutes off Ireland’s Kinsale Head, with “Captain Turner in full dress uniform still on the bridge as the Lusitania began its final dive.”

The panorama Mr. Larson surveys is impressive, as is the breadth of his research and the length of his bibliography. He can’t miss engaging readers with the curious cast of characters, this ship of fools, and his accounting of the sinking itself and the survivors’ ordeals are the stuff of nightmares. Thus we see Theodate Pope, America’s first female architect of note and a dedicated spiritualist, as she instructs her maid, “‘Come Robinson,’ and stepped off the rail” into 55-degree water. Thus Charles Lauriat, a Boston rare book dealer, comes aboard with a priceless copy of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” abandons ship with just the clothes on his back, and in wiring his wife after rescue writes “I regret your hours of suspense.”

Ashore in the Admiralty’s “Old Building,” Captain “Blinker” Hall (known for a facial tic) has been heading a clandestine intelligence operation called Room 40 that prefigures Bletchley Park in World War II. Eavesdropping on all of Germany’s naval radio traffic, he intercepts messages from Walther Schwieger, the sang-froid captain of U-boat 20, who is circumnavigating Ireland and sinking targets of opportunity. Though Blinker Hall knows the U-boat’s course and mission, he is one who keeps the secrets — the very existence of Room 40 is secret. Lusitania is not warned or protected; Schwieger encounters it virtually by chance; Blinker Hall is knighted; Churchill conceals what one historian calls an “unforgivable cock-up” if not a deliberate plan. As Mr. Larson tells the tale of Lusitania and its tangents, it appears that great nations become the pawns of great men who in their worst moments — or their best? — do dreadful things.

One unsung hero here is John J. Horgan, the Irish coroner who defied London, scuttled the cover-up and claimed jurisdiction over the mass post-mortem inquiry into the deaths of 1,198 innocents. He convened an inquest the day after the sinking and two days later exonerated Captain Turner — praised him — finding that it was U-boat 20’s officers, crew and the emperor of Germany who committed “willful and wholesale murder.” What were they thinking? That they were serving the homeland, of course.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about the arts and American history.

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