Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Dead Wake

Why America cannot be Isolationist

Erik Larson is simply a national treasure.  Larson is a master of non-fiction narrative.  He is natural novelist who happens to write history.  His book Devil in the White City explored the strange tale of a serial killer during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  In the Garden of the Beasts dealt with life of an American ambassador to Hitler's Germany during the lead-up to World War II.  Larson has a strong narrative gift and an eye for the illuminating detail.  His research is meticulous.
Erik Larson
In 2015 he published what is perhaps his most important book to date -- Dead Wake (www.amzn.com/0307408876).  This work examines the final voyage of the Lusitania.  This Cunard line luxury ocean liner infamously met her doom on May 7, 1915 in the waters off the south coast of Ireland when she was sunk by a single torpedo launched by U-Boat commanded by Walther Schwieger.  Only 764 passengers and crew out of 1,959 survived the sinking by the Kaiser's submarine.  123 Americans perished in the tragedy along with many children including 27 infants.

There was a revulsion felt across America at the beastly inhumane tactics employed by the German navy. This tragic event helped eventually to propel America into WWI on the Allied side in April of 1917.

Larson is not really a military historian but he embraces his subject with gusto and writes with verve.  Even though the reader knows what generally occurred to the Lusitania, Larson injects poignant details that bring the tragedy fully to life.  One encounters the unfortunate captain William Turner who was scapegoated after the event but who was also fortunate to survive and even to endure a second ship sunk by torpedo in the Mediterranean during the Great War.  Larson treats us to a cavalcade of eccentric passengers from all classes and many nationalities whose lives were interrupted or ended with the sinking of the Lusitania.
From my family to yours...
My own great grandfather, Thomas Tileston Wells was a Lusitania passenger who crossed the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool on an earlier voyage before the war in 1909.  I presented his remarkable story in An Adventure in 1914 (www.anadventurein1914.com).  Wells, New York lawyer, was a sybarite who must have thoroughly enjoyed the luxury that the British ship offered.

As Larson correctly points out, the sinking of the Lusitania did NOT immediately bring the United States into the war.  That did not happen for nearly two years.  But the Kaiser's fateful decision to launch Unrestricted submarine warfare and the infamous Zimmerman telegram gave President Wilson all the ammunition he needed to get a declaration of war from the US Congress in April 1917.

Isolationism had been part of the fabric of American Foreign policy since the time of George Washington ("no entangling alliances").  But the sinking of the Lusitania galvanized public opinion in the USA against the Central Powers.  It convinced many Americans that the Kaiser's Germany was a bad actor on the world stage that needed to be stopped.  Even at the cost of many American lives.  Over 100,000 Americans would be killed on the Western front before it all ended on November 11, 1918 -- the day we remember as Veteran's Day.

America founded and remains a member of the NATO alliance.  Japan is our ally in Asia.  We Americans have fought in nearly half of all the countries on earth (see www.americainvades.com).  We Americans have bases scattered throughout our world.  We have been militarily involved with almost every nation on earth (only three exceptions).  Even today in 2020 it is the presence of bad actors in the world (ISIS, North Korea, Iran, etc.) that necessitates our positive and committed engagement on the world stage.  And it all can be traced back to a German torpedo launched off the Emerald Isle on a beautiful spring day in 1915...

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