Germany, U-Boats and the Lusitania
In 1909, an international law was agreed upon that differentiated between "contraband" and "non-contraband" shipping. "Contraband," defined as weapons and other materials used in military manufacturing, could be controlled and blockaded during a war. "Non-contraband" cargoes like food, cloth, and raw goods could not be regulated through a blockade; countries could still import and trade these items. This regulation was a response by continental Europe against England, which had the most powerful navy and could strangle the economy of any continental nation with a blockade of the sea.
In 1915, England, in support of France, blockaded Germany, disregarding the regulation. The United States still believed in the difference between contraband and raw goods and supported Germany's right to receive the imports that it needed to survive. The United States reversed its position when it entered the war against Germany, and international law was changed. In response to the British blockade, the Germans tried to blockade England. Their most effective weapon was the submarine, which although still primitive, took the British by surprise. In 1915 the Germans declared British waters a war zone. All Allied ships in those waters would be torpedoed ( true enough, because captains of German submarines couldn't distinguish one type of ship from another, anyway).
Ironically, the U-boat was originally intended as a defensive craft. It was only mobilized offensively in response to the British blockade. The first expression of the German U-boat's offensive power was the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915. The Germans had placed numerous newspaper ads warning Americans not to travel aboard the Lusitania, which was carrying munitions but masquerading as an ocean liner. Americans still believed in their right, as members of a neutral nation, to travel unharmed. Of the 1,153 passengers on the Lusitania, 118 Americans died; President Wilson therefore warned the Germans that another aggressive act would provoke the United States to war. This warning inhibited the German Navy for almost two years, until the German Navy ceased to consider the United States an immediate threat. The German Navy began to claim that, with unrestricted submarine warfare, they could force the British to surrender in six months. The experts calculated that it would take the United States at least a year to mobilize, and by that time, the British surrender would be complete. The Germans were willing to risk American intervention because they were confident they could secure Britain. The German plan seemed to be an early success; however, with the intervention of America's strong navy and the implementation of the convoy (a group of cargo-ships protected by a large number of warships) the United States neutralized the German U-boat. Germany had gambled and lost.
[A note: Life aboard a German U-boat was not pleasant. Military and personnel problems were the norm. The first U-boats were visible during the day and night, because their engines produced thick white smoke and sparks visible at the surface. After the switch to diesel engines, the smoke and sparks were eliminated, but the smell on board was unbearable. Some submarines had no flush-toilets; you pumped them by hand. The bubbles from pumping out the head were visible on the surface, so waste disposal was kept to a minimum, and the stench of human waste was overpowering.]
Sources and further reading:
Inaction as Action: How Churchill Sank the Lusitania
"If you suspect my husbandry, or falsehood, / Call me before the exactest auditors, / And set me on the proof." William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
"They believe you / If you swear you're telling lies." Brenda Kahn, Anesthesia
Like most members of my generation, I was indoctrinated in high school with the belief that the United States entered World War One because the evil Germans had sunk an innocent ship carrying nothing but neutral American passengers. Although I, as well as a few others in my history class, questioned the teacher on the sheer illogic of this action, we eventually accepted the argument that the Lusitania was sunk unfairly. Of course, we did soon learn that the ship was carrying weapons for the British, supplied by American businessmen, but even then, we didn't know the whole truth: Winston Churchill was directly responsible for sinking the ship. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a brilliant book on the history of Anglo-American relations entitled Blood, Class, and Nostalgia talks about is the sinking of the Lusitania, which he solidly proves is the responsibility of the British head of naval intelligence, Sir Winston Churchill.
Churchill played a strong part in both the sinking of the ship and the controversy that ensued later. That there was such a large cache of arms on the ship (over 1,248 cases of shells) that it sunk after being hit by only one torpedo was not a surprise, nor was it uncommon; there was a sizable number of American citizens who supported the British war effort, supplying arms on almost every cruise ship between the nations. What was a surprise was the lack of protection given to the warship. Churchill had been warned that there were German submarines in the area (which had, in fact, already sunk several other British ships), and failed either to warn the ship or send any escort ships into the area.
Tempting as it is to simply attribute this to negligence on Churchill's part (warning the ships was solidly his responsibility), the odds of Churchill failing to do his duty were astronomically low. It would have taken a period of over ten days of negligence, according to Hitchens, for the sinking to occur. Churchill, one of the most efficient people in British government, could not reasonably have been so negligent; he could, however, have suppressed the information without effort. Had he wanted intelligence suppressed, the King himself could not have found anything out.
Churchill didn't stop there, however. After letting the ship (and most of the civilians on board) go down, he started an insidious publicity campaign and ran the investigation that "discovered" that there had been more than one torpedo, and he was responsible for the spread of a rumor that the Germans had created a Lusitania medal honoring soldiers who killed civilians. These propaganda moves helped shift public opinion in the United States to the British side (granted, there was already a growing tendency for Americans to be Anglophiles, but they were also fence-sitters).
I'm not a post-Kennedy conspiracy theorist. I don't think it was wrong for America to get involved in the War. I don't think Churchill was evil (although his cold pragmatism is frightening). I don't think we can even realistically attribute the American involvement in the War to one ship (there would have been something else to shift public opinion). Still, it is hard not to look at the actions of Churchill and not feel that the British man of American descent that we revere as our greatest British ally caused the deaths of so many innocent American and British citizens. Worse, the sheer callousness of his actions, as well as the total disregard for the truth (an abstract that even some sociopaths would claim allegiance to) make his part in the history of World War I truly disturbing.