Theodore Roosevelt on the sinking of the Lusitania, 1915

Theodore Roosevelt to Oscar King Davis, June 23, 1915. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)On May 7, 1915, the British passenger ship Lusitania, sailing from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The Lusitania sank, killing 1,195 people on board, including 123 Americans. The incident created sharp reactions among Americans, many of whom believed that the United States should inflict an immediate reprisal upon Germany. President Woodrow Wilson, however, took a cautious approach to responding to the attack, demanding from Germany an apology, compensation for American victims, and a pledge to discontinue unannounced submarine warfare.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt disagreed with Wilson’s diplomatic response to the sinking of the Lusitania. Roosevelt believed that the attack warranted a military reprisal and that the United States had little choice but to enter the war. In June 1915, Roosevelt wrote to an aquaintance criticizing Wilson’s handling of the incident, writing, "If Lincoln had acted after the firing of Sumter in the way that Wilson did about the sinking of the Lusitania, in one month the North would have been saying they were so glad he kept them out of the war." Criticizing both the government’s response and the American peoples’ apathy over the attack, Roosevelt wrote that he was "pretty well disgusted with our government and with the way our people acquiesce in and support it."

A full transcript is available.

Excerpt

Wilson and Bryan have quarreled over what seems to me an entirely insignificant point, that is, as to the percentage of water they shall put into a policy of mere milk and water. Both of them are agreed that this is what the policy shall consist of. I am pretty well disgusted with our government and with the way our people acquiesce in and support it. I suppose, however, in a democracy like ours the people will always do well or ill largely in proportion to their leadership. If Lincoln had acted after the firing of Sumter in the way that Wilson did about the sinking of the Lusitania, in one month the North would have been saying they were so glad he kept them out of the war and that they were too proud to fight and that at all hazards fratricidal war must be averted.