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Mares: Thoughts on the Titanic

04/10/12 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(Host) The sinking of the Titanic is on everyone’s mind this week, but writer and commentator Bill Mares, a former teacher and state legislator, has also been thinking about another North Atlantic tragedy that took place three years later.

(Mares) This week we observe the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, the pride of the White Star Line struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and went down with more than 1200 lives lost. Through numerous books, films, musicals, memoirs, the Titanic has arguably become a better known vessel than Noah’s ark. There are even Titanic joke sites:

For example, "What goes down well with ice? The Titanic!"

And, “What do you get if you cross the Atlantic Ocean with the Titanic? About halfway.”

Among the myths that developed were that the Titanic was trying to break a speed record; that there was an Egyptian mummy on board the ship; and that millions of dollars in gold were stored in the ship's hold. All were false. But the Titanic continues to fascinate us.

It was the maiden voyage of the world’s largest luxury ship. In today’s money a first class ticket cost more than $60,000 dollars. The passenger list was a Who’s Who of Anglo-American power and society, with plenty of opportunity for Upstairs/Downstairs drama and romance – as portrayed in James Cameron’s blockbuster film of 1997. Heroism and cowardice, those twins of disaster, walked the decks as the band played on.

To celebrate the anniversary, there will be memorial cruises to the collision site off Newfoundland. You can even buy a heart-shaped pendant in sea-colored glass containing a piece of coal from the doomed liner. That seems a bit ghoulish to me. My one admittedly distant connection with the calamity was that my university’s library was given by the parents of a son who died on the ship.

Three years after the “unsinkable” liner went down, the “unthinkable” occurred in wartime. It was the deliberate sinking of a passenger liner, the RMS Lusitania, by a German U-boat during World War One. 1200 passengers drowned, including 128 Americans. The German government cast a medal to honor the sinking, and claimed the ship carried war material. Americans were outraged, and some prepared for war. The magazine The Nation called it "a deed for which a Hun would blush, a Turk be ashamed, and a Barbary pirate apologize."

But President Woodrow Wilson pushed back against this war fever. In a speech he said, "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” But the Lusitania became the rallying cry for a war that came two years later, when the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare.

If the sinking of the Titanic shook our confidence in broad technological progress, the torpedoing of the Lusitania, coming as it did within a month of the first use of poison gas in the trenches, proved that those technological advances also brought with them the tools for mass slaughter and the horrors of total war.
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