The Paris Attacks: America’s Lusitania Moment?

December 8, 2015

French President François Hollande has promised a “pitiless war” against the Islamic State in response to the terrorist attacks of November 13. The attacks may well prove to be a defining moment for France, a nation already deeply involved in military action in the Middle East. But what will the attacks mean for the United States, where 65 percent of the American people recently showed support for using ground forces in Syria? Insight into this question may come from an event from a century ago.

In May 1915, a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania killing 1,100 civilians, including 128 Americans. The outrage in the United States was deep and nearly universal. As with the Paris attacks, the sinking of the Lusitania did not stand out as a singular event. Rather, Americans saw it as the latest in a string of barbaric, medieval assaults on civilization by Imperial Germany that included atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and a series of fire bombings of merchant ships engaged in trans-Atlantic trade.

Few Americans wanted to go to war with Germany at any point in 1915, even after the sinking. They knew that Germany’s aggression posed a threat to their safety and security, but that threat still seemed sufficiently vague and distant. Indeed, some, like the American Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, wanted the United States to retreat into an even deeper isolation. President Woodrow Wilson succeeded in defusing the crisis with diplomacy, although his choice of words — he called America “too proud to fight” — enraged his rivals.

The Lusitania proved to be a political watershed moment as well. Prominent Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Nobel Laureate Elihu Root broke with Wilson and demanded that he confront the German threat more directly. The German issue, and the question of what to do about it, became intensely partisan. The United States did not declare war on Germany for another two tense years after more provocations had taken place.

While the sinking of the Lusitania did not lead the nation to war directly, it forced Americans to answer uncomfortable questions about how to respond to the provocations of external actors.

First, did a half-hearted approach to the war overseas that supported the Allies while remaining neutral contribute to, or detract from, American security? At the time of the sinking, the United States had already become an important benefactor of Great Britain and France. Some French officials had even begun referring to the United States as France’s “great neutral ally.” On the U.S. side, many Americans were generous in their support of the Allied cause. Thousands even risked their lives by volunteering to fight in the French or British armies. Some, like Roosevelt, called for a much more active American policy overseas, possibly even including the use of ground forces. Others worried that the use of American troops would do little more than waste resources and detract from other national security concerns.

Second, what kind of military did the United States need to meet the threat? Wilson’s secretary of war, Lindley Garrison, resigned with great fanfare when the president refused to endorse his call to grow the American Army and reduce the authority of the state-based National Guards. State governors and most Southern members of the House of Representatives wanted to keep military power divided by vesting the ultimate authority to defend the nation in the National Guard. Still others wanted to put precious defense resources into the Navy instead of the Army.

Third, how would the approaching presidential election influence the nation’s policy toward the conflict? Neither party had a clear answer to the threat approaching American shores from overseas, and thus presidential candidates preferred not to discuss it, keeping the focus on topics such as the economy and immigration. Although national security issues (mostly concerning Mexico) continued to intrude on the campaign trail, politicians stuck to vague stump speeches instead of concrete proposals for defense.

History never repeats itself exactly, and the context is different today. For instance, unlike a century ago, our nation does not need to debate whether it should spend the money to build an army. We have a large, sophisticated, and capable military. Additionally, the country has formalized links to France and other recent victims of terrorism through NATO and other multi-lateral organizations — even if, as in 1915, the exact strategic goals of individual nations are difficult to harmonize. Finally, the threat today comes from an amorphous, non-state actor, whereas Imperial Germany epitomized the danger of misused power emanating from a strong central government.

Despite these differences, the similarities are striking. An outpouring of sympathy already has flowed from the United States to France, a cultural and historic ally. In the weeks and months to come, Americans will debate whether rhetoric will be enough to subdue a threat that challenges us both. Should the United States do more? Should we put our most precious resource, the lives of our young men and women, into the fight alongside France?

The coming presidential election will complicate matters, just as it did a century ago. Now, as then, a wide-open Republican field will disagree on the appropriate response, and the Democrats, having a clear front-runner (then the incumbent Wilson, today Secretary Hillary Clinton), will try to carve out their own position in a way that both addresses national security concerns and distinguishes them from their rivals. If 1915 is any guide, we can expect the American people to debate vigorously about the use of military force, with the coming presidential election serving as a mirror for both our hopes and our fears.

In the end, as was true a century ago, the dilemma is simple, even if the solutions are not: Believing ourselves to be on the side of the right in a contest of good and evil, what price we are willing to pay to achieve victory? Americans in 1917 and 1918 paid dearly for their hard-won victory, but in retrospect the peace they left behind was far from perfect. Today’s Americans are already paying a high price to confront the forces of extremism. If the events of a century ago are any indication, the nation will face some tough choices in the months and years to come. We must do a better job than our predecessors did in confronting the costs of those choices head-on in order to avoid a repeat of the unstable world that they inadvertently created. The first step in doing so will be to examine the years of World War I with new eyes, for they have much to teach us.


Michael S. Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College.  His most recent book on the First World War is Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Harvard University Press, 2011).  The Wall Street Journal recently named it one of the five best books ever written about the war. He is currently at work on a history of American responses to the Great War, 1914-1917. The views expressed herein are his, not those of the United States Army or the U.S. Army War College.


Image credit: Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17 / CC-BY-SA 3.0