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Two Ships Named Laconia, Fake News,
and Submarine Warfare

February 4, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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World War I Laconia Sinking vs. World War II Laconia Sinking illustrate how truth and falsehood both have propaganda value

History tends to become more condensed as time goes by. After the Great War, aka World War I, many people knew a great deal of its history. In American history classes, now, it has to compete with the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish American War, World War II, Korean War, Vietnamese War, Gulf War, Afghan War, and Iraq War, not to mention little wars and all the things that happened in peace time.

The condensation favors misleading, propaganda accounts of the wars. To counter that, sometimes some of the events that were important at the time, but are mostly forgotten now, need to be recounted.

In the American propaganda version of World War I, Germany started the war in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep the U.S.A. out of the war, but Germany cruelly sank U.S. passenger ships, forcing Wilson and Congress to change their mind and declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

A little analysis goes a long way when seeing through propaganda. The sinking of the Lusitania is typically given as why the American public and politicians favored war with Germany. But the Lusitania sank on May 7, 1915. It took the U.S. almost 2 years to declare war. Also, the Lusitania was a British ship, so an attack on it (by German submarines, then called U-boats) was not an attack on the United States. The ship was an armed merchant cruiser moving large quantities of ammunition, so was a legitimate war target. And why were so many passenger, including Americans, sailing on a legitimate war target? Either greed (they just wanted to sell tickets), or in hopes the passengers would protect the ammunitions, acting as human shields.

Not neglecting the other causes of entry into the war (American banks had loaned enormous sums to Britain and France, which would never be repaid if they lost the war), a more proximate cause of the war was the sinking of the RMS Laconia, which was owned by the Cunard company. In 1914 she was converted into an armed merchant cruiser and was used to attack German colonies in Africa. Strangely, she was returned to Cunard in 1916, resuming service on September 9.

A German submarine torpedoed and sank the Laconia on February 25, 1917. Only 12 passengers died, and only 2 of them were Americans, both from Chicago. But Floyd Gibbons, working for the Chicago Tribune, survived to write about it. Oh the drama. Oh the cruelty of the Germans. "We were asleep. We were sunk without warning. Six of us were Americans. Two were from Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Hoy. I saw them swept from their lifeboat and drowned." Soon "The pro-Allied interventionist press and a major part of the press of the civilized world repeated Floyd Gibbons eyewitness story of an overt act and called for American entry into the war." [George Seldes, Witness to a Century, p. 58-59]

One question that arose out of incidents of this kind was: is submarine warfare a war crime? The answer would seem to be: it depends. Generally, once a war starts, fighting against the opposing military is not a war crime, but purposefully targeting civilians is. Accidentally killing civilians while targeting soldiers is more or less okay.

You can see the problem of purposefully mixing civilian and military functions.

But hey, the Cunard people built a new RMS Laconia and launched it in 1921. After promising a fair peace in return for an armistice, the Brits and French grabbed as much of Germany and the world as they could and kept murdering anyone who resisted them in their colonies. And a Roman Catholic Altar boy grew up to be Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of Germany.

So in 1939 the Laconia was drafted by the Brits and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. On September 12, 1942, filled with British sailors and soldiers and 1,800 Italian POWs, plus 80 civilians, the new Laconia was sunk by two German torpedoes.

And here is where it gets extra interesting. America was already in the war (the Battle of Pearl Harbor had taken place on December 7, 1941.) The evil German submarine commander surfaced and started saving the surviving prisoners, soldiers and crew. Several German submarines came in and also started rescuing people. They towed lifeboats, while those who had no lifeboat crowded the decks of the submarines. They flew Red Cross flags. They announced by radio that they would take the survivors to land and safety.

An American B-24 found the convoy and radioed for orders. They were commanded to attack the convoy. Under attack, the German submarines released the lifeboats and submerged, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves against the waters and American bombs and bullets.

Amazingly, many did survive, picked up by ships of the French Navy (aka fascist Vichy France under Marshal Petain).

Laconia Order

In response to the American attack, Germany ordered submarines to stop trying to rescue the survivors when they sank a ship. This was known as the Laconia order, issued by Admiral Karl Donitz.

Nuremberg trial of Donitz, and the underbelly of the U.S.A.

So, is a submarine attack on civilians a war crime? Makes sense that it would be, given other attacks on civilians are war crimes.

There is rule of law, and rule of persons, and sometimes the two are hard to distinguish.

At the Nuremberg war crimes trials after the end of World War II, essentially ex-post facto lynch mobs in robes, they considered lynching Karl Donitz for the Laconia order.

But despite all its complaints about submarine warfare when conducted by Germany, the U.S. was even more ruthless when conducting submarine warfare against Japan. To quote the tribunal itself:

the answers to interrogatories by Admiral Chester Nimitz stating unrestricted submarine warfare was carried on in the Pacific Ocean by the United States from the first day of the Pacific War, the sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.

Nationalism is Evil, whether it is led by Trump, Wilson, or Hitler

Nationalism, like racism, is based on the rule of persons, not of law. It basically asserts that whether something is good or bad depends on the nationality of who does it.

If you are a nationalist there is something deeply flawed about you. Don't tell me you are great, or your country is great. Until you believe in the equality of the human race, I judge you to be a criminal.

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