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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

The sinking of the British Lusitania by a German U-boat (submarine) was a significant event that contributed to America's entrance into World War I. Larson examines the historical tragedy and supplies great details that he gained from primary-source research of survivor accounts, letters, war reports, newspapers, and telegrams.

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He describes the impressive ship and the type of torpedo that hit it:

Anyone looking up from the dock saw only beauty, on a monumental scale, while on the far side of the ship men turned black with dust as they shoveled coal—5,690 tons in all—into the ship through openings in the hull called “side pockets.” The ship burned coal at all times. Even when docked it consumed 140 tons a day to keep furnaces hot and boilers primed and to provide electricity from the ship’s dynamo to power lights, elevators.

Torpedoes were expensive, and heavy. Each cost up to $5,000—over $100,000 today—and weighed over three thousand pounds, twice the weight of a Ford Model T.

World War I began in 1914, and by May of 1915, America still had not entered. However, Germany was angered by America's support of Allied countries, such as Britain. Germany had been threatening and attacking ships in the Atlantic.

Germany issued a proclamation designating the waters around the British Isles an “area of war” in which all enemy ships would be subject to attack without warning.

Germany wanted to disrupt and prevent American aid to its allies, even if it meant attacking America at sea. As history would reveal later, Germans drastically underestimated America's ability to change the tide of the war.

The most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.

Koerver reports another example of delusional thinking within the German navy. Admiral Edouard von Capelle said, on February 1, 1917, “From a military point of view, I rate the effect of America coming on the side of our enemies as nil.”

While the Lusitania carried over 1,000 passengers and only 123 were Americans, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress considered German's attack upon the ship a direct attack on America. The American government had been keeping close attention to the events of the war while hoping to not engage militarily.

As Wilson mourned his wife, German forces in Belgium entered quiet towns and villages, took civilian hostages, and executed them to discourage resistances. In the town of Dinant, German soldiers shot 612 men, women, and children. The American press called such atrocities acts of "frightfulness," the word then used to describe what later generations would call terrorism.

Many Americans read about World War I battles from afar but did not know that events would soon bring the war to their door.

America, secure in its fortress of neutrality, watched the war at a remove and found it all unfathomable. Undersecretary of State Robert Lansing, number two man in the State Department, tried to put this phenomenon into words in a private memorandum. “It is difficult, if not impossible, for us here in the United States to appreciate in all its fullness the great European War,” he wrote. “We have come to read almost with indifference of vast military operations, of battle lines extending for hundreds of miles, of the thousands of dying men, of the millions suffering all manner of privation, of the wide-spread waste and destruction.”

After the ship was hit, it took only eighteen minutes for the large vessel to sink. Mass chaos and tumult ensued.

Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found...

(The entire section contains 1024 words.)

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