Blogs > Liberty and Power > Lusitania: The 9-11 That Didn't Lead to War

May 8, 2006 8:43 am

Lusitania: The 9-11 That Didn't Lead to War

A German submarine sank the British passenger ship Lusitania nine-on years ago on this date. Over thousand people died including 128 Americans.

Outraged politicians and newspapers demanded revenge and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the lone antiwar voice in the administration, resigned in protest. It looked like war was inevitable.

In a few weeks, however, the war fever died down. Americans started to wonder if this was incident really justified the plunge to war. Also, plausible accusations (later proven true) began to be voiced that the Lusitania had carried contraband in violation of international law.

In contrast to 9-11, the cycle of Crisis and Leviathan was avoided, at least temporarily. The U.S. did not go to war for another two years.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Not to mention the fact that Al Qaeda had declared war on us twice in the years preceding 9/11--once in 1996 and once in 1998, following each declaration with attacks. If someone's declaring war against you and then attacking you over and over is not a justification for war, the right of self defense means nothing.

Mark Brady - 5/10/2006

"And our relationship with Iraq in 2003 was in no way parallel to our pre-1917 relationship with Germany."

It's too bad that you equate your relationship with Iraq and Germany (government? people?) with that of the U.S.

David T. Beito - 5/9/2006

I meant that one could easily imagine U.S. entry into WWI without the Lusitania.

David T. Beito - 5/9/2006

Not weird at at all.

My main point is that the sinking did not undermine public opposition to a foreign war as did 9-11.

I do not think that the Iraq War simply would have been possible in 2003 (followed by months of preparation by Bush) without the great change of public opinion caused by 9-11.

By contrast, one could easily imagine World War I without the Lusitania sinking. It did not lead to a long-term change in public opinion (s did 9-11). The war fever had died down so much in a year that Wilson had to pander to antiwar attitudes of the voters to win reelection.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/9/2006

I stand corrected. Thank you.

I still think that there is too little in common between the Lusitania and 9/11 to draw useful comparisons. I don't think there was any other alternative than going into Afghanistan quickly while simultaneously using both intelligence actions and judicials actions to target Al Qaeda's network.

And our relationship with Iraq in 2003 was in no way parallel to our pre-1917 relationship with Germany.

Jesse Walker - 5/9/2006

First of all we responded more quickly than two years: remember Afghanistan?

The two-year gap came between the sinking of the Lusitania and America's entry into World War I, not between 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/8/2006


I agree, to a point. Usually the Administration was careful to keep those claims "unofficial." {Cheney was a major exception.) There was more direct discussion of alledged newer Iraqi-Al Qaeda connections.

I chose this rather literal approach to underscore the fact that this "connection" was not a motivating force for the administration.

Robert Higgs - 5/8/2006

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, for many months, leading figures in the Bush administration quite shamelessly linked the 9/11 attacks and the alleged menace of Iraq, in an attempt to "sell" the war to the public. Indeed, the whole concept of a vague "war on terror" served to allow the government to lump Iraq (represented to be an actual or potential harbor for 9/11-type terrorists) and the 9/11 attacks. This rhetorical strategy was completely overt and oft-employed, so no one who paid any attention at all can have failed to notice it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/8/2006


First of all we responded more quickly than two years: remember Afghanistan? (There were also numerous arrests both in the US and abroad that weakened the terrorist organizations.)

Second, the Bush administration did not claim that Iraq's involvement in 9/11 was the reason that we invaded. Other people have argued that the Iraq war was a logical response to 9/11, but those people weren't in power.

Paul Noonan - 5/7/2006

As you point out the Lusitania was a BRITISH ship, not an American ship. There were American passengers on board, it's true, but they knew there was a war on and German consulates in the US had even been putting ads in the newspapers warning people traveling on British ships that they were at risk. It's quite reasonable to say the sinking of the Lusitania did not provide adequate provocation for war. In contrast, al-Queda attacked American targets on American soil on 9/11. It operated from Afganistan, the government of which refused to do anything about it. That's about as clear a justification for war as anything in modern times. (Of course, it does not justify the folly in Iraq.)