Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat (1927)

World War One began on July 28, 1914. All of the warring parties – the Central Powers of principally Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey and the Triple Entente of mainly France, the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, and Italy – believed they would be victorious and home by Christmas.

They were all very, very wrong.

Across the pond, with the exception of a few hotheads, the American public and government wanted nothing to do with the “European war”. The prevailing public opinion and governmental policy was one of neutrality. The feeling was that if the dusty, old Euro-Empires wanted to destroy themselves, they should be allowed to do so. In the end, a neutral America could only benefit from Europe’s self-destruction, or so the majority of Americans believed at the time.

The RMS Lusitania
The RMS Lusitania at the conclusion of the first leg of her maiden voyage; West Side docks, New York City, September 1907

It didn’t take long for American public opinion to turn against the Central Powers. That turn was triggered by the sinking of the British passenger liner the RMS Lusitania 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915; the Lusitania was returning to port in England from New York. Torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, 1198 passengers and crew were killed, including 123 Americans.

Though the German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow insisted that the Lusitania was a legitimate military target (it was indeed carrying ammunition), the American public was outraged. As noted by Frank Trommler in his article, “The Lusitania Effect: America’s Mobilization against Germany in World War I”:

“The key issue was the savagery in the German failure to allow passengers to escape on lifeboats as required by international law.”

Times Square; Broadway and Seventh Avenue, circa 1930
Times Square; Broadway and Seventh Avenue, circa 1930; called “The Great White Way” because of all its lights

Despite public fury over the sinking, the United States did not immediately go to war with the Central Powers. That didn’t happen until April 6, 1917, in response to Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. But American outrage played itself out in other theaters, as it were. Particularly those “theaters” on New York City’s “Great White Way”: Broadway.…

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