In Yale’s collections, a treasure trove on the sinking of the Lusitania

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Alfred Vanderbilt, Yale College Class of 1889, might have considered himself to be a lucky man when he made the life-saving decision to cancel his trip on the Titanic — until, that is, he booked a ticket for a spring 1915 trip on the Lusitania.

May 7 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The British ocean liner was unarmed but was carrying munitions for the Allies when it was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank in 18 minutes off of the coast of Ireland.

Vanderbilt — son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who gifted Yale’s Vanderbilt Hall in memory of another one of his sons, William H. Vanderbilt II — perished on the Lusitania along with nearly 1,200 other passengers, including 128 U.S. citizens and six Yale alumni. There were fewer than 800 survivors.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Yale College Class of 1899 (Courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives)
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Yale College Class of 1899 (Courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives)
Colonel Edward M. House (Courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives)
Colonel Edward M. House (Courtesy of Yale Manuscripts and Archives)

In addition to materials related to the university and its alumni, Manuscripts and Archives is also home to the papers of Colonel Edward M. House. Among the items in the collection is House’s diary, which is 3,000 pages long and contains almost daily entries beginning in 1912. House became a leader in Democratic Party politics and was instrumental in helping Woodrow Wilson win the 1912 presidential election. He became Wilson’s chief adviser and an integral player in the First World War. The diary gives an insider’s view into the thoughts and actions of House before and during World War I.

YaleNews recently met with Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library. Schiff has done extensive research on materials about the Lusitania in Yale’s collections. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What led you to research the Lusitania?

For the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Paris peace treaty, I edited a microfilm publication of the Edward Mandell House diaries and came across information on the Lusitania.

I have also researched the six alumni who were on board: Vanderbilt, Lindon Bates Jr., 1902, Sheffield Scientific School (Scheff); Elbridge Blish Thompson, Class of 1904 Scheff; and Justus Miles Forman, Class of 1898, all of whom perished when the ship sank. There were two alumni who survived: Ogden Hammond, Class of 1893 and Clinton Bernard, Class of 1909, both graduates of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School.

Manuscripts and Archives also holds the diary of Samuel Flagg Bemis, who was on the Lusitania when it sank in May of 1915. Flagg survived the sinking of the vessel by grabbing onto a log. He later became a professor of history here at Yale.

What was House’s involvement with the Lusitania?

In his diaries, Colonel House — “Colonel” was a courtesy title, not a rank — recounts his continued attempts to negotiate peace with the European war powers. He travelled to England, France, and Germany developing the freedom of the seas doctrine and sought to establish the terms of peace. On the morning of May 7, House met with Sir Edward Grey, a British statesmen who served as foreign secretary. They discussed the probability of an ocean liner being sunk by the Germans. Later that day, while House dined at the American Embassy, he was notified that the Lusitania had been sunk. On May 9, House sent Wilson a cable. It is historic, for Wilson read it to his Cabinet at the same time that he read them his note of protest to Germany.

“It is now certain that a large number of American lives were lost when the Lusitania was sunk. I believe an immediate demand should be made upon Germany for assurance that this shall not occur again. If she fails to give such assurance, I should inform her that our government expected to take such measures as were necessary to ensure the safety of American citizens.

If war follows, it will not be a new war, but an endeavor to end more speedily an old one. Our intervention will save, rather than increase, the loss of life.

America has come to the parting of the ways, when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. We can no longer remain neutral spectators. Our action in this crisis will determine the part we play when peace is made, and how far we may influence a settlement for the lasting good of humanity. We are being weighed in the balance, and our position amongst nations is being assessed by mankind.”

In your research, did you come across anything that was surprising?

What surprised me the most was to find out that people seemed to know that there was a strong possibility that the Lusitania could be torpedoed. It didn’t seem to daunt them. Even Colonel House had sailed from New York on the Lusitania earlier in the year.

It proves fairly conclusively that even though there were these continuing efforts at peace, it seemed in a sense that the proverbial die was cast once the Lusitania was sunk and so many men and women and children lost their lives. In a way it is surprising that it took another two years for America to actually join the war effort.

What makes this collection so exciting?

It is remarkable that so much material was published while these people were still alive. That started a chain of collecting here at Yale. People used to say no one could write a history of America in the 20th century without consulting the diary of Colonel House and the diary of Henry L. Stimson, which covers not only WWII when he was secretary of war, but earlier when he was secretary of state. You have a great military picture of the United States in World War I and World War II.

What’s on the horizon at Manuscripts and Archives?

We are currently finishing processing the Henry Kissinger papers, and they will soon be open to the public. This has become a mission of ours. Great libraries have unique materials and the next step is to make them available to anyone who wants to investigate them.

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